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Shake it off: How to reduce stress in 10 minutes or less

Colin By Colin Groundwater

Woman looking up at colorful trees

Few things in modern life are quite as stressful as trying to “stop stressing.” You know that at some level your reaction is manageable, that chronic stress is unhealthy, that a minor argument or traffic jam shouldn’t ruin your whole day. And yet, for most of us, shaking off a bad mood isn’t so easy.

Here are five tried-and-true remedies to help you manage your emotions and feel your best self again. The more you use them, the better they work. And most are fast, easy and available to you anytime and anywhere.

Chew gum

Chewing has been shown to reduce stress and improve focus by increasing blood flow to the brain. And sugar-free gum is a healthier substitute for nervous habits like nail-biting, smoking and snacking. “With little to no side effects, I highly recommend it for your stress reduction toolbox,” says Heidi Hanna, executive director of the American Institute of Stress and author of Stressaholic.

Drink tea

Black, white, green, rooibos — many tea varieties have a positive impact on stress and health. Antioxidants fight inflammation, while tannins soothe digestion. But what makes unsweetened tea a first-rate stress-reliever is the dual action of caffeine and an amino acid called theanine. Tea’s low caffeine level boosts your focus, while theanine acts as a sedative. The result is a relaxed alertness that keeps you going during that mid-afternoon slump — also known as “tea-time.” Find more tips on staying focused at work.

Get outside

A new book called The Nature Fix explains the latest research into the human need for “nature contact.” Nature walks have been shown to lower stress levels and clear the mind, unrelated to any aerobic benefits. Even the suggestion of natural settings can trigger a similar (though less intense) response. A 10-minute walk in the park at lunch can refresh your outlook after a tough morning in the office. If getting outside isn’t possible, sit next to a sunny window — and perhaps plan your next vacation to a national park.

Practice good scents

Fragrance can have a powerful effect on mood. Lavender is best known for its sedative powers and has been used as a remedy for insomnia, anxiety and pain for hundreds of years. If you can find fresh lavender, fold it into a piece of scrap cloth to make a sachet. Stash it in a pocket or purse, and inhale the scent when you’re feeling overwhelmed. You can also breathe in the scent of lavender essential oil, often sold in tiny bottles.

Not a fan of lavender? Other scents with reputed stress-fighting properties include peppermint, jasmine, chamomile, and citrus. Our sense of smell is closely connected to memory, so a cherished scent from childhood — your mother’s perfume, baby shampoo — may also provide relief. Read more about how fragrance and other mood boosters can help you heal faster.

Pay attention to your breathing

“Without noticing, most people slip into a shallow breathing rate in the busyness of the day that mimics that of the stress response,” explains Hanna. By shifting from unconscious to conscious breathing, you can take control of your stress response.

“Awareness of our breathing helps to rebalance body and mind,” says Cheryl Jones, Aetna’s mindfulness director and a longtime wellness coach. “In mindfulness practice, there’s no ‘correct’ way to breathe, no technique.” Read more about mindfulness.

Simply notice how it feels to inhale and exhale. Notice where you feel your breath: at your lips or nostrils, in your chest or belly. Your breathing may be deep or shallow, smooth or choppy. Paying attention to the breath has been shown to slow the heartbeat and lower blood pressure, which will help you feel less stressed.

About the author

Colin Groundwater is a writer from New Jersey living in Brooklyn. He’s training to run a half-marathon.