Feeling anxious, overwhelmed, or just plain stressed out? Here are 23 expert tips from meditation teachers, psychologists, and life coaches on what you can do to feel better right now
With the new year comes new year's resolutions to do better: for our health, our headspace, and our well-being in general. While big behavioral changes and long-term goals may be challenging to implement, doing small things that take only a few minutes out of your day can help you feel better instantly, and can reinforce the development of good habits in the long run. Here are 23 pro tips on how to feel better right now.
Related: 11 Simple ways to build good habits
Stop for a moment and... do nothing
"Do nothing—I mean nothing," says health, fitness, and nutrition expert Joey Thurman. "Turn off all of your devices, phone, TV, and anything that can distract you. Now, close your eyes and simply focus on your breath, how your body feels, are you happy, are you sad? Open up your eyes after a few minutes. Guess what? You just mediated, reduced stress, and helped your mindset."
Breathe through your nose
"Breathe through your nose instead of your mouth," says holistic health coach Clare Hagan. "When we do, our nasal cavities produce nitric oxide which is delivered through our blood to our lungs where it fights viruses. This also increases oxygen in our blood which makes us feel more refreshed. Follow your breath.
"Don't worry about counting or controlling your breath in any way. Just taking time to notice your breath is enough to slow it down and you will see yourself taking naturally deeper breaths. Deep breathing activates our parasympathetic nervous system which slows the heart rate and invites us to digest by telling our body to stimulate digestion, activate metabolism and relax."
Try this breathing exercise first thing in the morning
"A few minutes of conscious breathing each morning is a great way to train your mind to focus on your breath, which alleviates stress, and brings awareness to your body," says author and wellbeing educator Elizabeth O'Connor Cole, founder of Salveo Lifestyle. "So before you look at your phone, commit to a breathing exercise every morning.
"Begin by sitting up and putting your hands on your abdomen. Inhale through your nose deeply and slowly into your abdomen (rather than your chest). Your hands on your abdomen will feel the expansion like a balloon filling. Then breathe out fully, feeling your belly flatten completely. Try to make the exhale twice as long as the inhale, which signals the body to switch from 'fight or flight' into 'rest and digest.' Do this ten times—breathe normally—then repeat for another 10 times—breathe normally—continuing this process for five minutes."
Related: How to start a morning routine
"Engage in savouring," says Dr Sabrina Romanoff, clinical psychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. "This involves stepping out of your experience to review it, and really appreciate it while it is happening. This can boost your mood, avoids mind wandering, and increases gratitude. To try this, take part in a gratifying activity and track what you savor about it. This forces you to notice and enjoy the experience while keeping attention on it. For example, instead of eating cookies while focusing on problems, you could eat cookies while thinking about how great this experience is.
"Other ways to increase savouring is to think about how lucky you are to experience it, look for other people to share it with, think only about the present, be absorbed, and talk to another person about how good it felt."
Start your day with a proactive affirmation
"When you get out of bed in the morning and your feet hit the floor, say to yourself, 'Today is going to be a great day,'" says midlife mentor Rachel Lankester, founder of Magnificent Midlife. "Set your intention at the beginning of the day and ground yourself in the present moment before you get going. Deciding what kind of day you're going to have can have a dramatic impact on how the day actually turns out. Whatever is going on around us, how we respond is always a choice."
Practice 5-minute mindfulness
"Regular mindfulness practices help people be able to be in touch with the present moments as well as their thoughts and emotions," says Dr. Alan Chu, assistant professor and chair of the Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology Program at the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay. "It also helps people be more aware and accepting of their thoughts and feelings with compassion rather than judgment.
"Research shows that these benefits are manifested both physiologically (less muscle tension, better relaxation) and cognitively (clearing one’s mind, enjoying the moment more, and feeling calmer). A 5-minute daily practice would provide sufficient benefits, and beginners can use apps such as Calm and Insight Timer."
Sometimes all you need is a little water
"After a night of sleep, your body is dehydrated. Keep a full glass of water on your nightstand to start each day by doing something good for your body, even before you get out of bed," says O'Connor Cole. "When you hydrate first thing in the morning, you are kickstarting your system, waking yourself up and flushing out the toxins that have built up overnight. Hydrating also gets your brain functioning properly and improves your mood. Wake up and drink up first thing and celebrate yourself for accomplishing something that is going to help you look and feel your best."
