- Stress relief looks different around the world, but a common theme across cultures is doing simple activities in a mindful way.
- Martial arts and meditation seek to quiet the mind and shift focus to breathing.
- Exercise and eating spicy foods trigger the production of euphoria-inducing neurotransmitters.
- Time in nature can have a grounding effect, especially if you leave your phone at home.
Stress is an international phenomenon, but sometimes it feels like Americans are more anxious than most. A 2019 Gallup poll revealed that the US does indeed surpass the global average stress level, and it tied for the fourth most stressed-out country in the world. (Greece was number one.)
Americans could use some international tips on stress relief, which Western cultures tend to view in a very narrow framework, Brooklyn-based psychologist Naydine Johney said.
A lot of the things people do on a daily basis can relieve stress if done mindfully, she said. She finds peace in eating lunch alone, while others might relax while going for a drive.
It all comes down to using your five senses to ground yourself, said Ariel Sank, a licensed social worker who specializes in anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Many stress-relieving practices prompt you to focus on sounds, smells, or sensations in order to shift away from anxious thoughts.
Here are four approaches that may help you find some inner peace.
Martial arts requires mastery of the body and mind
Martial arts like karate, taekwondo, and aikido are popular in Asian cultures as a way to train the body, mind, and spirit. This type of mental and physical exercise not only makes you feel good in the moment, but can also set you up to better deal with stressful situations.
The physical activity involved in martial arts causes the body to release endorphins, the neurotransmitters associated with a runner’s high. But the mental training and focus are just as important as the exercise, Johney said.
“It does incorporate a lot of physical components, and it does include that mental aspect, especially when it comes to breathing and really concentrating, zoning in on what you’re doing,” Johney said. “When you combine those two things it does wonders for the body.”
People tend to take short, shallow breaths when they’re stressed, so exercises that prompt you to focus on
deeper and longer breathing — like martial arts or yoga — can help tell the body to calm down, she explained.
Forest bathing forces you to put down your stressors and embrace nature
While people across the globe can appreciate being in nature, the practice of shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” originated in Japan. Forest bathing means immersing oneself in nature, and a key part of that is using your five senses, Sank told Insider.
Leaning into how the grass feels under your toes or the sound of leaves rustling in the wind can have a grounding effect, Sank said.
But Johney said some of the peacefulness of forest bathing can be traced back to a crucial first step:
leaving your phone at home.
“It could be just the removal from those stressors that actually causes the drop in cortisol levels,” Johney said. “Maybe it doesn’t have to be nature. Maybe it could just be an escape from the cell phone, the computer, the family conflict, the stressful work environment.”
If you’re unable to get outside due to pandemic restrictions or cold weather, Sank suggested visualizing a peaceful outdoor space with a focus on the five senses for a similarly calming effect — just make sure to unplug first.
Eating spicy food causes your body to produce happy hormones
In Ravi Patel’s Pursuit of Happiness, a series now streaming on HBO Max, the actor traveled to South Korea to try a buffet of stress-relief tactics. On the menu, along with forest bathing and
lying in a coffin, was a three-course meal of spicy food.
People who eat more spicy foods are
less likely to die of heart disease, likely because capsaicin — the chemical in chili peppers — has been found to decrease inflammation. Consuming spicy foods also causes boosts in
happy-making neurotransmitters like serotonin and
“Stress can be mental and physical,” Johney said. “Just that act of eating spicy food already increases the amount of endorphins you have in your system, which means you’re going to feel some level of relief.”
Regardless of your tolerance for spice, the introduction of that burning sensation triggers the production of endorphins. Johney said she doesn’t like spicy food herself, but she thinks the mood boost could be worth taking a bite or two of a chili pepper.
Silent meditation teaches you how to make peace with your anxiety
Lobsang Chunzom, Buddhist nun and founder of Limitless Health Institute, told Insider she learned to listen to her thoughts during a three-year solitary silent meditation retreat.
Silent meditation is a popular practice in Buddhism, and
shorter-term retreats have popped up throughout the US and around the world. The goal of silent meditation is to quiet your mind, Chunzom said. But first, you must make peace with your thoughts.
“When you have the thought, it’s the moment after that you hear it,” Chunzom said. “So, then you might ask, and what control do I have over the thought that came that I’m now listening to? This is part of the mental training that you do.”
The idea behind this training is that you can’t change your thoughts, but you can stop to listen and accept them. By acknowledging anxious thoughts rather than fighting them, you can avoid perpetuating your stress, Chunzom said. And you don’t need to spend three years in solitude to try this exercise — anyone can practice a short silent meditation at home.