Retail therapy doesn't have quite the same calming effect during the holiday season when you're fighting your way through a crowd to snag a must-have iPad or wrestling for that last honey-glazed ham. But there are plenty of other super-quick ways to relax, right here, right now. Lower your shoulders, take a deep breath and let us help you rediscover the most wonderful time of the year.
1. Crunch your way to calm. Munching crisp foods is the oral equivalent of squeezing a stress ball. (Chewing releases built-up pressure.) But that doesn't give you a free pass to chomp on candy canes all day. Snack on jicama slices, a few roasted nuts, celery sticks, baby carrots or an apple instead.
2. Distract yourself. If constant worries over your tween's wish list and the awkward company party are cycling through your head, a mental distraction, like solving a puzzle, can derail the pressure-pumping train of thought. One study found playing a brainteaser video game could improve your mood and heart rhythms. Crossword puzzles, word searches and sudoku work just as well to counteract the stress response.
3. Tidy up. When you have so much happening, ordinary chores like sweeping or folding laundry can give you a much-needed sense of calm. "By narrowing your focus to completing simple tasks, you force whatever was overwhelming you to recede into the background," says Jay Winner, M.D., author of Take the Stress Out of Your Life. So move washing dishes to the top of your to-do list and eliminate some tension.
4. Cry it out. Weeping makes you feel better by releasing tears, which contain large amounts of stress-related chemicals. If you can't just turn on the waterworks, rent a tearjerker and blame your blubbering on The Notebook.
5. Say ohmmm. Meditation can slow a racing heart, decrease blood pressure, steady breathing and even stop checkout lines from driving you crazy. (Well, maybe.) "By eliminating all distractions save the sound of your breath, meditation transforms the body's fight-or-flight response to relaxation," says Dr. Winner.
6. B-calm. Head off trouble by getting your recommended dose of these vitamins. "B-complex helps relieve fatigue, improves mood and soothes nerves," says Rashmi Gulati, M.D., medical director of Patients Medical, a holistic wellness center in New York City. Add B-vitamin-rich foods to your diet with a spinach breakfast omelet or three-bean salad lunch.
7. Rub the right way. No time for a spa trip? Debbie Mandel, stress management expert and author of Addicted to Stress, suggests this quick technique to unwind: Warm a small amount of olive or almond oil in a glass by partially submerging it in a bowl of hot water. When the oil is tepid, use your thumb and forefinger to massage it back and forth around your eyes.
8. Take a tea break. Leave it to the Brits to prove that drinking black tea reduces your level of the stress hormone cortisol by 47% on average. Create a calming ritual by pouring a cup every day at around the same time. Make it extra special with a gorgeous mug or a black seasonal blend.
9. Drink up. 'Tis the season for eggnog and mulled wine. But don't forget water. Alcohol is dehydrating, causing you to function at less than your best. The reverse is also true: Being under pressure can lead to dehydration. Always keep a glass or pitcher of water on your desk or kitchen counter.
10. Support yourself. Try this acclaimed pose that can head off insomnia by relaxing tight muscles all over your body. Micki Ramondt, a yoga instructor in London and Philadelphia, suggests that before bed you lie on your back with your butt as close to a wall as is comfortable, legs extended up, hip distance apart, and heels resting on wall. Place a folded blanket under your pelvis for support and comfort. Stay in place for 10 to 20 minutes, then sleep tight.
11. Go fish. Top your lunchtime salad with canned salmon or tuna. Both contain cortisol-regulating magnesium, which can get depleted during hectic moments, resulting in headaches and fatigue. These fish are also a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, which prevent surges in stress hormones.
12. Appeal to a higher power. People who prayed before performing a taxing task—say, preparing dinner for 30—had lower blood pressure and felt less anxious than those who did not. Researchers theorize that prayer creates the sense of having a nonjudgmental and powerful support network.
Originally published in the December 2012 issue of Family Circle magazine.
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