Mind and Body

Stress relief tips from around the world

Shower head, blurred, canon 1Ds mark III

Shower head, blurred, canon 1Ds mark III

Holidays can be stressful. 

If it's any comfort, our friends around the world are juggling a lot now, too. 

"What constitutes stress is not having the time or help to meet demands in your life, whether you're in Texas or Taiwan," says Alice Domar, executive director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health in Boston. "Holidays further strain our resources."


You knew that, but you might not be aware of stress relief tactics—centuries-old practices, in some cases—that women in these foreign locales rely on. And not one involves lavender candles.

"When I come home from a stressful day, I relax with a petit aperitif—the French ceremony of having a small glass of wine with a side of cashew nuts or pita chips with hummus and olives. Then I'm ready to cook dinner!" —Ingrid Jackel, CEO of Physicians Formula; Toulouse

What you can do: "Wine is a relaxant, that's true, but more important is having a ritual to separate the chaos of work from the comfort of home," Domar says. Any ritual you look forward to will do the trick, whether you wash up and change into sweats or zone out with a game of Words with Friends.

"Russians go to the banya, a hot sauna, and since moving here I do that, too. The daily stress level is high and work is constant. Just sitting in the extreme heat to sweat is a miracle invention to salve the soul." —Amanda Lynn Hinson, 35, writer; Khabarovsk

What you can do: Hit the shower—and make it a warm one. Just a few minutes can wash away tension, and it's not just the feel of pulsating water on your skin: Research from Yale University indicates that the enveloping warmth you get from a hot shower can trigger brain and body responses that mirror emotional warmth, boosting your mood. Just get out after 10 minutes to avoid drying skin.

"It gets dark at 3:30 p.m. in the winter here, so Danes have gotten good at creating hygge, or 'cozy.' We come and go casually to each others' houses on evenings and weekends. It's about being happy at home with no one rushing to go anywhere." —Mette Borring, 48, finance executive; Copenhagen

What you can do: It's very simple, but key: Don't fuss too much. "One of my Secrets of Adulthood is: 'Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good,' and I apply this to entertaining," says Gretchen Rubin, author of Happier at Home. "If we worry about inviting people to the perfect holiday party, the task seems overwhelming. So I lower the bar to a manageable level. I had a holiday party that was dessert and drinks—so much easier than serving dinner, and very festive!"

"Massage is a science here. It's often vigorous, with knees and elbows applying pressure, and much stress reduction." —Pam Sangsingkeo, 39, university lecturer; Bangkok

What you can do: Knead the nape of your neck and the surrounding area. "Stimulating pressure receptors releases serotonin, a natural antidepressant," says Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami. Better yet: Get your partner to do it.

"People drink maté, a hot herbal drink, passing it around a circle of friends like a peace pipe. It makes me feel connected and strong, able to face down any stress." —Desirée Jaimovich, 35, journalist; Buenos Aires

What you can do: Forget social media; try social eating. Sharing food releases a surge of calming oxytocin, Belgian research shows. Notes anthropologist Michael Gurven, of the University of California–Santa Barbara: "Bonding over communal eats says, 'You're a valued part of my network.'" Skip the communal tea during flu season; think a pot of melted chocolate for S'mores (without double-dipping).

"Every morning, I do a laughter exercise—I smile, wave my hands, and jump. The more I do it, the more vital I feel." —Rashmi Vyas Aparajit, 45, health program director; Mumbai

What you can do: Yuk it up! The contracting stomach muscles trigger a surge of feel-good endorphins, according to a study from Oxford University. Even a couple of minutes of belly laughter can be calming—a good reminder to tape your favorite late-night show and actually watch it.

"In the cold-weather months, it's not just a matter of bundling up our kids to get outside for fresh air—you always find adults taking winter walks. It revives my brain and energizes me." —Phoebe Holmes, 40, blogger; Dublin

What you can do: Head outside for a brisk stroll. In a 2012 study, people who rode a stationary bike for 30 minutes and then saw disturbing photographs were less anxious than people who sat quietly before viewing the photos. "Exercise not only reduces anxiety, but helps you maintain that feeling when confronted with distressing events," says study author J. Carson Smith. With less mood-boosting natural light around, it's especially helpful to get outside. Dress for the weather (layers! Thinsulate!) and you'll truly enjoy it.

"In Sweden we enjoy fika, taking a coffee break with friends. It's been a part of our culture since the 1700s. In many companies, people take fika breaks around 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.; they head to a café for lattes, tea, or smoothies with a cinnamon roll, muffin, or macaron. Fika has something very friendly and peaceful about it." —Sarah Melin, 42, manager at a TV production company; Stockholm

What you can do: Program a break reminder into your smartphone, heed the beeps, and grab a friend for coffee in the office kitchen. Don't feel guilty for slacking off; in a study from MIT, people who got up to socialize during the work day ended up being 10 to 15 percent more productive than those who didn't.

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