Too much noise can stress you out, so try spending time in complete silence, especially in the morning when the level of cortisol -- the stress hormone -- is at its highest. Too much cortisol over time can put you at risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, impaired mental performance, and even abdominal fat.
-- Spend time without your cell phone, computer, and other high-tech gear that¿s become embedded into daily life.
-- Drive with the car radio off.
-- Do household chores without the TV or iPod for background noise.
Play releases worries, negative emotions, and frustrations. The activity you choose doesn¿t matter. The key is to cultivate the right attitude toward anything you do, to immerse yourself in an activity, and to lose yourself in the here and now.
Set aside 15 minutes every day to do something that¿s pure fun. Choose an activity that uses your imagination, frees you of any burdens, and fully engages your attention. Consider revisiting activities you enjoyed as a child.
Girls' night out isn't just fun -- it produces a real stress-reducing response. "Hanging out with women friends increases prolactin levels," says Christiane Northrup, M.D., author of Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom (Bantam Books, 1998). "Prolactin is a bonding hormone that also decreases stress."
With your friends, you can savor the chance to talk, laugh, and temporarily escape from your worries. Making time for friends doesn't have to be difficult, and the variety of ways to spend time with friends is endless.
Keep it simple with a movie night, a long hike, or a potluck meal. Round up friends for an evening of stargazing and s'mores in your backyard. Host a wine-tasting party at your house.
Under stress, you're apt take quick, shallow breaths, which increases heart rate and sweating and raises your stress levels even more.
"Get control of your breathing, and the spiraling effects of stress will automatically become less intense," says Brent Bauer, M.D., director of the Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program at the Mayo Clinic, and medical editor of the Mayo Clinic Book of Alternative Medicine.
Try this breathing technique when you¿re stressed out or anytime you want to feel more relaxed:
With your mouth closed and shoulders relaxed, inhale as slowly and deeply as you can to the count of 6. Push your stomach out as you breathe in.
-- Hold and slowly count to 4.
-- Exhale through your mouth as you slowly count to 6.
-- Repeat 3-5 times.
A hot bath can work wonders to relieve stress and can also set the stage for a good night's sleep. Fill a tub with scented bubble bath, oils, or salts. Bring a good book to read. If you're in a more romantic mood, light some candles, too.
Practiced regularly, tai chi has numerous health benefits. This ancient Chinese exercise helps improve balance, enhance posture, and identify and release high-tension spots in the body. The uniform breathing, especially the long, slow exhalations, reduces stress and bolsters concentration. Research shows that tai chi may even lower blood pressure as effectively as a brisk walk.
To learn tai chi, find a trained instructor in your area. Visit the Web site of the American Tai Chi Association, www.americantaichi.org.
Music is a great balm for stress. "The primary health benefits of music come from its mood-boosting effects," says Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., a health psychologist and educator at Stanford University who has studied the effects of music and teaches people how to use music to improve their health. "A positive mood triggers a wide range of physiological responses: lowered heart rate and blood pressure, improved immune response, and reduced experience of pain."
Having a special, stress-free zone in your home that you find relaxing can quickly ease the anxiety from your day.
1. Start by choosing a location that has natural light. Add task lighting, floor and table lamps, or candles. Avoid using fluorescent lights.
2. Color this special place with earth tones -- browns, muted yellows, or tranquil blues -- says Angelo Surmelis, a Los Angeles interior designer and star of HGTV's 24 Hour Design. Surmelis also asks clients to close their eyes and recall a favorite vacation and the colors it conjures. Colors that trigger pleasant memories offer important clues.
3. Next add flowers, incense, candles, icons, or photographs of people you admire. Water is also helpful for evoking calm, so consider placing a tabletop fountain in your stress-free spot. For a similar effect, try a simple bowl of water, perhaps with one flower floating on top.
Hunger can worsen stress, so if it's been awhile since you last ate, consider having a healthful snack. But, steer clear of vending machine sweets, which often contain energy-depleting simple sugars.
Instead, opt for a fruit rich in vitamin C such as an orange or kiwi. One study found that subjects who got 1,000 milligrams of vitamin C two weeks before a big event had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and lower blood pressure than those who didn't get the vitamin.
Staying hydrated can lessen the effects of stress and fatigue. Try drinking a healthful, caffeine-free beverage such as 100 percent fruit juice, water with lemon, or herbal tea. Peppermint tea is especially invigorating.
Next time you're stressed, stop and write down five things that you're grateful for at that moment. "Writing down a grateful list helps people realize there can be stressful things and wonderful things at the same time," says Larina Kase, a Philadelphia psychologist.
An added bonus: By shifting emotions from frustration, anger, and tension to gratitude, appreciation, and love, it's possible to shift the body's system to a more relaxed state, experts say.
Whether it's a quick squeeze or a luxurious massage, the act of touch can work wonders for relieving stress. And it can be as simple as a kiss and a hug.
If you're alone or at work, try giving yourself a massage. Lynne Walters, author of KindTouch Massage: Self-Massage for Health and Well-Being (Sterling, 2002), recommends stowing a tennis ball under your desk. Slip off your shoes and roll the ball over your foot as you press down. At home, sit quietly for 20 minutes, then take eight deep breaths. Follow up by rubbing tender spots from head to toe.
