Whether you’re quarantined from your job, searching for work, or working an essential job, the stress of the current situation can get to us all. Social isolation is not natural for anyone, and the added possibility of infection and economic collapse doesn’t do much to make the long days alone or working more tolerable. Of course, there’s always streaming services to binge watch and food to indulge in, but given enough time, even these pleasant activities feel confining and repetitive. The constant undercurrent of stress can do a number on your skin, to say nothing of your overall health, but even thinking of that fact makes it worse. Is there a better way to relax and refresh yourself?
Exercise is a form of physical stress, so it may seem strange that it could lead to mental relaxation. If you don’t exercise regularly, the thought of getting yourself to exercise can actually be intimidating. It’s worth getting over the initial hurdle, however. Exercise influences the pituitary gland to increase endorphins as a response to the physical stress. Why is that good, though? You see, endorphins are neurotransmitters that reduce perception of pain, produce a feeling of euphoria, regulate appetite, and enhance your immune system (not a bad thing to enhance in a pandemic). With higher levels of endorphins, we are less likely to feel the effects of mental stress. Some theories suggest that exercise makes blood flow through your brain more quickly, helping the parts of the brain that control fear, motivation, mood, and other functions to communicate effectively. It has been proven effective in reducing anxiety and depression (among other mental conditions like bipolar disorder) and improving mental capacities, focus, and self-esteem.
As for what type of exercise to do, one study suggests that you do rhythmic, aerobic exercises that use large muscle groups (e.g. cycling, swimming, jogging, or walking) for 15-30 minutes at least three times a week. If you want to improve your cardio strength and save time as well, you may want to try High-Intensity Interval Training. Exercising earlier rather than later may help you sleep more deeply. Try some exercise, pick your favorites, and let your brain refresh itself. Picking an exercise you enjoy can help you do it more consistently, and, of course, it’s just more fun and relaxing.
We are designed to solve problems, and when we don’t have any, we imagine or create more. Trying not to focus on any of your problems by using conventional relaxation methods only works in the short term. Eventually, you’ll start thinking of existing problems or imagine some of your own. In my experience, instead of doing nothing for long periods of time, I feel more relaxed when working on something creative like a story or art project. My experience may be supported by this study, which found that a range of adults reduced their levels of cortisol, a hormone created by stress, after doing an art project for only 45 minutes.
While stress harms health in the long run, creativity and the personality trait that determines it (“openness”) predict a longer lifespan, lower risk of unbalanced metabolic health (which does things like influence your body to gain weight or have a stroke), and better responses to stress. In other words, creative people are just better at relaxing. Jazz musicians examined while improvising music showed increased activity in areas of the brain connected to self-expression and individuality, and lowered activity in areas linked to self-criticism. That finding may not be directly related to stress and relaxation, but I know I certainly don’t feel calm when I’m examining myself. What could be the harm in, say, doing one of those newfangled adult coloring sheets or playing with eyeliner?
Spend Time With Animals (Or At Least Look At Pictures Of Them)
One good thing that has come of this pandemic is that animal shelters are experiencing a dramatic rise in adoptions and foster arrangements. My own local shelter has only two dogs and a cat left up for adoption, and even my father, who has sworn never to get another dog, is starting to want one again. It could just be a mass trend, like panic-buying toilet paper, but I tend to think the people who are adopting animals have the right idea. If you have an animal at home, it could be doing more than just giving you warm, fuzzy feelings.
Interacting with an animal reduces blood pressure and releases oxytocin (a hormone that makes you feel affection and a sense of well-being) immediately, and in the long run calmsanxiety and helps you relax more quickly over time. Even just watching fish swim in a tank can help. Owning pets forces you to have a routine to at least feed and clean them, to say nothing of the need to exercise your larger animals. Routines are healthy for mental well-being. If there’s a group of pet owners you can contact, simply having a pet can give you access to that community. Dogs especially make you more likely to establish social connection—if you’ve been around a dog, you know how people tend to relax and open up when a good ol’ pupper is visible in the vicinity. You could say pets make us more social social animals.
If you can’t get near a physical animal and their physical owner, fine. Looking at pictures of animals for a short time can help you unwind and focus. A study done by researchers in Hiroshima University suggests that adults who spend some time looking at pictures of baby animals are more productive and exact in delicate tasks. I don’t know about you, but I feel much more relaxed when I’m able to do what I need to do without distracting myself or making mistakes. This is most likely because baby mammals look a bit like baby humans: with big eyes, big foreheads, chubby bodies, and round faces. Features like these, the “baby schema,” seem to make want to take care of them and be competent. Availability of cuteness (like readily viewable cute animal pictures) may also help increase satisfaction with your general situation.
Take a Hot Bath (Not a Shower)
I much prefer showers over baths, personally. In order for the bath water to be completely clean, you have to take a shower first (like the Japanese do), and then you’re using quite a lot of time and water. However, it seems that full immersion into warm water really is worth the time. It stimulates the blood and waste elimination, which resulted in less stress, pain, skin blemishes, and self-reported depression in the subjects of one study. Taking an hour-long (!) hot bath burns as many calories as a 30-minute walk (about 140 calories), and the exposure to heat makes your skin release those nice, stress-reducing endorphins we’ve learned so much about. It may also release an anti-inflammatory response in the blood, helping control blood pressure and blood sugar. Sauna bathing, another habit that stimulates the body and relaxes muscles with heat, is connected to lower chances of heart disease and mortality of any cause. One study even suggests that a hot bath before bedtime helps relieve depression just as well as exercise, probably because the heat therapy helps regulate circadian rhythm, which helps sleep.
Luckily for us, there are quite a lot of beauty products aimed at making your bathtime special. Do you remember the bath bomb craze? Those things are still around, you know. You can even make your own, if the price on the originals are too high. There are these things called body scrubs, too, that help exfoliate your dead skin cells even better than the cheap exfoliating shower gels or exfoliating loofahs, though those are good, too. There are few things more refreshing than scrubbing off the dirt and dead things of the day. I enjoy using horse oil soap, which is extremely moisturising and popular in Japan. You would think it smells like horse, but it actually has an almost floral scent.
Take Care of Yourself
Even if you don’t do any of these tips, be sure to pay attention to how you feel and your mental state. All of these tips are only meant to help keep you sane, so be sure to experiment and find what helps you the most. A relaxed existence needs to be won through effort. You won’t have time unless you make it for yourself.
Lauren is a writer who spent two years teaching English in Japan and is curious about skincare products. Though she lives in America now, she is still in love with Tohoku. Her short stories and essays can be found in The Vortex Magazine of Literature and Art and Cirsova.
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