We all encounter everyday stressors and usually find our own ways of defusing them. However, when chronic stress remains unresolved, it extracts a toll on health that may range from heart disease and stroke to obesity, gastrointestinal problems and depression.
Thankfully, Natural Awakenings has uncovered inviting ways to regularly de-stress that naturally make us feel good. Here are some refreshing ideas for immediate rest and relaxation.
Eat Mindfully. Chocolate can be an excellent antidote to stress-related binge eating, advises Dr. Susan Lord, an integrative physician in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, who leads mind-body medicine programs at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, in Stockbridge. “We rarely eat mindfully,” comments Lord. “We’re usually gulping down our food while watching TV, arguing with the kids or reading a book.”
She often leads a meditation in which participants are allotted one small piece of chocolate that they must eat slowly and consciously. “Most people discover they have never really tasted their food,” she says. “They are pleasantly surprised to discover that they feel satiated and satisfied on every level.”
Lord’s teaching is supported by a study from an Oregon Research Institute affiliate in Albuquerque, New Mexico, showing that people lost significant amounts of weight by eating slowly and mindfully. Accordingly, Kripalu has encouraged eating in silence for nearly 40 years, a practice Lord heartily recommends to her patients for one meal a day.
Walk a labyrinth. A meditative walk on a labyrinth may be just what the doctor ordered, says physician Esther Sternberg, professor of medicine and research director at the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, in Tucson. “A labyrinth differs from a maze, which has high walls and many dead ends,” notes Sternberg. “Walking a maze is inevitably stressful; a labyrinth has the exact opposite effect. There is only one path in and one path out. You go to the middle, meditate and walk back out. It’s a perfectly calming walking meditation.”
In physiological terms, Sternberg explains, the deep breathing induced by labyrinth walking activates the vagus nerve, which prompts relaxation. It does this by interrupting the brain’s stress response and halting the release of adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol from the adrenal glands.
Our ancestors built labyrinths as early as 4,000 BCE. They exist today in churches, healing centers and backyards all over the world. Finger labyrinths, even as simple as an outline printed on a piece of paper, also have proved to be effective relaxation tools, says Neal Harris, a licensed clinical professional counselor in Barrington, Illinois. His study confirming its relaxing effects was published in the Annals of Psychotherapy & Integrative Health.
Shake (or laugh) it off. Anyone that has ever felt like exploding from tight shoulders, indigestion, headaches or other conditions caused by accumulated stress can benefit from Lord’s recommendation to experience a whole-body shake.
“Just stand with your feet firmly planted and start shaking—first your feet, then your legs, arms, head and neck and eventually, your whole body—for at least two or three minutes,” she counsels. “You’ll shake off all of that tension, energize every cell and probably start laughing, another great stress reliever.”
A good belly laugh is likewise a powerful stress reliever, according to a study by researchers at Indiana State University, in Terra Haute, published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. Results also showed that laughter increased production of the protective cells that boost immune function.
Create a memory garden. For Sternberg, her personal place of peace is an unconscious re-creation combining the sights and smells of her grandmother’s garden with the comfortable “at home” feeling of her parents’ deck and mementos from a happy time in Crete. At the center of Sternberg’s happy memories are fragrant jasmine and gardenia trees, lavender and basil, all reminders of happy times in her life. She recalls, “It wasn’t until I was finished that I realized what I had done.”
A review of relevant science reported in Neural Plasticity explains that the brain’s hippocampus region, a seat of memory, especially related to place, also normally regulates the production of cortisol. But an excess of cortisol due to stress can impair its memory functions. “When we are in a place that brings happy memories to mind, we let go of stress and stop the release of cortisol,” says Sternberg. “It helps to just think of a place where we have been happy.”
She recommends creating a home space with some plants on a windowsill, photos of happy family gatherings, fabrics or paint in beloved colors and perhaps inherited items that trigger fond memories.
Kathleen Barnes is the author of numerous natural health books, including 10 Best Ways to Manage Stress. Connect at KathleenBarnes.com