Answer this question: When you've had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, what's the first thing you do?
A) Call a friend to vent your frustration
B) Curl up in your bed, cocooned in a fuzzy blanket, and veg out with Netflix
C) Lace up your running shoes and turn up your iTunes to drown out your thoughts as you go for a long walk
D) Reach for the candy and say, “I NEED chocolate!”
For most of us, if we're being totally honest, the first impulse is Option D. Sugar and comfort foods are the quick and easy path to a moment of instant Zen.
Unfortunately, research indicates that the bliss from comfort foods is more fleeting than we realize. According to a study in the journal Appetite, the good feelings that chocolate brings only last three minutes — that’s it!
If you comfort with food, don’t be too hard on yourself; a little bit is okay. It’s when eating is your primary way of coping that it becomes an issue — because, let’s face it: Life is stressful! And so we need to find other, better methods of stress management to have on hand when life gets hard.
As a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic, I teach people to tap into healthy stress management strategies that help them unwind. My motto is “calm and comfort without calories.” And I tell my clients to look for comfort, not bliss. Think of it as the difference between your favorite pair of heels and your tennis shoes. One brings you pleasure, the other comfort. It's similar to the way chocolate brings sensory pleasure whereas a massage triggers real relaxation.
In my new book, 50 More Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food, I offer creative strategies for stress management grounded in integrative medicine — think of them as ancient techniques with a modern spin. I'm sharing seven of my favorite research-backed methods here:
1. Strike a power pose.
Fascinating research by Harvard professor Amy Cuddy shows that the concept of power posing — standing with force, courage, strength, and character — may produce immediate changes in your body’s chemistry. After just two minutes in a high-power pose, the hormone testosterone, a dominance hormone, increases 20 percent, while cortisol, the stress hormone, fades away.
Next time you're feeling anxious, try standing like Superwoman, hands on hips, with your chin up, for two minutes.
2. Use the "anti-dwell technique."
You know how unproductive it is to tell yourself, “Stop thinking about X.” It never works!
A study out of Ohio State indicates that it’s more helpful to have specific things to think about. People in the study who were instructed on how to distract themselves, versus those who just dwelled on their thoughts, experienced a decrease in cortisol.
Here’s how to do it. First, commit to five minutes of what I call "Refocus and Reframe." Close your eyes. Then pick one of these distractions or write down a few prompts of your own:
- Fantasize about your dream career.
- Imagine where you would like to go on vacation.
- Visualize floating on waves in the ocean.
- Think about someone you’d like to kiss right now.
- Imagine doing something wild and out of character for you.
- Remember the funniest incident you can think of.
3. Drink lemon balm tea.
To try it out for yourself: Fill a jar or pitcher with water and thinly sliced lemon balm leaves. Place in the refrigerator and let brew several hours. Strain into a glass, and drink up for a refreshing and soothing burst.
4. Give yourself a foot massage.
A 2002 study found that reflexology and foot massage can both help reduce anxiety and depression in women. For a less expensive, on-demand version of a spa appointment, try a self-massage when you're feeling stressed.
Begin by sitting upright in a chair. Then, roll your foot over one of the following: a frozen water bottle, a broom handle, or a tennis ball. Or buy a foot roller from a natural health store. Massage for five minutes.
5. Practice thalassotherapy.
Thalassotherapy refers to the Greek word for the therapeutic and medicinal effects of seawater. A 2008 study found that thalassotherapy can help reduce pain in women, and many people swear by the de-stressing effect of an Epsom salt bath.
Capture the healing properties of seawater in your own home by pouring two cups of Epsom salt and half a cup of olive oil into warm bathwater. Don’t use soap, which interferes with the soothing actions of the salts. Soak for 15 minutes to relax your muscles and unwind.
6. Try forest bathing.
In Japan and other Asian countries, forest bathing for relaxation is all the rage. And research backs up its benefits: A recent study compared participants who sat in an urban vs. green setting for 15 minutes. The researchers found that those around nature experienced less anxiety and tension and reported feeling calmer, more relaxed, and more rejuvenated than those sitting outside in an urban environment.
Can't always walk in a park during the day? For an indoor version, meditating while focusing on a fern plant might help as well.
7. Infuse your shower with calming herbs.
In pioneer medicine, lavender petals were put in pillowcases to help people sleep. The healing properties of lavender have now been well-established in studies. For example, the scent of lavender has been shown to be effective in reducing insomnia, anxiety, depression, and stress.
To add the herb to your shower routine, cut off the bottom of an old pair of pantyhose. Fill it with lavender, lemon balm, and rose petals. Tie it in a knot around your showerhead to create a soothing spa — and start enjoying its calming effects.
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