Post-holiday burnout got you down?

New research reveals quick and easy stress-soothing techniques you can do in the comfort (and safety) of your own home—no “spa day” required! 

Perhaps the most widely recognized jazz composition of all time is “Take 5” by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. This 1959 masterpiece is a classic example of post-bebop “cool jazz,” and is the best-selling jazz recording of all time.

Brubeck actually named the song “Take Five” because it was written in an unusual 5/4 meter (beat). It was one of the first jazz songs with a time signature other than the standard 4/4 meter or 3/4 waltz time. (One of Brubeck’s collaborators had been exposed to the unusual meter while in Turkey, and Brubeck suggested following that beat for a new composition. Just close your eyes, listen to the opening chord, and imagine yourself in the ancient bazaar).

But this cool jazz signature piece is also relaxing, transporting, and transcendental—so it’s no surprise that the term “take five” is now a standard dictionary definition for encouraging a short, relaxing break from working. (Those jazz cats were on to something!)

Now, science is also showing that there’s something more to this expression. New research demonstrates that a few minutes is all it takes to help your body “recharge” and combat one of the deadliest health hazards we face in today’s modern society…stress.

In a moment, I’ll also tell you about some other recent research revealing a “secret” source of stress you’re probably faced with every day without even realizing it. And I’ll share some “Insider’s” tips for the best places to quiet your mind.

But first, let’s take a closer look at the new study showing just how quick and easy it can be to reduce stress…

All it takes is just 10 minutes for relaxation, health, and well-being

German scientists found subjects experienced significant physiological and psychological relaxation after only 10 minutes of resting or getting a massage. It was the first study to show that short-term treatments can strongly reduce stress by supporting relaxation through the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS)—which includes the vagus nerve on the back of the neck.

The PNS is responsible for relaxing us. It slows our heart rate and also helps with digestion. It brings us back to normal after the sympathetic nervous system’s “fight-or-flight” response and protects our bodies against the effects of stress.

Massage, of course, is widely used for relaxation. But until this study, there wasn’t any evidence that it directly affected the PNS, or whether it could help heal people with stress-related diseases.

Researchers gathered 60 healthy women and assigned them to three groups. One group got a 10-minute head and neck massage designed to directly stimulate the PNS by applying moderate pressure to the vagus nerve. The second group got a 10-minute neck and shoulder massage that didn’t have any PNS stimulation. The third group simply sat quietly for 10 minutes, without any massages.

After the 10 minutes were over, the researchers measured all participants’ relaxation by monitoring their heart rate variability (HRV), which indicates how efficiently the PNS responds to changes. The better the HRV, the more relaxation.

Participants were also asked to describe how relaxed, or how stressed, they felt. (As I periodically report, studies show the best measure of stress, as it relates to health outcomes, is simply asking people how stressed they feel.)

All of the participants reported that they felt more relaxed and less stressed. And they all had significant improvements in HRV.

It was somewhat surprising that rest alone worked so well, although the physiological effect was more pronounced when participants received a massage. Of course, rest typically accompanies massage, so they may work together to relax us.

Interestingly, there was no difference between the two types of massage—meaning that the body doesn’t need direct stimulation of the vagus nerve in order to relax.

This study is yet another indication that, as with most things in life, moderation is the key. You don’t always need an hour-long massage or meditation session to relax. Just resting for 10 minutes can have big effects on your stress levels and overall health—and it’s easy to do on a daily basis.

Of course, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, there’s one “secret” stressor that may be standing in the way of you getting the relaxation you need…

The sounds of silence

Research shows that noise is a psychological and physiological stressor. It’s linked to a number of health conditions, including cancer, diabetes, heart attack, and stroke. It raises blood pressure and interferes with sleep quality.

And yet, in today’s world, noise is all around us. We expect it in urban areas—there’s a reason why New York is called the city that never sleeps. But even suburban areas have become polluted with noise-generating gas-powered lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and snow blowers—as I discussed in the March 2020 issue of Insiders’ Cures.

In fact, noise pollution has become so pervasive that a study by the National Park Service and Colorado State University reports that even the remote areas of our country are no longer quiet places.2

This 2017 study found that human-created noise was double the amount of natural background sounds in a whopping 63 percent of U.S. protected areas like national parks.

And as more and more people push into remote areas, they’re bringing noise with them. In fact, the researchers found that human noise drowned out natural background noise by 10 times in 21 percent of our national parks.

