When it comes to stress, your body can’t tell the difference between running a Fortune 500 company or running from a bear — the chemical reactions are the same: Your brain sends the Ahhhhhggggg! signal to the adrenal glands, which then release adrenaline and cortisol, the hormones responsible for the fight-or-flight reaction. These chemicals hit your brain and cause elevation of heart rate, rapid breathing, increased blood pressure and a surge of energy — all useful when trying to escape that bear. But if you’re continually on high alert, this chronic stress can cause immune system suppression, inflammation, decreased libido, weight gain, insomnia, mood swings, and even heart attacks and strokes.
The holiday season tends to compound stress levels, so use these five ways to relax, re-center and refocus.
1. Meditate Mindfully
Mindful meditation, in which you focus on present-moment experiences rather than letting your mind drift, has been shown in numerous studies to reduce cortisol, lower blood pressure, and relax your mind and body. One study also found it improved memory, creativity, self-control and mood. Find a quiet place and sit or lie in a comfortable position. Close your eyes and focus on your breath. When your mind wanders, gently redirect it back to your breathing. Start with five minutes a day and build from there. Having trouble? Try a guided meditation app such as Insight Timer (free on iTunes and Google Play), where a coach or guru can talk you through it.
2. HIIT It Outside
Those with chronic stress develop stiffness in their blood vessels, which could lead to serious heart issues. Exercise keeps your vessels in good working order, improves your ability to use oxygen and increases blood flow. It also releases endorphins — natural painkillers that help improve your mood and sleep quality — and dopamine — which improves motivation, relieves tension and depression, and boosts confidence. Try doing a high-intensity interval training workout at the park: Research shows that exercising in green space creates a state of moving meditation, wherein you focus on the movements of your body instead of your stressors, and another Finnish study found that HIIT activity released the most endorphins.
3. Laugh Lots
Laughing has been shown to release endorphins, lower cortisol, increase HDL “good” cholesterol, and reduce arterial inflammation by causing the tissue of the vessels to expand, increasing blood flow. Enjoy time with upbeat friends, read a funny book or watch a funny movie.
4. Unplug the E-Drug
A recent study from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden found that excessive screen time was associated with elevated stress, loss of sleep and depression. Computer games have also been shown to induce the same physiological effects of stress such as increased heart rate and blood pressure, elevated cortisol and mindless eating. Consciously unplug yourself and interact instead with friends and family. Shut down all screens — phone, TV, tablets — at least an hour before bedtime: The blue light emanating from screens inhibits melatonin production, leading to poor sleep quality and insomnia.
5. Belly Breathe
Researchers from Stanford University found that deep breathing can change your emotional state by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps you relax, slows your heart rate and lowers blood pressure. Find a quiet place to sit or lie down. Take a deep breath in through your nose, allowing your chest and belly to rise, hold it briefly, then breathe out slowly through your nose. Or try “Breathe,” which is built into the Apple Watch operating system: The watch taps lightly on your wrist every four hours and guides you through a one-minute session of deep breathing.