August 14, 2018

Science-Backed Ways to Feel Better and Be More Productive

How to unwind and feel better right now.

When I think of being ‘wound up,’ I see myself when I’m stressed, decision fatigued, irritable, tense, mentally buzzing, overwhelmed, or simply done.

Some of us exist in a state of ‘wound up’ for weeks, months, even years, depending on the situations we’re dealt.

Unless you’ve sought the advice of a guru or gone to some kind of spiritual wellness retreat, unwinding may seem like an unclear concept. Should you meditate? How do you meditate? Should you take up yoga?

Sometimes just the thought of figuring out how to relax is stressful, and feels like a whole new task to add to your busy to-do list.

One popular way we seem to unwind is to wine down, or otherwise celebrate the end of the day with a glass or two of wine. But this is by no means perfect.

Ultimately, using alcohol (or other substances, or even food) to regulate your mood and make you feel relaxed is not really good for you. It simply dulls your senses, rather than actually relieving your stress. And sometimes the aftereffects (a hangover, getting a bad night’s sleep, etc) can actually end up adding to your stress.

Further exploration in to the science of relaxation has helped me gather a series of substance-free steps for chilling out and unwinding at any time of day.

In this article, there are two activities that you can add to your toolbox and use anytime of day, anywhere. There is also a list of quick mental and physical resets that, when you need an extra boost beyond what the exercises provide, you can create a bit of time to give back to yourself.

1. When your mind is racing with busy thoughts

After an exciting day or a hectic round of errands, it’s easy to get wound up. To feel wired. If the voice in your head can’t stop talking and worrying and reminding you of the million things you still have to do – it’s time to turn it off. Rather than reaching for something outside yourself to calm you down, turn inward.

Practice deep breathing

Start with eyes open, and begin to notice your breath. There’s no need to change, control, or count it just yet. Simply notice that there is air entering and exiting you. Close your eyes to achieve an even deeper focus.

Close your mouth, and now breathe through your nose. Even as you read this, notice your breath and practice nasal breathing.

Empty all of the air out of your lungs on the next exhale. Slowly inhale to the count of 5. Pause at the top of your inhale for 1 second, belly expanded and chest lifted, filled with air, and exhale to the count of 6.

By exhaling slightly slower than the inhale, you’re signalling to your brain that the stressors are gone, your adrenaline can mellow out, and your heart rate can begin to slow.

When you physically slow down your body, your brain receives the information that it is now safe to slow down your mind. You are literally creating a state of relaxation for your whole body, just by doing this one thing.

After a few 5-1-6 breaths, expand your capacity. You’ll notice that you can naturally inhale, pause, and exhale for a count or two more than before. This will increase until you hit your peak for that day, which changes each time you do this exercise. Try to get yourself to a 6-4-8 breath in your first go, and continue working up from there.

Remind yourself that breathwork is not competitive. Beating your best time or maintaining an average is not the goal. The goal is to slow the heart rate, calm the mind, and reset your mental state.

Keep this breathwork with you and utilize it any time you feel stressed, fatigued, or otherwise wound up. It will be your companion when you feel like your body and mind are a runaway train.

2. When you’re fatigued: by decisions, by challenges, life, or even a poor night’s sleep

In moments of tiredness, the first thought for many is a quick jolt of caffeine. The luxury of a latte or a fine tea is not lost on me, but having the power to rejuvenate myself without purchasing or preparing something is a great resource.

Adjust your alignment and reset

Start by standing upright, hands by your sides, with your feet hip-width apart. Look down your legs to make sure you aren’t taking too wide a stance (we tend to overestimate how wide our hips are). Hang your hands by your sides, and close your eyes.

Acknowledge your breathing, but make no effort to change or control it. You will maintain a normal breath through this whole exercise.

Now try relaxing just your forehead, the area surrounding your eyes, and your ears. Do so consciously, and relinquish the need to control exactly what your face looks like. Relax your jaw. Your mouth may hang open, and that is totally okay.

Moving down your frame, relax your shoulders away from your ears, feeling your hands become heavy. Release the stress from your elbows, wrists, and fingers, letting them hang loosely. Give them a gentle shake. Relax your chest and your abdomen. Create a microbend in your knees.

