Sometimes even our best efforts to stay calm and collected fail to keep us from yelling at a jerk who cuts us off in traffic (and totally can’t hear us) or diving face first into a family-size bag of Cheetos after a rough day at the office. We all know stress is bad for us, but sadly, that doesn’t stop it from creeping up whenever it wishes.
The trouble starts with a hormone called cortisol—the chemical secreted by your adrenal glands that’s responsible for how you react to stress. Ideally, your cortisol level should be at its highest in the morning and drop off throughout the day so you can drift off to sleep easily at night, says Maura Henninger, board-certified naturopathic doctor in New York City. “But with chronic stress, cortisol can become deregulated: high at the times of day when you don’t want it to be, and causing a slew of health problems,” she says.
We’re talkin’ tummy troubles, headaches, sleeplessness, and irritability—yep, these are just some of the potential side effects you have to look forward to when you’re feeling frazzled, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. The good news is that there are some easy strategies you can adopt to kick that tension to the curb. Below, find 12 natural ways to de-stress, straight from the experts. Just one thing: Promise us you’ll actually use them after you’re done reading!
1. Set the Tone for Your Day
“In the morning, ask yourself: What am I grateful for? It’s transformative and so easy. There’s even an app that can remind you to answer the question every day. You can condition your brain to think in terms of abundance, setting a positive intention for the day.”
—Dina Kaplan, founder of The Path, a meditation studio in New York City
2. Add Wild Blueberries to Your Morning Smoothie
“Pop some wild blueberries for a mood boost. These small berries are higher in antioxidants and lower in sugar than regular blueberries (though those are good, too). These antioxidants help to produce dopamine, a neurotransmitter that affects mood. Find them in the frozen section of your market.”
—Lauren Slayton, R.D., creator of Foodtrainers and author of The Little Book of Thin
3. Take a Meditation Break
“One of the most effective ways to reduce stress and interrupt the stress cycle is through the practice of meditation. Regularly practicing meditation can actually rewire the brain to be less stressed. Sit in a comfortable position, gently lower your eyelids, and bring all your attention to the feeling of your breath moving in and out of your body. You may want to notice the length of your in-breath and out-breath, without changing anything. Any time your mind wanders, gently bring your attention back to your breath. It’s natural for our minds to wander, and that’s OK. Repeatedly bringing your attention back to your breath will help build your power of awareness—and your ability to release stress. Continue with this practice for a few minutes or longer.”
—Joy Rains, meditation teacher in Washington, D.C., and author of Meditation Illuminated: Simple Ways to Manage Your Mind
4. Ditch the Coffee…
“Sometimes what we take out is as important as what we add in. I encourage people who are chronically stressed to drop caffeine out of their lives. Coffee increases adrenaline and cortisol, and when someone is already in a high cortisol state, coffee will only make it worse.”
5. …And Sip on Turmeric Instead
Turmeric, that yellow spice (that isn’t spicy), is excellent for both brain health and mood. You can sprinkle turmeric on eggs or vegetables. You can also add a ½ teaspoon to water to make a tea.”
6. Get Moving
“If you’re feeling really stressed, get up and take a quick walk—even if it’s just to the water cooler. If you can get up and go sit in a park for a few minutes or take a half-hour to do something fun that you enjoy, that’s even better. Getting out in natural light can shift your energy and mood immediately.”
7. Consider Taking a Supplement
“There is a vast array of supplemental support that can help with stress management. The herb ashwagandha supports the immune system and energy levels, and is great for managing stress levels. You’ll also want to make sure you’re getting your fill of essential vitamins like B vitamins, which support nervous system health and mood, and the antioxidant vitamin C, which combats stress put on our cells by free radicals. Homeopathic treatments such as Bach Rescue Remedy, which is made from the essences of calming flowers, can work well to calm the nervous system as well.”
—Abby Kramer, chiropractor and holistic physician at the Be Holistic Health Center in Glenview, Illinois
8. Treat Yourself to a Massage
“Multiple studies—like this one, published in the International Journal of Neuroscience— have shown that massage lowers cortisol quickly and raises dopamine and serotonin (feel-good neurotransmitters). And who doesn’t feel great after a massage?”
9. Snack on Pumpkin Seeds
“The mineral magnesium helps promote hormone balance, metabolism, mood, and much more. But stress can actually deplete you of magnesium, and most people are already running low. One of the best food sources of magnesium is pumpkin seeds (a.k.a. pepitas). Toss them on your salad or have a handful (about an ounce) for a snack in the afternoon.”
10. Surround Yourself with the Right Crew
“Try to avoid negative people and interact with positive people as much as possible.
Negative people bring down morale and add to stress levels. Whether they are angry or antagonistic or apathetic, they equally can affect your mood and your health.”
—Carolyn Dean, M.D., stress management expert and author of The Magnesium Miracle
10. Say Sayonara to Sugar
“Sugar increases the output of stress hormones and can lead to extra stress on our adrenal glands. By cutting down on sugar, many people experience fewer food cravings, more balanced blood sugar and metabolism, and reduced anxiety.”
11. Ditch Plain Yogurt in Favor of Kefir
“Probiotic or fermented foods can potentially provide a mood boost, since most of our serotonin is produced in our gut. Plain yogurt is one option, but I’d branch out and try kefir, a fermented milk drink that’s like drinking yogurt. Kefir is found right near yogurt in the market and has 10 times more probiotics than yogurt does.”
12. Soothe Yourself to Sleep
“At night, try to focus your mind on the comfort of feeling gravity pull your body into your bed. This is soothing, as it may remind you of the feeling of being swaddled as a child.”
If it feels like you’ve tried just about every herbal remedy, deep-breathing exercise, and mood-boosting snack, and you’re still stressed out, consider scheduling time with an M.D. “When stress and anxiety are starting to make your life unmanageable and self-administered therapies aren’t improving how you feel, it’s time to see a doc,” says Henninger.
Pin this handy graphic for the next time stress starts getting in your head: