Five Natural Stress-Relieving Activities

Is anyone else getting overly excited for today’s open announcement for 17.4? I think I was pretty over it at this time last year, but this year I’m still giddy with anticipation. It’s like Christmas every Thursday. CrossFit Christmas. Which is only confirming that I love presents and surprises.

But if the open announcement is causing you a bit more stress than excitement, I have compiled my go-to list of stress busting activities. Mostly for my own benefit, because I like lists that I can easily reference later because as a working mom I generally operate on like seven brain cells and I do not have any more space to remember things. So the next time you (and/or I) are stressed, take note:

1. Exercise

There are studies abound that show how beneficial exercise is to the body and brain. When you move your body, the brain releases stress-busting endorphins to help you relax and feel good. That’s what that whole “runner’s high” thing is all about. So when your calendar is piling up, one of the best things you can do is make another appointment to move your body.

Now, before you throw your popcorn at me and declare, “Emily you nut job, I’m already too busy to go to the gym! Plus, I hate the gym,” let me clarify a few things. Not every workout needs to be a balls-to-the-wall marathon. High intensity exercise also increases levels of cortisol, and if you’re burning the candle from both ends this will cause your body even more stress, which is not what you need. Good alternatives are walking, some light stretching or yoga, or even running around the playground with your kids (bonus – it tires them out for bedtime!)

So experiment with activities, intensities, and also with what time of the day works for you to find the right exercise cocktail recipe that works for your hormones, brain, and schedule. Some people are morning people that can fall out of bed and into a group fitness class at 5:30 am with no issue. Others like to work out after work when they can really benefit from the stress relief. You can also squeeze in time over your lunch break (I’m a huge fan of my #lunchwalks on Instagram) to take a yoga class by your office or go for a quick hike around the neighborhood. The most important thing is to find something that works for you and to stick with it.

2. Mediation/deep breathing

More and more research is showing up on the benefits of meditation for stress levels and the brain. But for most people, meditation sucks. It’s boring. I can’t turn my thoughts off. And who has time to sit for 20 minutes?

But studies show that even just 5 minutes of sitting and breathing can do noticeable good for the brain. The next time you’re overwhelmed at work, try this exercise. Just take just five minutes in an empty conference room or bathroom stall, set a five minute timer on your phone, \ and focus on your breath, breathing in and out slowly for a count of 4-8. (Hopefully that bathroom stall isn’t too stinky for the deep breathing.) Then go back to that email or meeting with a slightly more clear head and lower blood pressure.

It’s also great to meditate first thing in the morning. The biggest tip I can recommend is don’t meditate in bed! When I think I can get away with this, I end up falling back asleep. Instead, go to a couch or your special meditation place (grab a blanket if you’re chilly) and while sitting up straight practice deep breathing for five minutes. You can even play some soothing music (just YouTube or search Apple Music for “meditation music”) if you can’t deal with the silence. Your brain may go all over the place. That’s cool. Just gently remind yourself to focus on your breath. Again. And again. Yeah, this will happen a lot, so be kind to yourself and bring your attention back to your breath. When the timer goes off, roll your shoulders, stretch for a bit, then bounce to the kitchen for that first cup of coffee!

Deep breathing  is also a great exercise when you’re sitting in traffic! Put on some soothing music (but maybe not one of those meditation apps – save those for when you don’t need to concentrate on not hitting the car in front of you) and take deep, slow breaths. Roll your wrists to relieve your death grip on the steering wheel.

3. Aromatherapy

It’s not just for woo anymore! There are many benefits to the relaxing aromas in a quickly-growing research area. Did you know that many of your memories are triggered by scent? I know the smell of a campfire always reminds me of visiting my grandparents’ cabin in Northern Minnesota, and when I get a whiff of Buttercup’s jelly sandals the scented plastic brings me back to my childhood afternoons playing with my Cupcake doll. The right scent can lighten your mood, enhance your focus, or calm you down.

Scented candles are an easy way to make things smelly, and the gentle flame can be soothing. In an office or have rambunctiously small humans around with no self-preservation instinct? Get an oil diffuser (this is the one I have, and I love it) and some essential oils! Lavender, lemon, and peppermint are all good scents to calm you down or perk you up and are on the inexpensive side. Or just take the cap off the oil and take a whiff when the mood strikes you.

4. Hugs

Social contact is hugely important and radically underrated. Physical contact with other humans boosts oxytocin in the brain, the hormone responsible for making us feel safe, loved, and connected. Ever notice that when you’re having an epically bad day and your bestie gives you a big hug you do feel a bit better? Or when you’ve had a fight with your spouse you begrudgingly have to admit to yourself that you feel a bit more connected after you’ve hugged it out? I mean, they’re still wrong, but you feel better, right? That would be the oxytocin talking, letting you know that you still have a tribe to fall back on and you’re not all alone in the unforgiving wilderness of modern society. Touch gives us a comfort that we can’t wholly obtain through social media, texting, or the phone (do people still phone?)

To get the most out of contact with other humans, make it a point to be a hugger. I am not a natural hugger, but I am slowly working on this skill for myself. Live alone or at the office all the time where it would be super awkward to give your boss a hug? Even booking a massage or mani-pedi will give you a quick boost of human-to-human contact that your body will interpret as healing touch (I sometimes do this if I’m travelling and am not around my family and friends for a while) and give you a quick boost of the warm-fuzzies. Let’s make America huggy again!

5. Food

Yes, food can be a stress relief. Here me out, this is one area I’ve been playing around with lately.

When I’m in times of high stress, I tend to eat less healthy and skip meals for the sake of convenience. Which makes my sugar cravings amp up and become unrelenting. It used to be when I felt down or stressed, I would hit up all of the usual culprits – cookies, ice cream, my beloved Safeway sheet cake – and gorge with the opinion that I’m treating myself. Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with choosing to stress eat. It happens. Is it the healthiest option? Probably not. Am I a bad person for falling into this habit? Nope. It’s a habit, and one that I have chosen to evaluate and change because I want to be healthier and I found that this pattern of stress eating was not helping me be healthy because I am totally letting my cravings run the show.

I’ve learned that there is a different between treating yourself in a quick, pleasurable, yet unsustainable way and treating yourself in a kind, more nourishing way that will carry forward and make other life areas better. Both ways can be good in the right context. Sometimes a random Wednesday night cupcake happens, and it’s okay. But other nights a good steak and my favorite tea is more what I need to feel good and cared for, since it’s not only a treat, but one that’s good for my body and health as well.

This is why I list food as a stress relief, but the right kind of food. Adding sugary treats on top of stress will be a brief distraction, but in the long run only make the stress and cravings worse. However, taking the time to make a wholesome, healthy meal for yourself often is what your brain and body need the most. Sometimes a splurge on something that your normally wouldn’t buy feels like a good treat, like some selections of your favorite olives from the olive bar or prosciutto-wrapped melon. Anything that makes you feel like you’re doing something nice for your brain as well as your body.

And that’s what I have for today. Any other go-to stress relieving activities you enjoy?

Go make it a great day!

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