Stress and anxiety isn't just uncomfortable--it can be debilitating. Around 40 million adults in the U.S. alone suffer from anxiety disorders, which are the most common mental illnesses in the country.
Fortunately, anxiety is very treatable. Here are some proven ways to calm down and lighten up:
Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says mindfulness meditation is perfect for reducing anxiety both short- and long-term:
"People with anxiety have a problem dealing with distracting thoughts that have too much power ... You might think 'I'm late, I might lose my job if I don't get there on time, and it will be a disaster!' Mindfulness teaches you to recognize, 'Oh, there's that thought again. I've been here before. But it's just that--a thought, and not a part of my core self.'"
Research shows you only need 10-15 minutes of meditation per day to get the health benefits, which includes reducing stress hormone levels, increasing serotonin, and strengthening your ability to let go of thoughts that don't serve you. Download a meditation app like Calm or Headspace to get started.
2. Go forest bathing
From 2004 to 2012, Japanese officials spent $4 million studying the physiological impact of "forest bathing", which just means spending time around trees. They found that it reduces anxiety, boosts your immune system, and amplifies feelings of wellbeing.
You don't need to go to a heavily forested area, either. People in cities get the same benefits in a park. Like meditation, you don't need a lot of exposure to get the health effects--you just need regular contact.
Scientists say part of the reason for the reduction of anxiety has to with the essential oils trees emit, aka phytoncide. Breathing in tree air doesn't just feel fresher--it actually is; it boosts your intake of phytoncide, which improves your overall health.
3. Chew gum
Multitasking is generally bad for anxiety, but if you're going to do it, get yourself some Juicy Fruit.
A study out of Swinburne University found that people who chew gum while multitasking under stress had lower cortisol levels, reduced levels of stress and anxiety, and increased levels of alertness and performance.
Another found that chewing gum can improve a negative mood, and increase levels of peace and calm. Scientists don't know precisely why, but believe it's because chewing gum tends to improve blood flow in the brain.
According to psychologist L. Kevin Chapman, PhD, "When we experience stress and the negative emotions associated with it, we typically stay in our own heads and do little to address our thinking."
Instead of hanging out with toxic thoughts, he suggests reducing anxiety with "objective recording." Here's how you do it: Draw a line down the middle of a sheet of paper. Mark the left column, "Negative things I'm saying to myself." Mark the right, "Alternatives." Fill out both.
"When we simply acknowledge what we're saying to ourselves out of stress, we often realize how silly we are being," says Chapman.
Multiple studies back up the idea that writing out your thoughts and feelings helps you process emotions in a healthy way, significantly reducing anxiety. One study showed that people who journaled about upsetting events for just 20 minutes a day for three days healed from physical wounds over 75 percent faster than the control group.
Another showed that college students who engaged in expressive writing experienced less depression, anxiety, and stress after two months than control students.
5. Get enough sleep
If you take nothing else away from this, hear this: If you're prone to anxiety, it's critical that you get enough sleep.
According to neuroscientists out of UC Berkeley, when you don't get enough sleep, your brain's amygdala and insular cortex both light up in a pattern similar to the abnormal neural activity of people with anxiety disorders.
Senior study author Matthew Walker says, "These findings help us realize that those people who are anxious by nature are the same people who will suffer the greatest harm from sleep deprivation."
In other words, if you're anxious, you're far more likely to develop a full-on anxiety disorder if you don't get enough sleep regularly. It's vital that your brain gets the rest you need.
Laughter is an easy, cheap, and surprisingly effective way of reducing anxiety and boosting mood. The Mayo Clinic says laughing stimulates your heart and lungs, bringing in lots of oxygen-rich air. It also ups your endorphins, the brain's feel-good neurotransmitter, and improves your immune functioning.
Multiple studies show that while laughter initially triggers your stress response (causing your heart rate and blood pressure to spike), when it subsides it calms your nervous system down to a point where you feel not just relaxed, but relaxed and happy.
My favorite way to get in a quick laugh is to watch news bloopers.
7. Check your email less
Researchers out of University of British Columbia took 124 study participants and had one group limit how often they checked their email (to three times a day only). The other group could check as often as they wanted.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, researchers found that people were less stressed when they checked their email less frequently.
The key here is to limit how often you're doing it. It's not about neglecting your duties, but about not jumping every time you see an email notification pop up on your phone.
Consider taking all that time you're saving by not checking your email to meditate, journal, take a forest bath, and/or watch a funny video.
You'll be the most relaxed person in the office in no time