Try these two-minute stress solutions
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.
Put on a Happy Face
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 till you make it.
Think: Hot Hands
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.
Donate Some Dollars
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.
Load Up on Whole Grains
"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 g 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.
Dig in the Dirt
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.
Give Yourself a Hug
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.
Focus on the Exhale
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.
Just Move It—A Little
John Ratey, MD, a Harvard Medical School professor and the author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, says just 2 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.
Be a Jaw Dropper
"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.