21 Unusual Stress Relievers (Part 1 of 3)
This is the first of a 3-part series on unusual stress relievers.
Not to stress you out but stress is really bad for you.
The performance psychologists at my high school used to say that stress exists on a spectrum and a small amount of stress is healthy. Some studies done on rats support this, showing that acute stress can boost cognitive function. Basically, the stress hormone triggered in the rats caused the growth of new cells in the hippocampus, resulting in improved memory.
But we’re not here to talk about rats, which are one of my least favourite animals. We’re here to talk about stress and ways to alleviate it.
When grappling with something, I find it really helpful to understand it. I like knowing what causes my headaches. Similarly, it’s worthwhile to get to know stress. I really like this definition from The American Institute of Stress (that’s right. Stress gets its own institute): 'A condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize.' Once you know what it is, you can question it. Is meeting that deadline really beyond your capabilities? What can you do to change that? Bring more people on board, reduce your delivery, create a clear schedule, move the deadline…
Physically speaking, stress is a survival mechanism – the fight or flight response which sees the amygdala send a distress signal, which activates more signals, which causes adrenaline to be pumped into the bloodstream. When stressed, your heart rate and blood pressure increases, your senses become sharper, you become more alert because of the extra oxygen sent to your brain. And glucose and fats flood into the bloodstream, supplying energy to all parts of the body.
Side effects of chronic stress include:
- Aches and pains
- Difficulty eating
- Frequent colds and infections
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Grinding teeth
- Weight gain
- Increased risk of early death
That’s right, you can actually accelerate your death if you are consistently stressed. While stress might be what prompts you to slam the brakes in a near collision (thus saving your life), it can also bring your life to a premature end.
But you probably don’t need a bullet point list of all the undesirable consequences. We’ve all experienced stress at some point. We’re stressed out. (Tell me you didn’t just start singing the Twenty One Pilots song. I did.)
Anyway, maybe I’m evil but I take a little pleasure in watching really nonchalant people stress a bit. Like AHA! You’re not immune to the world’s problems. Not so chill after all! I know, I should be more compassionate. Work in progress.
The most recent stress I encountered was driving up to Wye River at night, alone, while it rained and my phone lost reception. The roads around the Great Ocean are insanely windy (I like driving fast but I feel like the roads around there would benefit from a 30 km/h speed limit). And the “directions” to my destination were a little loose. Like way loose.
I had to knock on a stranger’s door in the middle of nowhere and get directions from a lovely group of thirty-somethings in the middle of wine and a crossword. They were so nice, one of them went with me to find the damn place. AND they offered me wine. The stress from driving in shitty conditions and being basically lost in the pitch black had given me a slammer of a headache, so I declined their generous offer.
In situations like these, you can’t always slide into a warm bubble bath or pat a golden retriever. Unless teleportation becomes a thing. I’ll never lose hope.
So what I’ve done is compiled the stress relieving tools and techniques that have worked for me, along with the ones I have found to be supported by some logic or science and then divided them up into three categories, based on whereabouts and schedule. I’m also including more well-known methods amongst them because they’re well known for a reason – they’re very effective.
In this post, part 1/3, I focus on the mobile de-stressors at your disposal.
Blowing on your thumb
The vagus nerve controls the parasympathetic system (the one responsible for our rest-and-digest) and assists with relaxation after a stressful experience. Blowing on your thumb elevates intra-abdominal and intrathoracic pressure inside your body that stimulates the vagus nerve, which slows down your heart rate. Put your thumb in your mouth (like a baby) and blow hard, without letting any air escape.
Eat celery (or something crunchy)
Stress often builds up in the jaw. Crunching on celery can relieve this tension, while the tryptophan in the green vegetable helps the body make serotonin (a neurotransmitter commonly referred to as the happiness chemical).
Mindfulness is very sexy at the moment but what does it actually mean? Although it’s sometimes criticised for being oversimplified, in essence, mindfulness works like this: Stop. Breathe. Think about your thinking. From what I understand, the increased awareness you develop by being mindful of your thoughts and your present surroundings sets you up to be more mindful in situations with the potential to create stress. So you can be bigger than your thoughts and interrupt negative ones. I like this meditation on toast because it’s easy to integrate in your daily life. Or you can start with these simple exercises.
You can apply lavender oil to your wrists as a quick way to de-stress. At night, you can put some on your pillow or the soles of your feet. In this National Institute of Health Study, the anxiolytic effect of lavender (its anxiety reducing power) was superior to the placebo in 221 patients suffering from anxiety disorder. If you’re interested in the power of essential oils to wake you up, soothe sore gym limbs or guard against colds, you can read my Essential Oils post here.
Acute cold exposure
Studies have found that you can increase parasympathetic activity (so your body calms down) by exposing yourself to cold on a regular basis. Now that it’s winter, you can step outside into the cold air or take a cold shower. Immersion of the face in water with breath holding leads to a decrease in heart rate. For a more comfortable version, you can hold a wet cloth to your face for 1-3 minutes and the proven results are similar. So when you see actors splashing their face with water in all those movies, they were on to something…
Prosocial behaviour has been found to significantly reduce stress. Think holding the door, giving directions or helping someone carry their bags.
More studies are looking into this but the thought is that you crowd out your own stressful thoughts when you start thinking about others. And you’re being a good human, so there’s no real loss.
Fractals are patterns that repeat at increasingly fine magnifications
The effect of fractal fluency has been proven to de-stress hospital patients with stress reduction of up to 60%. You can view fractals in art (like a Jackson Pollock poured painting) and in nature (trees, shells, snowflakes etc).
Slowing your breath and practicing breathing techniques can lower your heart rate and make you feel calmer. Remember to exhale for longer than you inhale; try in for four, out for eight. This works by activating the parasympathetic system. I did this last night to help me fall asleep! Try this simple breathing exercise to de-stress.
The vagus nerve (again, the nerve that assist with relaxation) is connected to your vocal cords and the muscles at the back of your throat. In fact, it is the longest nerve in the human body. Singing, humming, chanting and gargling can activate these muscles and stimulate your vagus nerve. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, grab a glass of water and get gargling.
This might seem contrary to the acute cold exposure highlighted above but here’s how this one works: During the fight-or-flight response (stress), blood flow is significantly decreased in the extremities while being increased to the vital organs of the body. By warming your hands, you engage “the calming parasympathetic nervous system.” Some books even argue for simply believing in warmer, heavier hands as a form of stress management.
If the power of suggestion doesn’t do it for you, hold a cup of tea or run your hands under warm water.
- - -
That's it for today! Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3 of the series where I'll be telling you about vapor disks, house plants, gravity blankets, flotation tanks, colouring books and many more stress relieving ideas.
What are your approaches to dealing with stress? Do you have an unusual coping mechanism? Or something completely mundane but insanely effective?
You can read Part 2 of Unusual Stress Relievers here.
To talk about your stress and find better ways of dealing with it call Lifeline – 13 11 14 to. Visit www.lifeline.org.au to find Lifeline’s Overcoming Stress Tool kit and links to other helpful resources.