You're at the office presenting a PowerPoint about something uninteresting like fiscal losses in nothing but your underwear, when a rabid dog runs in and begins to chase you around a table of investors who all happen to be your ex-girlfriend and her best friends...all laughing at you. And then you wake up. You're drenched in sweat, freaking out.
Those nightmares are your brain's way of telling you that you need to learn to relax and chill out. Granted, in the long run, major lifestyle changes are needed if you want to be fitter, happier, and more productive, but in the meantime, there are a number of ways to turn off the panic in an instant without hitting the high-proof alcohols. The best part? They've all been scientifically proven.
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1. Hey, take a hike!
Sitting in front of a screen all day is only fun if the screen is your TV and the day is Saturday. During the week, you're chained to your desk, and that's where the stress is. Taking a quick walk not only gives you a chance to get away from it, but also lets you practice mindfulness techniques that can help you relax better in the long run.
2. Take a vacation...in your mind
The idea of giving it all away to work a low-stress job and live on the beach is appealing and practical to just about everyone aside from adults with responsibilities, bills, and a limited supply of sunscreen. In other words, most of us. We've got to settle for a couple weeks of vacation a year to indulge our inner Jimmy Buffett. But even in your office, you can take it easy every once in a while. Taking a few minutes to close your eyes and visualize a relaxing scene can distract you from worry, relax the body, and help you briefly escape the stress in your life. And you won't have to deal with shark attacks...or Jimmy Buffett songs.
3. Look at the color blue
Interior designers who insist that your color scheme is giving off the wrong vibes might annoy you, but they've got a point. Different hues elicit different physical responses, and the color blue is known to be a key ingredient in calming down. Blue light has been shown to have a sedative effect, helping you compose yourself in stressful situations. If you need a fast way to relax, take a few minutes to admire some beautiful blue stained glass, or perhaps some of Walter White's meth.
4. Write down your worries
Keeping your concerns bottled up has the same effect as keeping liquor bottled up. They'll just get stronger, and you'll eventually be drunk. Instead, when you're feeling stressed, quickly write down what's worrying you. Research shows that even short periods of putting your thoughts on paper can dramatically improve performance.
5. Listen to chill music
Putting in your earbuds isn't just an easy way to tell all your coworkers you really don't want to talk about The Bachelorette right now. Studies show that listening to the right music can affect your brain in the same way drugs do. Slow, relaxing tunes change the wave pattern, inducing a mellow state. This finally explains why every Jack Johnson song in history has put me to sleep.
6. Listen to nature
Nowadays, few of us choose to live out in the woods unless we're planning on stockpiling ammo to prepare for the inevitable food war. The downside is dealing with an environment that doesn't exactly sound soothing. But maybe those ambient noise apps are worth the download. Listening to the sounds of nature, even if you're not out in it, can cause physically measurable reductions in stress.
Makes me think there could be a good market for Walden: The Soundtrack...
7. Just accept it
"Suck it up." It's what terrible people say when you go to them with your problems. Sadly, they're on to something: accepting the fact that you're stressed out is one of the best ways to defuse the stress. When you fight it, you create more inner tension by trying to avoid what might be a reasonable response to your situation. Letting yourself experience the emotion allows it to have less power over you.
8. Hack your hands for relaxation
Acupressure is the easiest way to give yourself a stress-busting massage in public without getting arrested. You don't even need to draw attention to yourself with complicated pressure points—pinching the space between your thumb and forefinger calms you down quickly.
When I'm anxious, my natural response is to fix my eyes to the floor, hunch my shoulders in, and close off my body as much as possible—the yoga pose would be called the Neurotic Turtle. However, doing the opposite—standing tall, exposing the chest, taking on a wide stance—would actually help much more. Adopting open postures has been shown to, within minutes, increase testosterone while decreasing cortisol, the stress hormone. And it makes you look like a superhero.
11. Focus on one thing
Did I send out that email? Did my boss like my work? What happens when we die? Well. That got dark fast...
Stress is often the result of focusing on too many worries at once. Instead, distract yourself by narrowing your attention to one object, like a candle flame. If you're worried about burning the building down, a simple fixed space in your field of vision will do. Stare at it for a few minutes, paying attention to the detail, to take your mind off whatever is bothering you.
12. Practice muscle relaxation
Mental stress has physical effects. If tension is taking over your body, progressive muscle relaxation is a simple way to relax. Starting at the bottom of your body and working your way up, tense each muscle, then relax it, focusing on the physical sensations. It's the only acceptable excuse to flex in public.
Anyone who says laughter is the best medicine doesn't understand what the words "best" or "medicine" mean. That said, getting a good laugh is an awesome way to calm down quickly. It stimulates organs and improves circulation, fending off the physical symptoms of the fight-or-flight response. Take a break during the day to watch a short stand-up gig, or just Google "Donald Trump" and read the first news story that pops up.
Deep, slow, abdominal breathing stimulates the body's natural relaxation response. Most of us make the mistake of breathing with our chest, but focusing more on the diaphragm will keep your nerves under control. Groovy.
Joe Olivetois a staff writer for Supercompressor. Interpret his stress dreams by following him on Twitter.