25 ways you can really unwind
Is your Christmas more jangle than jingle? Try these instant ways to control your stress levels and concentrate on having fun
Here's a cracker joke to start the festivities rolling. What do you always get for Christmas but never want? The answer, of course, is bucketloads of stress - and given the extra demands on you it's hard to avoid. But what you can do is find ways to defuse the tension. So next time you feel your frown lines deepening, try one of our 25 routes to calm and make it a way of life - choosing serenity over stress can halve your risk of developing diseases such as dementia. And what better Christmas gift could there be than that?
1 Breathe out angst
‘It's a natural tranquilliser for the nervous system,' says Dr Andrew Weil, Professor of Medicine at the University of Arizona. With your tongue just behind your top teeth, breathe out loudly through your mouth. Breathe in through your nose to a count of four, hold for seven, then breathe out through your mouth for eight, as before. Four rounds should do the trick.
2 Massage with soothing oil
Spikenard oil (£10.99 for 10ml, www.candleliteliving.co.uk) has been treasured for its calming properties since biblical times, and with good reason - research shows it can increase the relaxing brain chemical GABA. Start with a foot rub of seven drops of Himalayan spikenard in 1tbsp of almond oil. Spikenard is related to valerian, a well-known natural sedative, and is available as tincture or tablets (£5.99 for 25, Boots), as well as an essential oil.
3 Hypnotise yourself
‘Hypnosis relies on repetition,' explains hypnotherapist Marisa Peer, who uses it to build confidence. Invent your own mantra - ‘I am calm and confident' - and then repeat it to yourself throughout the day. In one study, 83% of participants found this practice helpful.
4 Drink more tea
Tea contains L-theanine, which increases relaxing alpha-wave activity in the brain, so it soothes without making you drowsy.
5 Sniff an orange
Austrian researchers used the scent to soothe the nerves of dental patients - and it worked.
6 Name your feelings
‘If you can identify an emotion, you can regulate it,' says psychologist Karen Reivich. ‘Recognising that you're anxious means you can challenge your assumptions about a situation and change the way you feel about it.'
7 Shop for an experience
Put theatre tokens top of your wish list. Experiences make us happier because they're imprinted in our memory, says psychologist Ryan Howell, who carried out the research. ‘Short bursts of experience are better than one long one.'
8 Phone your greetings
Just about to write ‘Hope to see you in 2010' in a card? Pick up the phone instead. A poll in American Time magazine found that friends and contributing to others' lives were two of the top three reasons to be happy.
9 Add sage to the stuffing
The herb was found to lift anxiety and increase alertness, according to a study at Northumbria University.
10 Reload your iPod
Try whale music, Gregorian chants... or download some soul music to soothe your mind. New research shows it helps reduce cortisol levels in patients before medical tests.
11 Drive past a tight parking space
Shopping is stressful enough without reverse parking in a queue of traffic. Look for a space at the back of the car park or shop early or late to avoid the crowds.
12 Eat a bowl of porridge
It releases energy slowly, so your blood sugar and moods remain steady and won't spike.
13 Meet up with a close friend
Happiness is infectious but you need to be close to catch it. Having a happy friend less than half a mile away increases your own chance of happiness by 42%. It drops to 22% for friends up to two miles away and then the effect disappears.
14 Escape for five minutes
Go for a walk, cycle or swim. Anything physical will help you work off any residual stress.
15 Go back to your first food
Intrigued by the calming effect of mothers' milk on babies, French pharmacists have isolated a milk protein containing a peptide that helps you relax, lactium. The result is a supplement called Equilibrium. Available from Boots, capsules cost from £4.99, and a hot chocolate drink, £12.99.
16 Ditch overthinking
Constantly worrying about things you can't (or don't) change can plunge you into depression. Give yourself five minutes to think about it, then decide on the next step - even if that step is to think about it tomorrow.
17 Press away stress
Place your fingertip against the largest crease of your inner wrist in line with your little finger, moving it around until you feel a twinge, then press firmly for up to 30 seconds. It's one of the acupressure points that control anxiety, according to Stanford University.
18 Walk around a room
Walk around for 10 minutes, concentrating on each step - it can help you zone out if you find sitting still the hardest part of meditation. Or visit a formal garden or maze. US hospitals often have them in their grounds because pacing around them helps patients relax.
19 Say hello and mean it
Turn a greeting into a chance to build a friendship by focusing on the person you're talking to, noticing their clothes, eyes and expression. And don't forget to smile.
20 Tap out a tune
Therapeutic drumming aims to stimulate the brain and dissipate stress, but you don't have to annoy the neighbours. A study involving the Universities of Chichester and Gloucestershire is investigating the benefits of drumming in computer games.
21 Snack on brazil nuts
The selenium content helps lift your mood if your levels are low. Munch on just two or three a day so you don't overdose or pile on weight - they have a huge 193 cals per ounce.
22 Read a poem aloud
Choose one with a rhythmic beat like 'Twas the Night Before Christmas. It can steady your heart rate, say German researchers.
23 Have some early-morning me time
If the first time you sit down is to watch News At Ten, spend 15 minutes alone as soon as you get up. Drinking coffee by a window or going for a walk gives you a daylight fix to help fend off the winter blues.
24 Sing out
Singing in the bath, shower or car boosts your mood and your health, according to 600 choir members who took part in a recent study. They believe it lifts your spirits, helps concentration, improves your social life and makes you breathe deeply, counteracting anxiety.
25 Sleep for eight hours a night
Cutting back on sleep can send stress levels soaring. A study of German pilots found that stress hormones increased by 40% after a week when they had only six hours' shut-eye.