Jam-packed schedules. Unreasonable work deadlines. Day-long soccer tournaments. Car trouble. Bills. Cranky kids. Cranky bosses. Cranky husbands. With today’s hectic pace, stress has become an inescapable part of nearly every day. If you’ve ever entertained fantasies about shucking your to-do list and jetting off to an exclusive spa for some much-needed R & R, you’re not alone.
But if your schedule—or your checkbook—prevents you from spending a blissed-out week filled with nothing more taxing than aromatherapeutic facials and hot rock massages, we have the answer.
We rounded up experts from some of the country’s premier (and priciest!) spas—Golden Door, Canyon Ranch, Miraval Life in Balance, The Greenhouse, Ojai Valley Inn and Spa and Rancho la Puerta—for the stress-busting secrets they share with their pampered guests. We have 21 proven ways to de-stress, decompress and better cope with all the challenges that life throws at you every day.
Take a breather
It’s simple, it’s easy, it’s free—and it’s all too often ignored. We tend to breathe shallow, short breaths when we’re stressed but slow, deep breathing creates a cascade of physical changes throughout your body—it slows your heart rate, lowers your blood pressure and reduces anxiety, says psychotherapist Kate Hamilton of Canyon Ranch. If you’re breathing properly, your stomach will expand as you inhale and deflate as you exhale; you should also feel your shoulders rising and falling with each breath.
Wake up gently
Set your alarm clock five minutes earlier, suggests Christi Cano, former director of Ojai Valley Inn and Spa and founder of Innovative Spa Productions. Use the time to do some simple stretches and deep breathing before you get out of bed—and list three things you’re grateful for every morning. "A lot of times we forget to be thankful for the good things we have," says Cano. "It’s a really positive way to start your day."
Tune in, tune out
Pop in a favorite tape or CD when you need to unwind—even 10-15 minutes can have a powerful effect. While some people find slower-tempo music the most relaxing, choose what appeals to you. If classical makes you cringe, try new age, adult contemporary or even country and keep a selection of your "tension tunes" at home and in the car.
Treat your tootsies
Use scented lotion and give yourself a five-minute foot massage after you arrive home. The manual stimulation relieves fatigue and aches while focusing on what you’re doing distracts your mind. Better yet, if you have a willing partner, designate one night a week (or more!) as massage night and take turns giving each other relaxing rubs.
Create your own sanctuary
Turn a corner or room of your home into your designated "relaxation zone." Stock it with a comfortable chair or floor pillows, light reading materials, scented candles and your favorite music—and retreat there when you need to unwind. (Use this space for relaxation only—no paying bills, making errand lists or catching up on work.) This area becomes a "relaxation trigger," says Hamilton—when you walk toward your designated spot, your body will begin to de-stress even before you sit down.
Walk it away
Many spas encourage workouts not only to burn calories but for the psychological and emotional benefits as well. "Exercise dilates blood vessels and gets the oxygen to the brain the same way as when we’re breathing deeply, which creates a relaxation response," says Hamilton. Don’t worry about the perfect workout—focus instead on moving your body for 15 or 20 minutes to lower stress levels.
Hold the phone
Don’t snatch up the phone as soon as it rings—use it as a reminder—check your breathing and your posture. If you’re seated, stretch and take several deep breaths before you lift the receiver and say hello. (You’ll sound a lot friendlier and less harried, too.)
Plan a stress break
Incorporate "stress breaks" into your daily schedule. "Set aside some time specifically to shut down and to turn off from what else is going on," says Randy Kinkade, former program director at Miraval. Your break may be taking 10 minutes to practice your breathing or to savor a piece of chocolate or fruit. By focusing on the activity, not the chores, you’ll have a natural stress reduction.
Focus your attention
Instead of simultaneously trying to do the laundry, make dinner, help your kids with their homework and read the mail, do one thing at a time. You won’t feel as overwhelmed and you’ll do a better job on the task at hand—like really listening to your daughter’s recap of basketball practice.
Change the scenery
Phyllis Pilgrim, fitness director at Rancho la Puerta, suggests this technique to defuse a stressful situation: Leave the immediate surroundings and go into a different room or step outside. Inhale, stretching your arms up and exhale as you lower your arms; do this five or 10 times and take another deep breath and slowly exhale to the count of 10. Roll your shoulders forward and back 10 times and stretch. Then you are ready to go back to the situation.
Stretch your chest
At the end of a long day, try this chest expansion move from Francine Hoffman, yoga/fitness instructor at Golden Door. Place a rolled blanket or towel underneath your lower shoulder blades (where your bra line is) so that it’s perpendicular to your spine and lie down on your back, placing your head on a pillow so that your shoulders are off the ground and your chest is lifted. Close your eyes and breathe deeply for 5-10 minutes before rolling to one side and getting up.
Squeeze it away
For less than $5, you can pick up a squeezable stress ball (or try Silly Putty) to keep on your desk or kitchen counter. Work it with your fingers or toss it around during stressful phone calls—it’s a distraction when you’re tense and also helps keep your fingers and wrists relaxed.
How complete is your social network? It’s particularly important for women to make time for friends, even if only for a 30-minute coffee date. Positive, supportive relationships make you more resilient and more able to cope with challenges. If you feel isolated, join a club, a church or a business association or take a community education class to meet new people.
Sleep with a smile
Instead of catching up on work or zoning out in front of the television, take 10 minutes to read something funny or positive before you shut off the lights—it’s a wonderful way to drift off. Keep a book of cartoons like Calvin & Hobbes or Peanuts or uplifting reading like the Chicken Soup for the Soul books on your night stand so you always have something handy.
Scent the air
Many of us already use scented candles in our homes for their wonderful smells and mood-enhancing effects. If you don’t want to worry about flames, try an aromatherapy spray mist or air freshener in a scent like lavender, vanilla, rose or orange. Keep one in your car and office for a quick scent boost when you need one.
You don’t have to be Superwoman every day. Sometimes just getting the kids out the door with lunches, backpacks and projects intact is an accomplishment in itself. Instead of worrying about what you didn’t finish, recognize that you’re doing the best you can and give yourself credit for your efforts.
Spread it around
Don’t buy into the idea that the only way to get something done correctly is to do it yourself. At work, hand off some projects to subordinates—you’ll be helping them develop additional job skills and experience. And at home, delegate some chores to your children—they’ll learn responsibility along with life skills they’ll need later.
Drink it down
If you’re exhausted by mid-afternoon, it may not be from stress or lack of sleep. People who feel run-down or get headaches during the day are often dehydrated, says Cano. Limit the amount of caffeine you consume and drink at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water every day.
Soothe your scalp
For a late-evening destresser, rub a deep conditioning treatment or oil into your dry hair and massage it thoroughly over your entire head. (Or have your husband do the honors.) If possible, leave the oil in your hair overnight and shampoo in the morning.
Go the limit
Instead of racing from errand to errand, Kinkade suggests deliberately sticking to the posted speed limit. Travel at the limit and leave the radio off. You’ll have an opportunity for quiet time without being bombarded with music or talk radio and will arrive at your destination in a calmer frame of mind.
Soak it away
And finally, that old standby is still one of the most effective ways to unwind: Slip into a hot bath. (At the Greenhouse, they urge guests to spend at least 10 minutes in a whirlpool every day to relax tight muscles.) There’s a reason baths are so soothing—the hot water opens your pores, which releases heat and lowers your core temperature, making you feel relaxed and often sleepy as well. So lock the door, drop your favorite bath oils into steaming hot water and soak your stresses away.
Kelly James-Enger is a Downers Grove mom and writer specializing in nutrition and women’s health issues.