Don’t you get annoyed with the million and one articles on the internet telling you how bad stress is for you, and how you should really, you know… get rid of it?
For most of us, there’s no way to avoid stress. It comes included with modern life, like the crappy toy in the cereal box nobody really wants. Then we’re told it’s bad for us. So what to do about it?
A little stress is good. It’s a challenge that keeps us interested. It’s that project we’re excited by, but also feels slightly out of reach. That’s good stress.
Bad stress (the type associated with reduced immune response and higher disease rates) is defined as that type of pressure that goes beyond what’s pleasurable or enjoyably challenging. In particular, work situations or deadlines that feel out of control and beyond what we’re capable of – those are typically the things that drive most of us into that all-too familiar state of being stressed out.
Like everyone else, I experience my fair share of anxiety and tension during times of stress. But I’ve never been attracted to the “numbing out” quality of drugs – whether they be pharmaceutical or recreational.
I’ve always been more experiential and interested in the natural world… so I’ve always been attracted to natural remedies.
Over the years, I’ve tried lots of different natural methods to de-stress and chill out – some traditional and some more new-fangled. As I contemplated which ones have worked best for me, I realized they’re definitely the “wacky” ones.
Allow me, then, to share my favorite “weird” ways to relax, chill out and create a sense of peace. Try them sometime when you’re feeling adventurous!
Take a Peppermint Bath
Back when I was training as an actor in New York, I used to work at law firms to pay the bills. Law firms are popular as bread-and-butter gigs with actors because they have round-the-clock typing pools, so you can work at night and go on auditions during the day.
At one particular firm (where I was working the day shift), I worked a desk covering five different attorneys, and they piled my inbox astonishingly high with paperwork. No matter how fast or furiously my fingers flew across the keyboard all day, I could not get the work finished. I was young and lacked the confidence to set reasonable boundaries or speak up for myself, so they harangued me that I wasn’t doing a good enough job. (The firm was notoriously cheap and would rather gripe at me than hire another typist!) I left the office every day feeling completely overwhelmed and stressed out.
On one particularly grueling day, I arrived home and was totally, 100% fried. I remember thinking, “This is beyond a martini.” It was then that I remembered something I’d read in a book called Ten Essential Herbs, which has since become a well-loved bible on my natural healing bookshelf. It’s packed with simple tips on using common household herbs in interesting ways, written by an Arizona herbalist named Lalitha Thomas.
Lalitha suggested taking a “peppermint bath,” which she promised would “soothe my nerves and emotions.” Bingo.
The instructions went something like this:
- Dump a whole box of peppermint tea bags into a pot of boiling water (a large pot, like a stockpot).
- Turn off the heat, cover and let steep for 10 minutes.
- Remove the teabags from the pot.
- Dump the whole pot of tea into a hot bath.
- Soak in the tub for 20 minutes or more.
This “remedy” struck me as weird, overly simple and unlikely to work, but I was so desperate I tried it anyway. After soaking in the bath for just a few minutes, I became aware of a truly visceral feeling of calm entering my entire body. It was almost like my body had drunk the martini, but my head was clear.
After soaking for about half an hour, I felt deeply relaxed in every corner of my body, yet still alert and somehow stronger. It was (and continues to be) one of the most remarkable remedies I’ve ever employed. I still use it when I need to pull out “the big guns” if I get so stressed out I’m shaky.
The active ingredient in peppermint responsible for this effect is menthol. Menthol is a mild muscle relaxant, and we feel this effect more strongly when soaking in it than when drinking it. Menthol also stimulates the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for mental clarity. (You know how you often feel sharper after a brisk walk? That’s because exercise stimulates the hippocampus.) Peppermint also slows the release of the stress hormone cortisol.
So… want to feel physically relaxed but mentally alert? Be a human teabag, and dunk yourself into a tub of tea.
Hug a Tree
As long as we’re on the subject of baths, let’s talk about another kind of beneficial bath you can take… what the Japanese call “Forest Bathing.”
It’s true. In Tokyo, if you leave the office on a Friday and someone asks you if you have any big plans for the weekend, and you tell them you’re going “forest bathing,” that’s a real thing.
