BY MARKHAM HEID
August 15, 2017
America is uptight. Whether it’s a headache, problems sleeping, or feeling down or depressed, a full 80 percent of us are dealing with at least one stress-related health symptom, according to a 2017 study from the American Psychological Association (APA).
While the APA highlights the current political climate as a major source of anxiety for many of us, the truth is Americans have long had a problem chilling out. We work crazier hours and vacation less than almost any other nation on Earth. We also suffer from higher rates of burnout.
Jack Nicholson may have put it best in a 1986 interview: “Life used to be work until five o'clock and then you were meant to have some fun, some nourishment, some leisure. Americans don't understand leisure. They don't have a clue. They understand work; they understand play . . . they do not understand leisure.” (If you ever want to kill a few hours in the most entertaining, wisdom-infused way possible, read some old Jack interviews.)
“People develop a habit of carrying around more tension than they need to, and the more tense you are, the more easily you become anxious,” says Michelle Newman, Ph.D., director of the Laboratory for Anxiety and Mood Pathology at Penn State University.
Relaxation, Newman says, is the release of physical tension—and therefore a great way to keep your anxiety under control. How can you relax? Here are seven proven techniques
BREATHE THIS WAY
“People think ‘take a deep breath,’ but that’s the worst thing you can do,” Newman says. Sucking in a big breath of air is basically hyperventilating your lungs, and can make your anxiousness worse, she says.
Do this instead: “Put one hand on your chest and another on your abdomen just above your belly button,” Newman advises. Your goal is to breathe “diaphragmatically,” which means you’re sucking air down toward your stomach as opposed to into your chest.
“If your lower hand is moving while you breathe, you’re doing it right,” she says. “Try to take slow, shallow breaths,” and you’ll quickly calm yourself down, she adds.
Whether a person is suffering from back pain, cancer, or the after-effects of a traumatic experience, “laughter therapy” seems to be an effective way to feel better and combat stress-related anxiety, research shows.
Identifying exactly how laughter does this has proved tricky. But research from Lee Berk, Dr.PH., of California’s Loma Linda University, suggests a good laugh can unwrap or counteract all the tension-increasing, anxiety-driving processes that go on in your brain and body when you’re frazzled.
So fire up a funny video or podcast. You’ll feel more relaxed in no time.
TAKE A BREAK FROM YOUR DEVICES
Checking email and sports scores, posting on social, texting your family, listening to music . . . you probably do many (or all) of these things every time you pick up your phone—often in rapid succession.
Bad news: That kind of "media multitasking" may shrink a part of your brain linked with emotional control and anxiety regulation, finds a 2014 study from University College London.
If you can manage to pry yourself away from your phone, ditching it for an hour or two—or at least restricting yourself to one activity, like replying to texts or listening to music—should help you mellow out.
CLENCH, THEN RELEASE
Newman says "progressive muscle relaxation" is a proven way to decrease tension and anxiety. "Your goal is to systematically tense and then release different muscle groups," she says.
Tensing your muscles first is important. "When you first tense the muscle group and then release, it's like a pendulum that, when it swings to one side, will then swing farther to the other side," she explains.
She says there are lots of online sites or apps that can walk you through this practice. Here's one 10-minute guided program from Brigham Young University.
GET TOGETHER WITH A BUDDY
For decades, psychologists have recognized that hanging with friends is an effective shield against stress and anxiety.
One 2015 study found spending a lot of time on your own can lower your brain’s levels of feel-good chemicals in ways that promote anxiety and hamper “fear extinction”—or your mind’s ability to calm itself down.
Getting together with friends has just the opposite effect, says Robin Dunbar, Ph.D., a professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford in the U.K. Some quality time with your buds triggers the release of endorphins in your brain. “Since these endorphins are opiates, they give us a bit of an opiate-like high, and that just makes us feel good,” he says.
Newman says almost any form of exercise—from weight training to yoga—can be a great way to unwind and combat anxiety. Mounds of research show exercise triggers the release of endorphins and other feel-good brain chemicals that combat tension.
But it’s important to step away from work and other stressors while you’re sweating out your anxiety. If you’re checking email or conducting business calls while you work out, you’re not going to get any of the relaxation benefits. In fact, those activities, coupled with the physical stress training places on your body, could actually promote anxiousness.
SPEND TIME IN NATURE
Going back to the early 1990s, research has linked time spent in nature with lower rates of anxiety and stress. Especially if you live in a city or urban environment, escaping to the woods or mountains for an hour or two seems to help your brain and body mellow out, shows research from Australia.
Why? For most of human history, people lived among plants and trees and water like any other animal. It’s possible we haven’t “fully adapted” to living in nature-bereft city environments, the Aussie researchers write.