For most of us, stress is a constant. But every break you give yourself helps, says Alice Domar, PhD, a pioneer in mind-body medicine. “Even just a minute of rest will calm your autonomic nervous system, giving you time to recover,” she says. “If you can squeeze in 20 cumulative minutes a day for a few weeks, you can reset your whole system, making your body less sensitive to stress hormones.” Here, a few quick suggestions.
1 minute: Breathe out
“When we get stressed, we tend to breathe very shallowly or hold our breath,” says Domar. “Deep, diaphragmatic breaths increase your oxygen intake and create a sense of calm.” To make sure you’re breathing from your diaphragm (not your chest), place one hand about an inch above your belly button; as you inhale for a count of four, your belly should expand by about an inch.
2 minutes: Eat (a little) chocolate
A study published in the Journal of Proteome Research found that eating an average-size bar of dark chocolate (1.4 ounces) a day for two weeks helped reduce peoples’ stress hormones. But in order to skip the blood sugar crash, Domar recommends having just one square: “Focus on enjoying it mindfully, without doing anything else at the same time.”
3 minutes: Stare at a picture of a snowflake
Or a nautilus shell, fern branch or lightning strike. They all exhibit fractal patterns, which can help your mind unwind, per a University of Oregon study. When people took a break from a taxing task by gazing at fractal images, their stress response was 44 percent lower than when they looked at a control image.
10 minutes: Get crafty
A study in the Journal of Nursing Scholarship found that arts and crafts helped relax people who were caring for cancer-stricken relatives. If you don’t know your knit from your purl, try one of the new coloring books for grown-ups, like the Posh Adult Coloring Book: Soothing Designs for Fun & Relaxation.
15 minutes: Brew some tea
“Green tea contains an amino acid derivative, theanine, that has been shown to impact alpha brain waves and promote a sense of relaxation,” says Wendy Bazilian, RD, author of The SuperFoodsRx Diet. Chamomile has also been found to ease symptoms of anxiety. Even compounds in black tea may impact neurotransmitters in the brain: People who drank four cups a day for six weeks had lower levels of cortisol after a stressful event than a control group did, according to a study in Psychopharmacology.
20 minutes: Step outside
Taking a walk can increase your levels of norepinephrine, a chemical that helps the brain deal with stress, and doing light activity outdoors has been shown to greatly boost a person’s mood and energy, according to researchers at the University of Essex in England. If you can’t stop ruminating, consider listening to a podcast while you’re out for a stroll. (One of our favorites: NPR’s Invisibilia, which features short, engrossing tales about the forces that control human behavior.)