They call it “Shinrin-Yoku” and it’s starting to gain adherents here in the U.S. as well, because it has measurable psychological and physical benefits, such as:
- Improved mood
- Reduced blood pressure
- Increased immune activity
- Accelerated recovery from illness
- Increased ability to focus
Here in the U.S. we also have a history of people communing with trees in this way, we just have a slightly less colorful name for it: Naturalism. Consider this quote from an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“The man comes out of the wrangle of the shop and office, and sees the sky and the woods, and is a man again. In their eternal calm, he finds himself… But how few men see the sky and the woods!”
So c’mon, busy Westerners, let’s get ourselves communing with a little more sky and woods. Here’s how you do it:
- Find your city or town’s nearest forest. A dense park or hiking trail within city limits will do, as long as it’s deep enough that you lose sight of the city and can forget it’s there once you’re doing your forest bathing.
- Leave the screens at home or in a car.
- Be by yourself or with a Shinrin-Yoku group (they will respect the value of silence). If you must bring a friend, pick your least chatty one.
- Be mindful in the woods. Touch. See. Smell. Listen. Remember, the literal translation of Shinrin-Yoku is “Taking in the atmosphere of the forest.”
- Don’t be afraid to hug a tree. (That’s what I usually do!)
There are an increasing number of websites devoted to this, many with local walks being organized for people who want a Shinrin-Yoku guide. This Shinrin-Yoku organization in Sonoma County, California has a good website if you want to learn more. They refer to this ancient type of stress relief as “the medicine of simply being in the forest.”
Groan or Sigh Loudly
Here I’m not referring to a simple humble sigh, but rather vocalizing loudly with the intention of allowing whatever you’re feeling to move out of your body through your voice. The first time I sighed loudly, I was instructed to do so by a new-agey yoga instructor while taking her class in New York City, and I was incredibly embarrassed. I had been taught as a young girl to maintain a small footprint and “not bother people.” But I couldn’t help but notice how much more relaxed my body felt after I indulged in a loud and long sigh, as the teacher instructed.
Later, when I was studying vocal training as an actor, I learned that the vocal chords and muscles of the neck are connected to the pelvis. This is why midwives encourage women who are going through natural childbirth to moan, groan and sigh loudly. Releasing the voice in a free, animalistic way frees up tension in other parts of the body.
Spiritual healers will also tell you that emotions quite literally get “trapped” in the body when they are never given a voice. Some bodyworkers even believe this is what triggers disease states. I believe a withheld voice is a big part of depression for many people. When your emotions are never allowed expression, you are teaching your body-mind to basically “play dead,” which is a good description of what depression feels like.
Nobody wants to be embarrassed by making weird sounds. So how can you work this one into your day-to-day life? Here are a few tips:
Vocalize in the shower
Many of us have indulged our inner Bruce Springsteen or Adele in the shower, and whatever song you’re grooving on is probably a good vehicle for whatever you’re feeling at that moment. But to do this with more intention, try it in the way my yoga teacher suggested: Tune into how you’re feeling at that moment, and give it voice in a loud sigh or sound. Agitated? Nervous? Excited? Sad? Exhausted? Consciously let the feeling be carried out through your vocal chords. Once you get past the initial self-consciousness, most people find this feels really good.
Vocalize in the car
If you live in a car culture, it’s easy to find a private place to do this kind of vocalizing: Your little metal bubble. Take advantage of it! As you sigh and make other big groany sounds, other drivers probably won’t notice – or if they do, they’ll most likely just think you’re cursing at the guy who didn’t make the yellow light in front of you.
Try some fake yelling
What if you take the subway and don’t have your own private car bubble? What if you work in a bustling office and rarely get privacy? Here’s a way I once handled this when I was working in midtown Manhattan and wanted to blow off some vocal tension at lunchtime.
