Everyone experiences stress from time to time. And, in a sense, stress can be good for you.
Our bodies rely on stress responses to alert us to danger and give us the means to get ourselves back to safety. If one of our ancestors saw a bear approaching, the instant rush of adrenaline, blood flow, strength, and focus would have been lifesaving.
Fortunately, most of us don’t run into hungry predators during the course of our daily lives. Unfortunately, our modern stressors—overdue bills, looming deadlines, unreasonable bosses, and relationship drama, to name a few—tend to be persistent from day to day, rather than acute episodes that last only a few minutes. This chronic stress burns out our stress responses and keeps us wired in overdrive even when we really don’t want or need to be.
That’s where practicing methods of stress relief comes in. If you can dial down your body’s stress responses and get back to a place where your body and mind feel safe, you can reduce your feelings of burnout and achieve some truly restful relaxation.
Thankfully for those of us who experience multiple chronic stressors on a daily basis, nature provides bountiful help for stress relief. Here are some of the best ways to achieve natural stress relief using our body’s own physiology and a few helpful gifts from the earth.
There’s a reason you keep coming across the suggestion to exercise every time you Google how to sleep better with less stress or how to moderate your mood using natural stress relievers. There’s no denying it: exercise is the king of stress-busting activities.
Just one workout session can boost your serotonin and endorphin levels and lower cortisol, the hormone that gets chronically elevated during times of extended stress. You don’t need to measure your neurochemicals to notice a difference, though; simply go for a brisk walk—bonus points if you take a walk in nature and take some deep breaths in the fresh air and sunshine. You’ll likely feel an immediate improvement.
Choose walking, jogging, weight lifting, dancing, rock climbing, swimming, or whatever type of exercise you enjoy. What exercise you choose is less important than whether it makes you happy enough to do it regularly. Many people find yoga offers a happy balance between relaxation and exercise. You can easily tailor a yoga routine toward strength, flexibility, or mindfulness and breathing.
The food you put into your body correlates directly with your quality of life. If you regularly eat unhealthy foods, you have a higher potential of developing diabetes and heart disease. You are also more likely to suffer from poor sleep, indigestion, and gut disturbances, mood swings or depression, and the stress that comes along with each of those issues.
Researchers are now saying the bacteria in your gut, fueled by the foods you choose to eat, can directly affect your moods and stress levels. Eat nutritious foods that feed your cells and your gut bacteria well, and you’ll have less inflammation, more stable moods, a more positive outlook on life, and fewer sleepless nights with indigestion and crazy dreams.
As much as is possible, choose “real” foods—single-ingredient items that came from the ground or from an animal with little to no processing—and reduce your intake of added sugars, refined carbohydrates, and foods with a long list of complicated, hard-to-pronounce ingredients on the label.
Meditation and relaxation techniques can mean different things to different people, so if you’re not sure, there are many options to try. Some people struggle to calm their thoughts and focus on “nothing,” for example, but do extremely well when they focus deeply on belly breathing. Other people prefer to do 4-7-8 breathing (count to four as you inhale through your nose, hold for seven counts, exhale slowly through your nose or mouth for eight counts) or use progressive muscle relaxation techniques to tighten and then deliberately release each muscle group in the body one at a time.
Each of these practices can help you shut out the external world and think only about how your lungs are filling with clean, fresh air, your muscles are relaxing one by one, and your mind is calm.
Meditation requires practice, but it doesn't have to take much time. Just a few minutes here and there can help you return to a calmer place in the midst of chaos.
Alternatively, if you prefer to take a more active role in your relaxation rather than trying to sit still and calm your thoughts, you could try journaling. Journaling has many other benefits as well. Journaling can help you organize chaotic thoughts into a cohesive structure, get your swirling thoughts down on paper so you can safely let them go from your mind, and find common threads throughout the chaos. Journal frequently enough, and you may find yourself making meaningful connections and finding valuable insights where you never expected them.
When was the last time you belly-laughed over something hilarious with a friend? If it was weeks or months ago, it might be time to pick up the phone.
Thankfully, you needn’t rely only on your friends with impossible schedules to find some time to get together. Spending quality time with family members or cuddling with pets are also fantastic ways to get the feel-good bonding hormones flowing.
Humans are social creatures who release mood-boosting neurochemicals when we feel a sense of belonging and companionship. The simple act of spending time with a loved one—even if that loved one is a sleeping puppy or kitten on your lap—can remind you of your place and purpose in the world and help you extend your thoughts to others rather than obsessing over the stresses in your life.
The practice of using herbs and scents to help soothe the body’s nervous system and promote a sense of calm reaches back through human history for millennia. Though many herbalistic arts may have been lost, you can still take advantage of helpful stress-relieving supplements, teas, and aromas.
For example, chamomile always tops the list of relaxing natural ingredients to add to a tea, a soothing balm, or an aromatherapy spray. Chamomile’s calming properties can help you find peace during moments that are anything but peaceful. Chamomile tea is often recommended for more restful sleep.
Orange blossom is another popular option for relieving stress. You can enjoy the naturally relaxing scent of orange blossom all day long if you opt for a topical spray. In fact, parents may find that orange blossom is a safe and gentle way to help relieve stress in children. It may be soothing for fussy infants, and it may even help calm the symptoms of ADHD in older children.
A third helpful stress-relieving herb is lavender. Lavender in a tea, a lotion, a spray, or a hot bath can help you achieve a calm state. Lavender is often considered a sleep herb because it’s so calming that it can help you settle in peacefully at bedtime. It’s another aromatherapy option that is gentle enough for children.
One last favorite, which contains a soothing combination of relaxing ingredients including chamomile and calendula, among others, is Vesper’s Oil. Used on the palms of the hands or the soles of the feet, Vesper’s Oil is a soothing and natural way to promote sleep and to quiet troubled minds. It can easily become part of a nightly bedtime routine for both children and adults.
All the stress-relieving methods in the world will only help you for a short time if you have to jump back into battle day after day. Practices such as journaling, meditation, exercise, and aromatherapy in your daily routine will help you combat stress and find your happy place. However, if you feel stress coming back as soon as you finish your stress relief routines, or if your stress-relieving actions aren’t sufficiently holding your stress at bay even temporarily, you might need to take other actions in your life.
Though at times you may feel like you're facing an impossible situation, changing your life can occur with small, deliberate choices. Rearrange a hectic schedule to include some much-needed “me time,” begin a strict budget to get a handle on financial stress, find a new job, or look for a counselor who can help you work through your thoughts and feelings.
Though tomorrow might not be noticeably easier than today, you will notice results over time if you begin steering the ship now, just a degree at a time, toward a more sustainable lifestyle.
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