Need a pick-me-up but don't have time for leisurely stress-busters, like lunch with a friend or the proverbial hot bath? Don't get even more depressed. Treat yourself to a mini mood boost.
These time-outs take just five minutes but provide what you need to keep going on a stressful day:
1. Relive a "memory photo."
The next time you're having a wonderful experience -- a birthday party, a quiet walk by yourself in a beautiful place, a simple interaction with your loved one -- take a "memory snapshot." Imprint the memory on your mind by focusing intently on everything you can about the moment, using all of your senses. What do you see up close and all around you? Take in the colors, the textures, the details. What does it smell like? What does a kiss or piece of chocolate cake taste like? Spending just 30 seconds consciously taking in as much as you can about a moment helps imprint it on your brain, making the full experience easier to recall later.
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Then, when you're stressed, close your eyes and conjure up the memory you "photographed." It's a quickie escape that can recapture the positive feelings you had in that moment -- and bring them into your present.
2. Slow your breathing.
Slow, deep breathing restores energizing oxygen -- something that's harder to take in during the shallower way we tend to breathe when we're feeling rushed and tense. To shake off tension and feel revived, try to consciously take bigger, slower breaths. You'll notice your entire body relaxing slightly as you breathe.
Or try this paced-breathing exercise: Inhale through your nose for a count of five, hold for a count of seven, and then slowly exhale through a slightly opened mouth for a count of eight. (You should hear a slight whooshing sound as you exhale.) You can do this seated or standing, whichever is comfortable, and with your eyes opened or closed.
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3. Take a chocolate break.
Snacks made of simple carbs, like white flour and sugar, tend to give you a quick spike of energy followed by a crash. Eating a small square of dark chocolate, on the other hand, offers longer-lasting benefits. A 2009 Swiss study found that eating 1.4 ounces of dark chocolate (about a two-inch square) every day for two weeks lowered stress hormone levels in people who were feeling highly anxious. (They ate half the dark chocolate at mid-morning and half at mid-afternoon.)
Dark chocolate also contains antioxidants (which help fight the biological effects of stress) and provide a small hit of energizing caffeine. And let's not forget the feel-good endorphins released when the first velvety flavors hit your tongue. Eat a minimal amount (an ounce or two at a time) and you avoid the sugar crash; spring for tasty brands with high cacao counts, and you'll find your craving satisfied with just this small taste.
4. Float your worries away.
Psychologists sometimes use this tool to help people break negative cycles of ruminating over worrisome things: Think about everything that's stressing you today. Now imagine placing them in a basket attached to a balloon. Release the imaginary balloon into the air and watch, in your mind's eye, as it reaches the ceiling, magically goes through the roof, and floats into the open sky and, finally, into space.
5. Fantasy shop.
Many people find shopping calming. If you can't get out of the house -- and you don't want to be tempted to fork over cash -- do some virtual shopping instead. Save up the catalogs that come in the mail (catalogs are better than online shopping because they require more effort to complete a purchase). Then sit down for a break your stack in front of you, along with a cup of tea or your favorite beverage. The brain is stimulated by novelty, so the new things you see will engage your mind while allowing you to disengage from your stressed state.
As you flip the pages, imagine you could spend any amount of money on anyone -- including yourself. What silly or luxurious things would you choose? What would your loved one like if he or she were doing the spending? Bonus: Armchair window-shopping isn't only escapism; it can be a painless way to scratch an itch to indulge yourself.