How to relieve stress is always a concern, but in summer, the stakes—like the temps—seem higher. But breakthrough science reveals an easy way to bring on calm when summer’s jam-packed days send stress soaring: tapping into the brain’s parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). “The irritable feelings we experience when stressed are triggered by the sympathetic nervous system, which acts like a gas pedal to amp up the fight-or-flight response,” says Helen Odessky, author of Stop Anxiety From Stopping You. “But another part of the nervous system, the PNS, serves as the brake pedal to calm both brain and body.” Even better: Research shows the PNS can be activated at will. Here, simple ways to switch from pressured to peaceful—fast!
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Anxious? Get wet. If planning graduation parties, vacations and other upcoming events has you awash in worries, decompress by cooling your nose and forehead. “Stimulating cold receptors on cranial and trigeminal nerves located in these areas triggers what’s known as the ‘dive reflex,’” notes Mladen Golubic, M.D., Ph.D., medical director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Lifestyle Medicine. “This activates the vagus nerve, a major regulator of PNS activity, to leave you feeling calmer.” To get the anxiety-zapping effects, try splashing cold water on your face or placing a cold wet washcloth over your forehead and the bridge of your nose, taking three deep breaths, then breathing normally for five minutes.
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Overwhelmed? Gaze at greenery. When you’re trapped at your desk and ready to snap, break free with a nature break. “Any exposure to nature, even if it’s looking at photos of landscapes, will trigger a PNS response that calms your own inner landscape,” says naturopath Kurt Beil, head of Hudson Valley Natural Health in Mount Kisco, New York. In fact, in a study from Amsterdam, viewing images of nature on a computer boosted PNS activity by 280 percent to ease stress. Beil advises downloading a screensaver featuring woodland, lake or ocean scenes and gazing at it when pressures mount. For free images, log on to ScreensaversPlanet.com.
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Fearful? Grab a pencil. To tamp down fears that arise when you’re facing a big presentation at work or speaking at a school or charity event, sharpen a cedar pencil (like a Dixon Ticonderoga #2) and sniff its woodsy scent. Japanese research reveals that cedrol, an aromatic compound in cedarwood, acts on nerve receptors in airways that stimulate calming PNS activity, spurring increases of up to 67 percent. Another way to net cedrol’s comforting benefits: Tuck a bottle of cedarwood oil in your purse (Try: Nature’s Truth Aromatherapy Cedarwood Essential Oil, $7 for 15 ml, Amazon.com) so you can sniff as needed.
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Time-pressed? Take a kindness break. Next time you’re seething when you’re stuck in traffic or in a slow line at the store, invest less than a minute to do something nice, suggests David Hamilton, Ph.D., author of The Five Side Effects of Kindness. “Compassionate acts, like letting someone go ahead of you or giving them a kind smile, prompt the brain and heart to release oxytocin, a soothing hormone that enhances PNS activity to reduce anger.” And making kindness a habit armors you against future hassles: In a Yale University study, people who performed at least two kind acts a day had fewer negative emotions, even in the face of stress.
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