This amount of noise disrupts wildlife and the entire ecological community. The auditory landscape is a key component of natural habitat, and noise interferes with animals listening for prey and predators, territorial alarms, group signaling, and mating calls.

Not to mention, human noise is rapidly becoming worse. U.S. National Parks hosted 328 million visitors during 2019, up nine million more than the year before.3 In 2020, while coronavirus closures offered a temporary respite, people flocked to local parks and trails, raising concerns about many formerly quiet places in the midst of cities and suburbs. But, there are still plenty of places to seek out silence—if you know where to look…

My “Insider’s” outside guide to finding some peace and quiet

A 2019 study found the quietest national parks and monuments in the U.S. were El Malpais National Monument in New Mexico, Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, and Lassen Volcanic National Park in California.4

In Europe, designated quiet areas include Blessington Basin in Ireland, Lack Backsjon in Sweden, and Tondiloo Park in Estonia. But, shhh…don’t spoil the fun! (I thought twice about even publishing this list.)

The good news is that a nonprofit group called Quiet Parks International is working to raise attention to our noisy remote areas. It’s identified more than 250 sites worldwide that are already quiet or could easily become quiet.5 And the group certified its first Wilderness Quiet Park on the Zabalo River in the Amazon Rainforest in Ecuador, and its first Urban Quiet Park—Yangmingshan National Park near Taipei, Taiwan.

Closer to home, Yale University reports that some national parks are reducing traffic noise by using shuttle services, and are even putting up “Quiet!” signs in popular remote areas.Park rangers are surprised at how well the signs work, concluding that people are willing to trade off talking with their companions in exchange for communing with nature.

So the next time you’re outside in a quiet place, make sure to keep it that way. Your physical, mental, and emotional health will all benefit—as will the health of the environment.

Of course, if you can’t get out to a quiet place in Nature, one new study from the University of Exeter in the U.K. found that simply watching Nature onscreen can boost your well-being, too…

The benefits of experiencing Nature from home

The British researchers induced feelings of boredom in 96 adults by making them watch a video about a person’s work at an office supply company (perhaps like the proverbial “counting paper clips,” which I saw all too often in the offices of government bureaucrats).7

The study participants then viewed an underwater coral reef either on a TV screen, using a virtual reality (VR) headset with 360-degree video, or using a VR headset with computer-generated, interactive graphics.

All three experiences countered negative feelings such as sadness—and significantly reduced the kind of boredom associated with being isolated indoors (like during coronavirus quarantines). Compared with the TV viewers, the VR viewers reported more increases in positive feelings, such as happiness, and strengthened connections to Nature.

Of course, the study was done in the U.K., where the BBC produces high-quality nature programming.

But if you’re looking for some uplifting Nature program during the January gloom, I highly recommend a new documentary called “My Octopus Teacher” on Netflix. Filmmaker Craig Foster spent a year diving—without oxygen or a wetsuit—in a frigid underwater kelp forest near Cape Town, South Africa. One octopus began interacting with him on a regular basis.

The octopus represents 600 million years of adaptation in the oceans, while life on land has existed only half that time. Octopi have developed a demonstrably impressive consciousness and intelligence that’s “alien” to anything we understand in terms of neuroscience. Not only did the octopus learn from Foster, but it taught him as well.

The story is awe-inspiring and remarkable. Just the kind of mental, emotional, and spiritual catharsis we need this winter—and well into the new year. After you watch it, put on some Brubeck, take 10 minutes to relax (play “Take Five” twice!), and reap the myriad health benefits.

Sources:

1“Standardized massage interventions as protocols for the induction of psychophysiological relaxation in the laboratory: a block randomized, controlled trial.” Sci Rep 1014774 (2020).

2“Noise pollution is pervasive in U.S. protected areas.” Science  05 May 2017:Vol. 356, Issue 6337, pp. 531-533.

3https://www.nps.gov/orgs/1207/2019-visitation-numbers.htm

4“Anthropogenic noise in US national parks – sources and spatial extent.” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment Volume17, Issue 10, December 2019, pp 559-564.

5https://www.quietparks.org

6https://e360.yale.edu/features/listening-to-silence-why-we-must-protect-the-worlds-quiet-places

7“What is the best way of delivering virtual nature for improving mood? An experimental comparison of high definition TV, 360° video, and computer generated virtual reality.” Journal of Environmental Psychology, Volume 72, 2020, 101500.

8https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/search?q=david+attenborough


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