I was walking down a busy street and began to become aware of tension in my throat. (Once you start tuning into how your emotions are connected to your voice, it’s not uncommon to notice a feeling of tension when you chronically “withhold” something – like not informing your boss what an asshole he is, for example). On that particular day, I had the idea to simply pretend to be calling out to a friend walking ahead of me on the street. So I started yelling to this imaginary person: “Hey Joe! Joe! Hang on, wait up!”
Weirder still was that nobody in the crowd around me noticed or cared in the slightest that I was calling out to someone or why. Nobody paid me the slightest mind. Then I began jogging a bit (which also felt great!), as I continued to shout for “Joe” to wait up. The loosening up of my tight throat from the yelling felt really good, and I returned to my office feeling refreshed.
Another socially acceptable way to vocalize loudly is simply to laugh. People who practice “Laughter Yoga” report a marked elevation in mood. One study on “forced laughter” conducted by The Royal Society in the U.K. even went so far as to suggest that laughter creates an “endorphin-mediated opiate effect.”
So next time you hear a bad joke, rather than roll your eyes, laugh loudly! You’re relieving stress.
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The bottom line is, if you get creative, even the wallflowers among us should be able to discover ways to routinely vocalize – loudly and proudly – in everyday life.
Get your hands or feet into dirt
This tip has to do with a phenomenon called grounding. The writer and biohacker Dave Asprey is an adherent of this technique (an avid traveler, he uses it to prevent the exhaustion associated with jet lag). Here’s how he described the science of grounding in a blog post he wrote on the subject:
“The earth has a mild negative charge to it (this part has decent evidence behind it). As you walk around day-to-day, you build up a positive charge in your cells. Back when we were all walking around barefoot and sleeping on the ground, this wasn’t an issue; direct contact with the earth canceled out the positive charge and left us neutral. But now that you wear rubber-soled shoes and sleep indoors, you’re insulated from the earth, and your body doesn’t return to neutral. You just keep building up a positive charge, which saps your energy and causes inflammation and disease (according to the theory, at least).”
I’ve been practicing grounding for a few years now, and I find that after I spend some time barefoot on dirt, I have more energy and usually feel better mentally as well. Especially on a night where I’ve had broken sleep, if I can get hands or feet onto the ground (whether by walking, lying down or sitting in meditation), I definitely feel more “re-charged” than if I just sat on my sofa or on a yoga mat inside the house.
The good thing about grounding is you can do it pretty much anywhere – a city park at lunchtime, for example. You just need to take off your shoes, or not be afraid to place your hands or feet on the bare ground.
I also believe this is why gardeners often report feeling better after gardening. Weeding and other routine gardening tasks usually involve hands touching dirt.
For a more in-depth exploration of the science behind grounding, read the book Earthing by Clinton Ober.
One last odd thing I like to do when I have too many mental bats flapping through the attic of my mind is a well-known yoga pose called Shavasana – otherwise known as “Corpse pose.”
This one really couldn’t be easier. You simply lie down on your back on the floor, with your arms at your sides and your legs straight in front of you, and do nothing.
There’s something about the utter surrender of this pose that is uniquely stress-busting. It stops the “fighting” tendency that is, in effect, the very nature of stress. When we lie down and play dead, we stop trying to “kick ass” or “make a killing.” We allow ourselves to just be for a few minutes.
While you’re pretending to be dead, breathe deeply through the nose, down to your belly, and then out through your mouth. Do this a few times. Then allow your breath to return to normal, and just lie there. Let your body be heavy. Placing an herb-filled eye pillow over your eyes can be helpful to weigh down the little muscles that tighten there, helping them relax. For me, relaxing my eyes invariably signals all my other muscles to relax as well.
Then, do nothing.
A carpeted floor makes this more comfortable, obviously, but if you’re on a hard floor, just grab a towel, blanket or yoga mat to place underneath you. I have done this on the bed as well, and it really is oddly more relaxing on the floor – I think because it more starkly reflects back to you that sense of surrender. Our beds, after all, represent many things to us, not just relaxation or sleep.
(Hey. Get your mind out of the gutter. I was talking about binge-watching Downton Abbey, obviously.)
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Have you ever tried any offbeat relaxation techniques like these? Share them with me in the comments!