Research uncovers the fastest ways to reduce tension—and actually change your brain for the better
When we were 5, we might have sucked our thumbs for stress relief. As adults, many of us self-soothe with junk food, a glass (or two) of wine, maybe some mindless TV. But those are fixes that don’t actually fix anything. Luckily, recent studies reveal some easy ways to lift your spirits and lower your stress that actually create positive shifts in your brain and body.
“Stress triggers the release of the hormone cortisol, which can damage our brains and weaken our cardiovascular and immune systems over time,” says neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, PhD, the author of Buddha’s Brain. We asked experts for their best instant mood boosters, backed by the latest research in nutrition, psychology, and neuroscience. Follow these tips and you’ll be saying “aah” in no time.
Smiling soothes you, even if you’re just going through the motions. A University of Wisconsin study found that people who’d had Botox injections were less prone to anger because they couldn’t express it. What’s the lesson? Just fake it ’til you make it. (Check out two more times you should totally fake a smile.)
When fear and anxiety take hold, the nervous system directs blood flow to the largest muscles, an evolutionary response to protect against physical danger. This redirected flow often results in cold hands. So when you warm them, that automatically signals your nervous system that it’s OK to calm down, says neuropsychologist Marsha Lucas, PhD. “Even simply visualizing warm hands can be enough to help turn off the fight-or-flight reaction,” she says.
Giving money to a good cause makes you feel better than buying a pair of designer jeans and studies prove it, say Elizabeth Dunn, PhD, of the University of British Columbia, and Michael Norton, PhD, of Harvard Business School. Plus, you don’t have to be a millionaire to enjoy this karmic boost. The researchers learned that those who gave even $5 to someone else felt measurably better than those who bought themselves a treat instead.
“If you’re feeling grumpy, the best idea is to eat an all-carb whole grain snack and you should feel happier within a half hour,” says nutritionist Elizabeth Somer, RD, the author of Eat Your Way to Sexy. “The carbs raise blood sugar, which boosts serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with calm, positive feelings that last.” Aim for 30 grams of carbs: 4 cups of air-popped popcorn or half of a whole wheat English muffin (but not a bag of Chips Ahoy) will do the trick, Somer says. (See what other eats can boost your mood with The Happiness Diet.)
According to a 2011 Dutch study published in the Journal of Health Psychology, 30 minutes of gardening reduces stress levels more effectively than 30 minutes of reading quietly in a room. The researchers say it’s the result of physical activity. But perhaps the secret lies in the dirt itself. A few studies have shown a link between a common bacterium (M. vaccae) found in garden soil and increased serotonin levels, meaning less anxiety and better concentration. Gardeners may inhale this bacterium while digging in the soil.
When you think negatively about yourself, the brain’s amygdala sends signals that increase blood pressure and raise adrenaline and cortisol levels. Researcher Kristin Neff, PhD, at the University of Texas, recommends the “surreptitious self-hug”—wrapping your arms around yourself and squeezing. Even your own touch releases oxytocin and other biochemicals that promote well-being.
We’ve all heard that deep breathing is crucial to feeling tranquil, but the most important part of it is breathing out, Dr. Hanson says: “When you elongate your exhalations, you spark your parasympathetic nervous system, which slows down your heart rate.” Take three long exhalations, making them twice as long as your inhalation.
John Ratey, MD, a Harvard Medical School professor and the author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, says just two minutes of exercise is enough to change your mood, as long as you raise your heart rate. “Anything from squats to jumping jacks supplies a surge of neurotransmitters, such as norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin—the same targets as antidepressants,” he says.
“Relaxing your tongue and jaw sends a message to your brain stem and limbic system to turn off the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol,” says Dr. Lucas. Simply let your tongue go limp in your mouth, and then open your mouth slightly, which will instantly loosen up your jaw. “These exercises help bring our parasympathetic nervous system online, which tells our bodies to rest and restore,” Dr. Lucas says.
Next time you’re feeling frazzled, try a tactile solution. During peak moments of stress, endorphins released into the brain relieve pain and begin a recovery period. Doing things that feel good physically—such as taking a warm shower or listening to a favorite piece of music—mimics this process and shuts down the stress deluge.
When stress makes you unfocused, caffeine’s stimulating qualities may promote a can-do attitude. “To supersize that good feeling, drink your coffee with a little bit of organic whole milk instead of fat free. The extra protein and fat make you feel more satiated and therefore calmer,” says Drew Ramsey, MD, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia University.
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“A Johns Hopkins University study found that the taste of sweetness on your tongue causes a surge of feel-good endorphins,” Somer says. Also, dark chocolate contains compounds called flavonoids that also affect mood: According to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, cocoa flavonoids improved both mental acuity and attitude.
Additionally, in a 2009 study by the American Chemical Society, eating a mere 1.4 ounces of dark chocolate daily lowered stress hormone levels. The key is to limit yourself to just a few bites, since the sugar in chocolate can cause a crash later. “Plus, when you binge on anything, your blood is diverted to your gut away from your brain and muscles, which leaves you feeling tired,” Somer says. (Learn how to stop a binge in its tracks: Think Your Way To Weight Loss.)
A burger isn’t all bad, as long as it’s made from grass-fed beef. That’s because pastured beef is high in conjugated linoleic acid, a fat that fights cancer and belly fat and has also been shown to protect brain cells from worry, Dr. Ramsey says. Grass-fed beef also supplies a good dose of iron, which may boost your energy levels. “As many as 15% of women ages 20 to 40 are iron deficient, and most iron-deficient people are tired and stressed,” Dr. Ramsey says.
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