Try this: Hold something cold
"Hold something cold in your hand for what I call a 'brain break' coping skill," says Boston-based psychotherapist Angela Ficken. "Go to the freezer and grab an ice cube. Hold the ice cube in one hand over the sink. See how long it takes you to notice that you are not able to have any thoughts other than my hand feels so cold. Flip the ice into the other hand and notice that experience. As one hand starts to thaw out, the other one gets cold. Maybe you notice where the water melts in your hand actually feels warmer than where the ice is sitting. Then, when you can’t take it anymore, toss the ice in the sink.
"Holding something cold forces us out of our head (stops ruminative, racing thoughts that are anxiety-driven) and into the moment (where your entire attention is on your hands), giving your brain a break from whatever stress you are swept up in. Sometimes, after tossing the ice into the sink, that 'brain break' allows you to regroup, think more clearly, and ask yourself more positive questions, such as 'Is what I am thinking helpful? Can I do anything about this now?'"
Related: How to break a bad habit
Lie on the floor and stretch
"Your body’s mobility comes down to regularly using your muscles and by constantly stretching them out," says Jeff Parke, founder of Top Fitness Magazine. "When you work out, you’re stretching muscles repeatedly as a way to strengthen them. When I wake up, I lie on the ground and take five minutes to simply stretch. Try and get to every part of your body and stretch them out as much as you can without causing discomfort."
Try a posture stretch
"Proper posture is so important and can help reduce the risk of injury, support bone health, and reduce aches and pains," says personal trainer Monica Straith, fitness lead at AlgaeCal. "Work on your posture by including short stretches throughout the day. I try to include shoulder rolls, gentle neck stretches, seated pigeons, and doorway stretches into my daily routine."
Try mountain pose
"Focus on your posture," says neuropsychologist and Studio Be meditation teacher Barbaranne Branca. "We often work, talk on Zoom, converse, engage in hobbies, with poor posture. This puts strain on our skeleton, makes it difficult to fully inhale and exhale, and strains our muscles. Watch a YouTube video on the yoga position, Mountain Pose or Tadasana, to learn how to stand with good posture. You can practice this at any time: standing in line at a grocery store, for instance. Your body will be grateful."
Roll, shake, stretch, breathe
"Stretch and breathe," says fitness instructor and nutritionist Carly James. "This is useful for anyone. It’s arguably essential for anyone who spends a lot of time sitting down. Roll your head left, right then full circle. Roll your shoulders forwards and backwards. Shake out your arms. If you can, stand up and shake out your legs. If you can’t, give your lower legs a shake. Circle your ankles, left, right and full circle. Then spend the rest of the five minutes taking deep, mindful breaths. In through the nose, hold, then slowly out through the mouth."
Reset your tech neck
"I perform something daily that I call the compass neck stretch," says Dylan Jawahir, founder and CEO of Battle Balm. "It's a stretch where you tilt your head forward, back, left and right. For this stretch, one should spend at least one minute per side and allow the weight of the head to facilitate the stretch. It's easy and requires no tools or devices.
"This stretch is powerful on so many levels. For one, it can reset the 'tech neck' soreness from looking down at a phone for hours a day, or sitting in front of a computer screen. The second benefit is that it relaxes muscles that may be restricting blood and lymph drainage between the head and body. This allows for better breathing and better circulation. For me, I've found that it helps with the feeling of tightness in my head after significant computer time."
Try a micro-workout
"Finding it hard to fit a workout in as often as you’d like? Take one-minute breaks throughout the day to get micro workouts in," Straith says. "My favorite micro workouts? Butt-kicks, jumping jacks, squats, push-ups, and bear crawls. You'll be working your entire body with these micro workouts, strengthening your muscles and bones and getting your blood flowing. It absolutely helps to set an alarm for this. Try every hour to start, you’ll be feeling the difference in no time."
"Push-ups. Upper body strength is so important and can help with your overall health and well-being," Parke says. "In the afternoon each day, I do some pushups to get my blood flowing and slowly increase my upper body strength. Just do as many as you can take regular breaks. Just by doing it for 5 minutes each day, you’ll see results.”
Do a quick set of squats or lunges
"Sedentary lifestyles are associated with numerous chronic diseases," says trainer and fitness expert Rick Richey. "So, I started doing three sets of squats or lunges for one minute with a one-minute break between sets. A perfect five-minute workout with a heart rate boost that energized and wakes up the whole family."
