It’s sometimes hard to push our stresses aside and stop to smell the roses. Our lives can become so packed that the roses—and everything else, for that matter—become a blur. “Managing stress is all about small change,” says David Johnson, a licensed marriage and family therapist in McKenzie, Tennessee. “We can talk about huge, earth-shattering change, but most of us can’t realistically pull that off.”
While a little stress can help keep us energized and alert, stress left unchecked can contribute to insomnia, heart disease, obesity, anxiety and depression. The best way to reduce stress is to make small changes every day and work toward a larger goal, Johnson says. Start scheduling time to relax, establish “wind down” periods and consistently incorporate the following tools into your daily routine.
Habit is Everything to Managing Stress
Eating a balanced diet and getting regular exercise are both good starting points for improving your overall health and reducing stress. Johnson recommends starting with small, relatively easy changes. “Get some exercise, even if it’s only a 15-minute walk,” he says. “Do some journaling, but not with a computer. An actual handheld pen and paper is best. Take a relaxing bath. Lock the door. No interruptions allowed!” And if turning on the evening news and hearing all of the world’s problems perturbs you, then power off.
“Habit is everything, and it ultimately comes down to your willingness to change,” says Matt Leve, a physical therapist at Shift Physical Therapy in New York. Learning to identify and eliminate bad habits is the first step toward building routines that promote general well-being.
“Start getting ready for sleep at least an hour before you go to bed,” says Mila Mintsis, an acupuncturist at Shift Physical Therapy. “Turn off all stimulating devices such as the phone, computer and TV so your body and nervous system can start calming down.”
View stress as a positive tool instead of a negative roadblock. “If we can look at stress as a positive thing, if we can harness that energy and put it in a positive direction, then we can learn to embrace stress,” Johnson says. For example, stacks of work that greet you in the morning can induce a wave of jitters and anxiety, which generate energy. Instead of viewing this energy as negative, focus on something that makes you happy to reorient your perspective—a picture, a song, a smell, the sound of birds—and from there view the work as positive, telling yourself that you are lucky enough to earn money, provide for your family or save up for your next big vacation. It’s mind over matter.
Adopt a Stress-Reducing Diet
While it’s unlikely that a mineral or vitamin deficiency would be the sole cause of a stress-related condition, eating the right foods can affect your ability to handle stress.
For example, the hormone serotonin plays an important role in regulating mood, depression, appetite, sleep, cognitive function and muscle contraction. The amino acid tryptophan, which is typically found in protein sources such as meats and nuts, converts to serotonin in the brain. So if you’re feeling anxious, eat a handful of almonds or fix yourself a tuna or turkey sandwich.
Chronic stress may be linked to low levels of vitamin B12 and other B vitamins, which assist with proper neurological function. Boost B12 intake by eating foods such as fish, shellfish, meat, eggs and dairy products. You can also take B12 as a supplement.
Researchers have also linked vitamin D deficiency to stress, as studies in both humans and animals suggest a link between low levels of vitamin D and depression and poor mood. One study showed increased anxiety in mice lacking the vitamin D receptor gene. The good news is that vitamin D is easy to get: Liver, fortified milk, calcium supplements and sunshine can all boost vitamin D levels.
Chronic stress has also been linked to low levels of magnesium. A lack of magnesium in your diet can result in fatigue and weakness. Boost magnesium levels with green, leafy veggies, soybeans and nuts, as well as seeds such as pumpkin, sunflower and sesame.
And steer clear of caffeine, sugar and alcohol, as they can affect hormone levels and contribute to anxiety.
Boost Your Mood With Calming Herbs
Herbs can help to prevent or minimize stress, says Tony Burris, a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist at Eagle Acupuncture in Eagle, Idaho. One of the most widely used and well-known calming herbs is chamomile, which is found in many “destressing” tea blends. Valerian root, passionflower and lemon balm are also great herbal choices for promoting calmer nerves and better sleep. While you can take these herbs in pill form, Burris recommends enjoying them as a tea. “Some brands combine these herbs into one tea,” he says. “It’s easier [than making your own], and the simple act of sitting, relaxing and sipping a mug of tea encourages one to relax by ritual rather than just popping a pill.”
American ginseng—Panax quinquefolius—is another calming herb, but don’t confuse it with Asian ginseng—P. ginseng. Asian ginseng is similar to its American counterpart, but it tends to be stimulating. “Most Americans are overstimulated and overstressed, which means they often have too much ‘heat,’” Burris says. “Asian ginseng is a ‘hot’ herb that is too stimulating for the majority of people who are already too stimulated.” American ginseng has soothing effects and is typically gentler. Both of these herbs are adaptogens, a class of herbs that can purportedly guide the body back to a homeostatic balance—a state the body naturally strives for—and bolster resistance to the effects of stress. Rhodiola is another effective adaptogen that can reduce stress as well as improve concentration and stamina.
Plant essential oils can also calm the nervous system. While there isn’t a lot of research on essential oils, one Japanese study did recently discover that smelling lavender or rosemary essential oils reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol. With a diffuser, you can enjoy the calming aroma of essential oils such as lavender, rosemary, clary sage, jasmine, bergamot and neroli. “Using your sense of smell helps to activate and change the brain,” says Anu Abraham, a physical therapist at Shift Physical Therapy. “Smelling lavender or jasmine can make the brain happy and relaxed.”
Simple Activities to Help Reduce Stress
■ Spend time in nature
■ Take a warm bath with essential oils
■ Meditate or do breathing exercises
■ Practice yoga
■ Dance or sing
■ Read or draw
■ Listen to relaxing music
■ Talk with friends or family members
■ Get organized with a to-do list
■ Create pottery or other types of art
■ Spend time with pets
Develop a Routine
Develop a calm-down routine to employ throughout overwhelming, stressful days, says David Johnson, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “The first thing I do is pause, close my eyes and take a slow, deep breath,” he says. Continue by taking three deep, slow inhales and exhales in a row. “It slows your heart rate down, gets more oxygen in your system and gets your blood flowing,” he says. Then open your eyes and move forward with the workday, concentrating on one task at a time. If you try to concentrate on everything at once, Johnson says the distraction will be so great that you’ll get nothing done. “Take one moment at a time,” he says.
Practicing gratitude can lessen the stress load. “There are many people who have nothing going on in their lives—no friends, no goals, no jobs,” therapist David Johnson says. “So when our day is fully packed, we need to tell ourselves, ‘I should be thankful.’” Make the following affirmation whenever you’re feeling stressed: I have a full, rich life.