"A good, hearty, emotional laugh for 15 minutes a day is good for cardiac health," says Michael Miller, M.D., director of preventive cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore.
According to a study published in Heart, a British medical journal, people who watched a comedy experienced an expansion of the endothelium -- the inner lining of the blood vessels -- allowing increased blood flow. Laughter also releases a chemical that protects against clot formation and buildup of cholesterol.
One way to up your daily guffaws: laughter yoga. To locate a laughter yoga club near you, visit laughteryoga.org or laughteryoga.us.
Meditation triggers the relaxation response and changes brain waves for the rest of the day.
"All it takes to invoke the relaxation response is sitting quietly for 10 to 20 minutes, once or twice a day," says Herbert Benson, M.D., founder of the Mind/Body Medical Institute in Boston.
Here are three techniques:
Sit and take a few deep breaths. Become aware of your breath as it enters and leaves your nose. Feel your chest and abdomen expand and contract. If your mind wanders, bring your focus back to your breath. Or repeat a word or phrase such as "love" or "peace."
Create a path at least 20 paces long. Walk as slowly as possible from start to finish, with hands at your sides or loosely clasped in front of you. Focus on the sound of your footfalls and the feel of the ground beneath your feet. Allow your breath to expand and contract along with your chest and abdomen.
Sit or lie down comfortably and close your eyes. Focus your attention on the sounds you hear. Center your attention on the sounds without forming any thoughts about them. Focus on one sound or the whole range.
When we put troubles into words, "we're able to get past it," says James W. Pennebaker, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and a leading authority on expressive writing. "Once we move past it, we don't worry about it or obsess over it."
Here's how to make writing effective, according to Ina Albert, coauthor of Write Your Self Well (Mountain Greenery Press, 2004):
-- Write at least 20 minutes a day on four consecutive days.
-- Focus on what's bothering you. Express your deepest thoughts and feelings about the concern, both positive and negative.
-- Write continuously, without regard for spelling or grammar. Don't edit yourself.
-- Write about the same issue several times in order to gain more understanding and to view the situation from different perspectives.
-- When you stop writing for the day, take time to reflect on what you've divulged.
Research shows that people who engage in expressive writing feel happier and less negative than they did before writing.
Growing plants and flowers is so effective at buffering you from stress that an entire profession is devoted to its feel-good benefits. According to the American Horticultural Therapy Association, gardening offers relief from physical limitations, reduces stress, gently exercises joints, and stimulates memory. "Gardening is a wonderful means to improve physical fitness and mental outlook," says Diane Roberts Stoler, an avid gardener and health psychologist in Boxford, Massachusetts.
Studies show that a plant-filled environment raises pain tolerance for people with chronic disorders and improves mood. Gardening is also good exercise, burning about 200 calories in just 30 minutes for an adult who weighs 180 pounds.
A good heart-pounding workout does more than burn calories -- it's also a stress buster. Aerobic exercise triggers the release of endorphins, the mood-enhancing chemicals that create "runner's high."
The good news is you don't have to spend hours at the gym to reap the stress-taming benefits of a workout. A University of Texas study compared men and women that exercised moderately on a treadmill for just 30 minutes with another group that rested. The exercisers showed significant gains in feelings of well-being and vigor. A half hour also is enough to help reduce your risk of heart disease.
But don't limit yourself to just one form of exercise or visits to the gym. Consider hiking, biking, swimming, and walking, which can take you outdoors. Maximize the benefits by inviting friends along for a group workout.
An outdoor refuge can be as simple as a hammock under your favorite trees. But you can also make it more elaborate. The key is getting outdoors and listening to the sounds of nature without interruption from phones, computers, or obligations. Here's how to create a sanctuary of your own:
Choose a private location that's largely protected from the elements, such as a porch, a shade tree, or a spot that's screened in by shrubs, fencing, or trellises. Shady spots are generally less stressful than sunny ones.
Make it inviting. Create an entrance with a graceful arbor, a decorative gate, or a threshold flanked by upright evergreens or large, potted plants.
Provide seating by adding a bench or chairs; add cushions for comfort. Set up a swing or hammock if you need a little coaxing to relax.
Add visual appeal with statues or other artful elements.
Use water to set the mood. The trickling of a fountain or small waterfall soothes the soul. Still, reflective water in a pool or birdbath sets a serene, contemplative tone.
Plant fragrant, calming-color plants. The right scents and colors -- think blue, gray, violet, pink, and white -- will enhance relaxation.
Getting absorbed by a good book calms frazzled nerves almost instantly. The key is reading materials that match your mood.
If you need a laugh, consider reading a joke book or a book by David Sedaris, such as Me Talk Pretty One Day (Back Bay Books, 2001).
For romance, indulge in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (Bantam Classics, 1983). The classic love story sparkles with wit. Or try Winston and Clementine: The Personal Letters of the Churchills, edited by Mary Soames (Houghton Mifflin, 1999). It shares the correspondence between Winston Churchill and his wife, Clementine Hozier, through the years.
In a metaphysical mood? Grab The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), which is about a young shepherd named Santiago who follows his heart to find happiness. Or opt for Eat, Pray, Love (Viking Adult, 2006), the memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert that's part travelogue and part journey of self-discovery as she travels to Italy, India, and Bali.