More than any other time in history, humans today are endowed with a multitude of time-saving conveniences that make our lives light years easier than those of our ancestors. Mothers aren’t burdened with cloth diapering, handwashing clothes or boiling glass baby bottles. Office workers don’t have to struggle with correction tape, rubber stamps and licking paper envelopes. (Remember that horrid taste?) These days, we can take phone calls anywhere at any time. And if needed, a person as young as five can microwave a previously frozen meal in about two minutes with pretty edible results.
If our great grandparents had known about all the automation, information and robotic vacuuming that would someday be at our disposal, they might have predicted a serene and carefree existence for all of us today. But somehow, a charmed lifestyle has continued to elude us. Amid all of our apparent blessings, we seem to have less time, less money and less patience than we need. All of which undoubtedly result in an abundance of stress.
We know the general ways to reduce stress in our lives: eat better, exercise more, work smarter not harder, etc. But how about a few fun ways to lower the boiling point? What kinds of things might bring joy to our lives as well as reduce our stress levels? The following is a short list of things you can do to this week that are actually proven to significantly help ease stress and tension.
#1 – Drive Faster! Please don’t start a drag race on your local roads. But search “public car racing” online for a listing of nearby open racetracks where you can race your own car, or rent the dream car of your choice and throw it into high gear. You’ll receive plenty of training and possibly some protective gear before they give you the green light.
Why it works: In the same way that vigorous exercise can promote the release of feel-good endorphins, doing something exhilarating (like driving 100 miles per hour) can also cause the body to release endorphins. Instead of allowing pent up adrenaline (the kind that brings out our forehead veins) to drain our bodies and cause mood crashes, jumping behind the wheel of a racecar, after a long day at the office, gives us an opportunity to respond in “fight mode” and use some of that adrenaline proactively.
#2 – Blow bubbles. Unless you’re on the way to your in-laws for a Sunday roast with an extra serving of disapproval, stopped traffic is not a good thing. I heard this trick a long time ago and it’s surprisingly helpful in frustrating situations. Keep a small sealed container of bubbles in the glove box of your car. When you find yourself in a mess of traffic that won’t move, put the car in park. Get the bubbles out. And begin blowing them out your window.
Why it works: Bubble blowing helps you relieve stress in just the opposite way as fast driving and pushing your limit at the gym. The “fight or flight” response that comes to us, when we lose control of a situation, demands action. Blowing bubbles answers the demand by providing a physical release as we blow out. And those glistening, clear, soapy spheres are symbolic of our flight. We relinquish control and begin to experience carelessness as we see the bubbles float out the window.
#3 – Have sex. Yep – I’m going there. Try to make sure you’re getting some action at a minimum of 3 times a week. The best times to sneak in an orgasm (with or without a partner) are first thing in the morning and right before you close your eyes to sleep. You’re on a mattress – after all. Why not relieve some stress?
Why it works: Climactic sex causes the body to release oxytocin. Oxytocin is the bliss-inducing hormone secreted by the pituitary gland that promotes relaxation, makes you feel content, safe and more sociable.
#4 – Chew gum. Gum chewing is easy, fun and great for taking the edge off. There are several natural brands out there these days too. Avoid the kind with sugar and aspartame. Instead, try chewing gum with xylitol. (Although it sounds lab created, xylitol is a crystalline sweetener derived from certain plant tissues. It’s great for dental health too.)
Why it works: Japanese researchers have found that cortisol levels are significantly lowered after chewing gum for at least 10 minutes. Cortisol is a steroid hormone released in response to stress. Other researchers have noted that chewing gum activates the vagus nerve in the brain, which controls the heart, lungs and digestive systems. The rhythmic motion of chewing gum can calm the nerves and reduce a rapid heart rate and high blood pressure.
#5 – Go away. A weekend get-away to a nearby town can be the perfect antidote for a hectic week. Book a room for a couple of nights, in a city that appeals to you, and get going. Avoid taking work along with you. Limit email and social media checks to once a day (if you must). Eliminate financial concerns by packing food for the road. And select a hotel room with a mini-kitchen and free breakfast. Then all you’ll have to consider is which pair of tacky flip-flops to wear to the pool.
Why it works: A well planned vacation provides the traveler with a fresh change of scenery and a break from the hum-drum of day to day life. Research shows that the positive effects of a trip away can be felt even weeks after the travel has been completed. A little excursion provides respite from general responsibilities and intricacies of daily life. When you’re on a trip, there’s no daily delivery of junk mail to throw away; you don’t have to make the bed; and (perhaps best of all) there’s no alarm clock to set!
#6 – Pay for someone’s coffee. Have you ever pulled into the drive-through at a coffee shop and the cashier tells you that the nice guy in front of you has paid for your drink? If you want some mega-stress reduction, try being the guy who picks up the tab for a veteran. Or anonymously pay the electric bill for a family who is struggling down the street. Find a group who is feeding the homeless and go do it with them. Visit a nursing home with your kids and have them hand out original artwork and free hugs. You get the idea. It can be challenging to make time for benevolence, but once you do it – you’ll be hooked (and less stressed).
Why it works: There’s been a great deal of research done on “random acts of kindness.” And studies show that the benefactor reaps so much more from throwing kindness around than the recipient of the gifts. Increased energy, balanced cortisol levels, lower blood pressure and diminished pain are some of the well-documented benefits of sacrificial giving. It’s amazing that doing simple good deeds can be so instantly gratifying for the giver.
#7 – Put on a smock. If you have trouble drawing a convincing smiley face – maybe a sketch pad isn’t for you. But a coloring book might be right up your alley. And finger painting is not just for preschoolers. Find a medium with which you’d like to work and dive in. Search the web for some free video tutorials to help you get started. Arts and crafts are excellent creative outlets that can provide the perfect mental vacation. Don’t feel obligated to keep your masterpieces. If they’re amazing, put them on your fridge or frame them and hang them over the sofa. But if the paintbrush wielding Bullmastiff on Instagram is putting out better portraits than you, just throw them out. The finished product isn’t the important part here. The act of creating is what can ease your tension after work.
Why it works: Deep in the human brain’s temporal lobes, sits a group of cells called the amygdala. The amygdala is part of the limbic system that maintains our survival emotions – like anger and fear. Craft projects with repetitive motions like knitting, crocheting or building a house of toothpicks encourage relaxation that causes the amygdala to slow down a bit – calming those survival emotions and giving the “fight or flight” response a rest. Other art activities like drawing, painting and sculpting have been shown to calm the nerves, lower blood pressure and reduce anxiety in study participants. Apparently the famous artist, Pablo Picasso already knew this and said, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”
Whether you’re a stay at home mom, a working parent, an empty-nester, a newlywed or a single college student, life is hard. Pressure and worries surround all of us. Stress is something that we know causes immune suppression and ultimately disease. So when you feel like you’ve just had enough, give one of these fun ideas a whirl. Who knew fast driving, gum chewing, and giving people gifts could actually improve your state of mind?
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Rick Kaselj, MS