Stress is a fact of life, but being stressed out is not. We don’t always have control over what happens to us, says Allen Elkin, Ph.D., director of the Stress Management Counseling Center in New York City, and yet, that doesn’t mean we have to react to a difficult, challenging situation by becoming frazzled or feeling overwhelmed or distraught. Being overly anxious is not just a mental hazard; it’s a physical one too. The more stressed out we are the more vulnerable we are to colds, flu, and a host of chronic or life-threatening illnesses. And the less open we are to the beauty and pleasure of life. For your emotional and bodily benefit, we’ve consulted experts and come up with 37 easy, natural alternatives to anxiety.
1. Breathe Easily
“Breathing from your diaphragm oxygenates your blood, which helps you relax almost instantly,” says Robert Cooper, Ph.D., the San Francisco coauthor of The Power of 5 (Rodale Press, 1996), a book of five-second and five-minute health tips. Shallow chest breathing, by contrast, can cause your heart to beat faster and your muscles to tense up, exacerbating feelings of stress. To breathe deeply, begin by putting your hand on your abdomen just below the navel. Inhale slowly through your nose and watch your hand move out as your belly expands. Hold the breath for a few seconds, then exhale slowly. Repeat several times.
2. Visualize Calm
It sounds New Age-y, but at least one study, done at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, has found that it’s highly effective in reducing stress. Dr. Cooper recommends imagining you’re in a hot shower and a wave of relaxation is washing your stress down the drain. Gerald Epstein, M.D., the New York City author of Healing Visualizations (Bantam Doubleday Dell Press, 1989), suggests the following routine: Close your eyes, take three long, slow breaths, and spend a few seconds picturing a relaxing scene, such as walking in a meadow, kneeling by a brook, or lying on the beach. Focus on the details—the sights, the sounds, the smells.
3. Make Time for a Mini Self-Massage
Maria Hernandez-Reif, Ph.D., of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine, recommends simply massaging the palm of one hand by making a circular motion with the thumb of the other. Or use a massage gadget. The SelfCare catalog offers several, such as the S-shaped Tamm unit, that allow you to massage hard-to-reach spots on your back.
4. Try a Tonic
A study at Duke University in Durham, NC, found homeopathy effective in quelling anxiety disorders. Look for stress formulas such as Nerve Tonic (from Hyland) or Sedalia (from Boiron) in your health food store, or consult a licensed homeopath.
5. Say Cheese
Smiling is a two-way mechanism. We do it when we’re relaxed and happy, but doing it can also make us feel relaxed and happy. “Smiling transmits nerve impulses from the facial muscles to the limbic system, a key emotional center in the brain, tilting the neurochemical balance toward calm,” Dr. Cooper explains. Go ahead and grin. Don’t you feel better already?
6. Do Some Math
Using a scale of one to 10, with one being the equivalent of a minor hassle and 10 being a true catastrophe, assign a number to whatever it is that’s making you feel anxious. “You’ll find that most problems we encounter rate somewhere in the two to five range—in other words, they’re really not such a big deal,” says Dr. Elkin.
7. Stop Gritting Your Teeth
Stress tends to settle in certain parts of our bodies, the jaw being one of them. When things get hectic, try this tip from Dr. Cooper: Place your index fingertips on your jaw joints, just in front of your ears; clench your teeth and inhale deeply. Hold the breath for a moment, and as you exhale say, “Ah-h-h-h,” then unclench your teeth. Repeat a few times.
8. Compose a Mantra
Devise an affirmation — a short, clear, positive statement that focuses on your coping abilities. “Affirmations are a good way to silence the self-critical voice we all carry with us that only adds to our stress,” Dr. Elkin says. The next time you feel as if your life is one disaster after another, repeat 10 times, “I feel calm. I can handle this.”
9. Check Your Chi
Qigong (pronounced chee-gong) is a 5,000-year-old Chinese practice designed to promote the flow of chi, the vital life force that flows throughout the body, regulating its functions. Qigong master Ching-Tse Lee, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Brooklyn College in New York, recommends this calming exercise: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and parallel. Bend your knees to a quarter-squat position (about 45 degrees) while keeping your upper body straight. Observe your breathing for a couple of breaths. Inhale and bring your arms slowly up in front of you to shoulder height with your elbows slightly bent. Exhale, stretching your arms straight out. Inhale again, bend your elbows slightly and drop your arms down slowly until your thumbs touch the sides of your legs. Exhale one more time, then stand up straight.
10. Be a Fighter
“At the first sign of stress, you often hear people complain, ‘What did I do to deserve this?’” says Dr. Cooper. The trouble is, feeling like a victim only increases feelings of stress and helplessness. Instead, focus on being proactive. If your flight gets canceled, don’t wallow in self-pity. Find another one. If your office is too hot or too cold, don’t suffer in silence. Call the building manager and ask what can be done to make things more comfortable.