The boss glared at you this morning. The ATM insisted you had no account and wouldn’t return your card. Your closest relationship is breaking your heart.
Let’s face it, as long as you’re breathing, you can’t avoid stressful situations. Your best defense is to defuse the tension as quickly as possible – not with a sedative or a cigarette or a wallet-whacking four-hand spa massage -- but preferably with a natural “tranquillizer” – something that will settle your nerves but won’t dampen your verve, or clobber you with an assortment of unwanted side-effects.
Read: Heal Thy Self | The art and importance of forgiveness
Here are six of the best natural, research-backed relaxants. Some of them have, in fact, been tested for effectiveness against a popular tranquillizer drug and proven to be equally, if not more, efficacious.
1. Soak away stress. In decades past, hot baths were used to tranquillize institutionalized mental patients. Today, few health advisers would recommend hopping into steaming-hot water. The most relaxing temperatures to soak in have been found to be warm water baths – about 100° to 102° F. In contrast to hot water, which shocks the system, causing muscles to constrict, warm water calms you by increasing circulation and relaxing muscles. Some researchers also theorize that heating the body causes biochemical changes that induce deeper sleep.
You can enhance the rejuvenating effects of a bath by mixing in a few drops of bath-oil into the water or the final rinse, or by having soft music filtered into the bathroom.
If you possess the luxury of a bath tub, you can extend the insouciant pleasure of bathing on weekends, or when you have the time, with a steaming hot mug of herbal tea. A bubble-bath can give you a stay-warm-longer session: the bubbles insulate the temperature, maintaining the warmth.
(If you are taking a vaso-constriction blood-pressure drug, check with your doctor before taking the warm-bath plunge).
2. Commune with nature. The grand-daddy of them all. And today, flaunting its spiffy new label of “ecotherapy”, the great outdoors is getting huge attention from the scientific community. But Man has instinctively known for eons that connecting with Nature can bring a breath of fresh air not only literally to his lungs but also to his mind. Some research now shows that those who live in areas with the most amount of green space have lower levels of the stress chemical, cortisol, and that their self-reported feelings of stress are also lower than those who spend more time in urban settings. Seems to be an affirmation of what author Richard Louv says in his book, Last Child in the Woods – that people living in high-tech societies often suffer from what he calls "nature deficit disorder."
How Nature works her cathartic effects has not been quite determined. We all just know there’s something about her elemental forces, her exhilarating beauty, her sheer majesty that has a powerful anesthetic effect on us. Perhaps it’s the steady rhythm that makes no demands on us even as it holds our attention – think of the crest and fall of waves on white sands. When your thoughts are focused on the rhythm of things elemental, it’s difficult for them to stay focused on your worries. Without any effort on your part, the emotional residue that has settled into a tight knot in your stomach will start to come loose. As you watch the clouds roll by or the birds wing home, it will all come into perspective for you – office politics, clogged drains and wayward lovers. You’ll come back to that real world feeling restored, your psychic batteries recharged. And you’ll be able to handle those three client presentations in three cities with new aplomb.
Being a city dweller may seem to doom you to a happiness deficit. However, it just means you might need to make more of an effort to get your nature fix, such as taking your morning walk in the green spaces of a neighborhood park, instead of pounding concrete. Five minutes of communing with Nature is all it takes, according to study findings, before you begin to decompress.
3. Take a deep breath. When anxiety strikes, the heart races and breathing becomes shallow. But by reversing these stress signals, you can calm yourself almost instantly. All you need is a pair of lungs, your breath and a couple of minutes.
Here’s what you do: Slowly breathe in through your nose, comfortably expanding your abdomen first, then your rib cage. (Imagine you’re inflating a beach ball in your stomach through your belly button). Then release the breath through your nose (more slowly than you let it in).
Once you’ve mastered this technique, you’ll be able to train your respiratory system to relax on cue. Set cues for yourself to breathe deeply for a minute or two throughout the day – whenever your office door closes, or you finish a call, for example. Then, when you get home, practice the deep breathing technique for about 10 minutes.
After a few weeks, you’ll find that you automatically begin breathing slowly and deeply during tense moments.
4. Walk away from tension. More than two decades ago, a 15-minute walk was found to have a greater calming effect than a popular tranquillizer. Since then, researchers have learned more about just how far a short walk can distance you from anxiety. Scientists now believe that stress-relieving chemicals released by the brain during the act of walking may be responsible for its tranquillizing effects. Another way that walking may work, they believe, is by increasing body temperature, which may have calming effects.
You’ll get the best tension-defusing effects from walking if you use a normal gait (neither shuffling nor ramrod-straight), take long strides, swing your arms and look forward. When you swing your arms, there’s a kind of mechanical action that soothes the muscles in the shoulders, neck and back, which are often tense when we are anxious.
5. Talk it out. Nervous about making a speech? Talk about it. Treading rough waters in your marriage? Share your anxiety. Afraid you’re going to lose your job? Tell someone. By voicing your fears, you clarify them for yourself and gain perspective. Sometimes, too, a listener (especially one who has experienced the same problem) can dispel the sense of isolation that often accompanies the emotional stress.
Are there times you should keep your lips zipped? Of course. Here are some guidelines for positive confession:
» Confess only to someone who has your best interests at heart, not to the office gossip.
» Talk to someone who really listens; if you sense your listener is bored or distracted, s/he probably is.
» And watch it with sudden impulses. If you decide to confide a problem, wait an hour and see if it still feels right. If so, go ahead.
6. Blow up at stress. If you don’t want to crack under stress, try cracking up. A hearty laugh is universally considered one of the best ways to puncture stress. (That is why laughing clubs deserve more than a hoot).
But it’s difficult to force a laugh in a tense moment. Some stress-management experts have come up with a technique that seems to do the trick. They call it the “blow-up method”. It involves blowing up a situation out of all proportion – to the point of ludicrousness. It can prompt a laugh and cause you to unwind.
Here’s how it works. Let’s say you’re in a traffic jam. Bumper-to-bumper. Instead of fuming in silence, talk out (to yourself) the most horrible scenario you can imagine. “I’ll be stuck here for hours and hours. These cars will never move. In the end, they’ll have to close the highway and airlift us out of here. Of course, knowing how our emergency services work, they’ll probably have just two helicopters to airlift these hundreds of vehicles. Or, more likely, thousands by the time they arrive. And there are so many ahead of me, by the time they get to me, my children will have grown up, got married and had children of their own. When I return, no one will even recognize me.”
By exaggerating the situation to the point of absurdity, you begin to smile at yourself. This helps you put the situation in perspective. And perspective is a natural calmer because stress is caused not so much by a situation but by how we perceive it.
A word of caution: The fast and natural tension-relievers, above, work to counter everyday stress. If your anxiety persists or becomes extreme, consult your doctor.
(The author, a former editor of 'Health & Nutrition' magazine, works as a counseling therapist)