Try bi-lateral stimulation
"[Try] bi-lateral stimulation," says high-performance coach Bara Sapir. "This technique involves stimulating both sides of the brain to stop anxiety or unwanted feelings of discomfort. Grab a ball (or lemon or anything you can toss) and think of something that is causing you discomfort and anxiety. When you can feel that anxiety somewhere in your body, rate the level of it on a scale of one to ten, with ten the most intense. Now pass the ball back and forth, from one hand to the other, crossing the mid-line. By doing this, you are stimulating both hemispheres of the brain.
"It will have a more rapid effect if you keep one hand in front of you as the other swings out to the side each time you pass the ball, similar to a desktop Newton's Cradle. Do this for a minute. Stop. Take a deep breath and check-in with yourself. Has the anxiety dissipated? Likely at least a little bit, but maybe completely. This works because you are activating both hemispheres of the brain and are spreading blood and electrical impulses throughout the brain and this floods that area of association and diffuses it.
"Now, think of the same situation again and see how much anxiety or discomfort you can manage to conjure up, and rate it once again on the ten- to-one scale. Pass the ball or other object for a minute, and check-in. Repeat till the anxiety or discomfort has completely diffused. This is something you can do anywhere and anytime. As soon as you start to feel anxiety or discomfort, simply grab an object—keys, a bottle of water, anything will work as long as you are moving both your arms, and crossing the mid-line of your body."
Massage your scalp
"Professionals use all sorts of techniques for delivering scalp massage," James says. "Fortunately, it’s fairly easy to give yourself an effective scalp massage, wherever you are. Just rub your fingers in circles all over your scalp. The key point is to get the skin moving. This will ensure that you stimulate the blood flow in the vessels between your skin and your scalp."
Get out into nature
"Catch a dose of nature's antidepressants as much as possible," says personal trailer Brandon Nicholas of The Fitness Tribe. "Now that we're all struggling to maintain balance in our lives due to the pandemic's disruption on the routines we've established, it's vital that we all take advantage of nature's natural antidepressants to help keep our stress and sickness at bay. This can be done by basking in the sun every morning—you can do five-minute breathing exercises outdoors first thing in the morning by focusing on your inhales and exhales continuously.
"This practice integrates Vitamin D with your mind training meditation routine. Another way is to take five-minute nature walks at the park during office breaks—this will keep you from hitting performance plateaus and will boost your energy for the rest of the day."
Or just simply step outside
"Spend five minutes outside," says Dr Leann Poston of Invigor Medical. "If it is sunny out you will get some vitamin D which helps modulate the immune system. Regulating the immune system and its activity is important in the fight against disease, cancer, and controlling autoimmune disorders. Vitamin D can also help protect against depression, as can fresh air.
"Studies have shown that walking in a forest or other natural area decreases stress and improves mood. Walking for five minutes can help with controlling both your weight and blood pressure. Whether you like to walk or run, by yourself or with others, enjoying music or peace and quiet, get outside for five minutes."
Do anything new
"Challenge your brain by doing something new for five minutes," says Ultimate Performance personal trainer Aroosha Nekonam. "I like to do crossword puzzles, sudoku or quick quizzes just to take my focus away from anything that is causing me anxiety at that moment in time. The shift in thinking really helps and keeps the brain sharp."
Talk it through with friends
"Talk about your feelings and get support when you need it," says Dr Myra Altman, vice president of clinical care at mental wellness platform Modern Health. "This is a difficult time. Feeling frustrated, anxious, low or stressed are common and normal reactions to the current situation. Take five minutes to talk to your family and friends. Make sure you are checking in with them to find out how they are feeling. Lean on each other when you need support.
"When you are feeling depressed it can be easy to isolate and shut yourself away from the world. Lean on your support network and recognize when it’s time to talk to a coach or therapist. They can help you work through some of the issues you’re facing."
Write it down
"At the end of the day, write the three must-do things for the next day," says psychologist Tamara Soles. "Your to-do list is likely much longer than that but when we don’t prioritize the most important things, we tend to procrastinate by doing the easier jobs first and convincing ourselves we are being productive. The longer that those bigger items are avoided, the more that stress grows in our lives. Set yourself up to succeed for the day by planning the night before."