Then slowly hinge forward at the hips, bending your knees to remove any tensions from your low back or behind your legs. Allow your shoulders, neck, and head to fold over – hunched, but without tension. Fold all the way forward over your thighs, and let the top half of your body just hang there.

Folded over, grab opposite elbows and frame your hanging head. Move your upper torso side-to-side, forward-and-back. Nod your head ‘yes,’ and ‘no.’ Hang inverted in this way for at least 60 seconds.

When you’re ready to rise, slowly roll-up, one vertebra at a time, as if you were a rising cobra. Let your arms drape loosely to your sides, lift gently through the chest, and let your head be the last thing to stand upright.

Immediately reach up and stretch your hands toward the sky, splaying your fingertips and creating a slight arch in your upper back. Open your arms wide and circle them down by your sides, giving your shoulders and chest a broadening stretch. With your hands by your side, take a single deep breath in, filling your lungs to capacity.

Exhale, open your eyes, and feel the recirculation of your blood reinvigorate your senses and boost your mental clarity.

This practice stretches out your entire body, including some of the biggest places where we all hold stress: shoulders, back, hips, legs. Plus, by getting your head below your heart, you are encouraging fresh, oxygenated blood towards your brain where it can rejuvenate your state of mind.

In addition, the act of folding forward stimulates your spine and relaxes your nervous system by creating space between your vertebrae. You can’t help but feel better in your body after a little forward folding.

Other easy ways to do a mental, physical, or environmental reset

When you feel yourself wound up and unable to relax, employ one or more of these easy resets, paying attention to how you feel before, during, and after.

  • Take a 5 minute walk outside, even if it is just to the parking lot and back. While walking, practice the focused breathing exercise.
  • If you have access to a park nearby, head to a grassy area, remove your shoes, and practice either the focused breathing or reinvigorating forward fold with your bare feet in contact with the earth.
  • Do a brain dump. Open your notebook and set a timer for 5 minutes. Write down every thought in your mind as they come to you. Don’t focus on their relation, their implications, or even why you are writing them. Simply unload your brain and create space.
  • Reflexology uses pressure points on your feet to unlock healing energy – and you can do it yourself. Here’s an easy one: remove your shoe, and place something round underneath the ball of your foot like a tennis or lacrosse ball. Massage the center of the ball of your foot and roll the ball down the arch of your foot to relieve stress and tension.
  • If you have access to a freezer, grab an ice pack or wet washcloth to freeze. Place the frozen item at the nape of your neck, on your chest, or beneath your feet to lower body temperature just enough to cool your heart stress to a minimum.
  • Consider if you are hungry or thirsty at the time you’re wound up. Or maybe you are overfull! When overfull, a walk will do wonders. When hungry, thirsty, or feeling like you’ve had too much stimulating food (sugary, salty, spicy), a small protein-forward snack will help balance your blood sugar and lead to a calmer mind. Go for something like lean meat, cheese, or even hummus.
  • You might just need to let it out. Call a friend, a loved one, or a counselor to clear your mind the old-fashioned way, by sharing. Talk through your day, what is stressing you, or what has you so hyped up you can barely sit still. Sometimes putting words to your stress makes it seem less huge.
  • Expand on the forward-fold stretching activity and do a quick YouTube search for a beginner’s yoga flow. Even if you’ve never done yoga, stretching out on your carpet in comfy clothes can do wonders for the mind. Remember when doing any kind of yoga, especially while watching others: enjoy your practice as it is, and don’t force yourself to look like anyone else. Simply breathe and do what feels good.

It helps to think about what was happening just before you decided you needed a reset. Is there a person, place, or event that regularly causes you to feel stressed, anxious, or wound up? While these fixes can help you feel better in the moment, the long-term fix of addressing the root cause of your stress is worth working on as well.

However, no life is totally free from stress and there is only so much we can do to avoid it. But by implementing more unwinding activities into your daily habits over time, your body will learn that for every stressful experience you have, there can be an equally relaxing one too.

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