Sixty percent of Americans experience daily stress and worry, according to a new Gallup poll. The survey reveals what Gallup labels an “unprecedented” surge in the number of anxious Americans, sparked by the financial and medical fears brought on by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. While it’s extremely understandable to feel tense during this very strange and frightening time, chronic stress can take a toll on your cardiovascular health. In fact, a large study conducted in 52 countries around the world found that psychological factors, including stress, nearly tripled risk for a heart attack!
The good news, however, is that even in this stressful era, there are simple, but remarkably effective ways to dial down tension and anxiety while also improving your mood, sleep, blood pressure, levels of inflammation and other markers of arterial and health. Here’s a look at seven simple stress-busters that are backed by solid science, some of which take in effect in just 60 seconds!
- Practice mindful meditation. Mindfulness involves focusing on the present moment in an open, nonjudgmental way, while letting stressful thoughts about the past or future drift away. Many studies have reported a wide range of health benefits from this simple practice, including lower risk for age-related mental decline, reductions in blood pressure, decreased blood markers of inflammation, decreased chest pain in heart patients, and improved mood. Try a basic meditation such as this: Sit quietly for 10 minutes and pay attention to your breathing or a mantra (focus word) that you repeat silently as you allow distracting thoughts or worries to drift away like wisps of smoke. You may find it helpful to gaze at a meditation object, such as a smooth stone.
- Light up your life. For the best effects, do this first thing in the morning; raise the shades, let the sunlight in and, if possible, have breakfast close to a window that lets in lots of light. Researchers at the University of Toronto suggest that lightening up can boost your mood for the whole day, help you to sleep better and keep you alert.
- Laugh. It’s no joke: A good laugh expands blood vessels and increases blood flow to the heart, a recent study found. Laughter yoga, which combines deep yogic breathing and self-triggered mirth, is also a great way to relax after a stressful day. A recent study also found that after just three weeks of laughter yoga, study participants had significant drops in blood pressure.
- Plant a flower — or grow a garden. In a Dutch study, volunteers were divided into two groups. Both groups were asked to perform a stressful task, but one group was also randomly assigned to 30 minutes of indoor or outdoor gardening afterwards. Those who had the opportunity to garden had significantly lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, leading the researchers to conclude that working with plants provides effective relief from acute stress.
- Have a cup of tea. This quintessentially British response to good news, bad news, stress, and just about any blip on the horizon really does work. Researchers at University College London found that people who drank black tea four times a day for six weeks had lower blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol after stressful tasks than those who drank a beverage that tasted just like tea but contained none of tea’s components. While the researchers didn’t identify the natural chemicals in tea responsible for the stress-busting effect, they said that the study showed that drinking tea quickly brought stress levels back to normal.
- Play your favorite song. Listening to enjoyable music (this will vary from one individual to another) can dilate (widen) arteries, increasing blood flow as much as statin medication or aerobic exercise, according to a study presented at the American Heart Association Scientific Sessions. Music also has beneficial effects on blood pressure and heart rate — but only if you listen to classical or meditation music. The study suggested that heavy metal or techno music is ineffective.
- Count your blessings: Sounds corny, but researchers at UCLA showed that focusing on what’s really important to you can diffuse stress. Here’s how: They recruited 85 volunteers and asked them to fill out a questionnaire ranking their values from what matters most to what matters least. Half the volunteers were then asked to give a five-minute talk about what matters most to them in front of a heckling audience and the other half talked about what matters least. Before and after the speeches, the researchers measured levels of cortisol in all the students. The ones who affirmed their values had lower levels, despite the stressful situation, than the ones who spoke about non-meaningful values. Also try reminding yourself every day of the things great and small for which you are grateful.