I recently drove to Denver to give a book talk and got stuck in unexpected, late-morning bumper-to-bumper traffic. Even though I left plenty of time to reach my destination, I realized I was going to be late when it took 30 minutes to basically crawl 1/2 mile on the highway. I considered the ways I could react: cry, pound on the dashboard, or call a friend to whine. I decided to take the advice in my book Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Through Alzheimer’s and Dementia and to breathe slowly and deeply. Then I listened to Grieg’s gorgeous piano concerto. I finally called the venue and said I didn’t know if I’d make it. Ten minutes later I called again and said I would, but I’d be a little late. I parked the car, ran a block, and arrived out of breath. It worked out in the end, and the talk went well.
Stress in America
According to the American Psychological Association’s “2015 Stress in America” report, almost one-third of adults report that stress has a very strong or strong impact on their body/physical health and mental health (31 and 32 percent in 2015, compared to 25 and 28 percent in 2014, respectively). Unfortunately, younger people are feeling more stressed than Baby Boomers, mostly because of financial and family obligations.
And now, because of post-election stress and the pressures of the holiday season, many people are going to feel even more stressed out. But there are specific things we can do to feel less anxious and calmer. Here are some ways that have been shown to work, both anecdotally and scientifically.
- Magnolia extract-–When I was taking care of my husband, who died from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease, I often got stressed out, to put it mildly. One of the things I relied on was the nutritional supplement magnolia extract to relieve anxiety and to help me sleep. Magnolia bark (Magnolia officinalis) is a traditional Chinese medicine that has been used for thousands of years to treat “stagnation of qi” (low energy), and help ease asthma, digestive problems, and emotional distress. Even though the extract has been part of the classical Chinese pharmocopeia for centuries, scientists are just discovering the amazing benefits offered by its two phytochemicals, honokiol and magnolol.
One of the most impressive benefits is their ability to alleviate stress while producing a calming effect. Dozens of animal studies have shown that they act as a non-addictive, non-sedating anxiolytic (anti-anxiety and anti-stress) agent at low doses. That means a small dose of Magnolia extract can help calm your nerves and alleviate anxiety, without making you sleepy. The beauty of these two phytochemicals is that honokiol exerts a somewhat stronger anti-anxiety effect, and magnolol exerts a stronger antidepressant effect … so that when you take Magnolia extract, you’re really “killing two birds with one stone”—anxiety and depression—in order to feel better mentally and emotionally. Caution: Do not use this nutritional supplement with an anti-anxiety medication. Look for Magnolia extract in your local health food store or online.
2. Passionflower is well documented as a safe and effective way to treat anxiety.
Passionflower Extract (4% Flavones) is a medicinal herb that is approved by the German Commission E in the treatment of insomnia and nervousness. Passionflower is a nervine relaxant that is beneficial for anxiety, insomnia, tension headaches, and irritability.
Researchers don’t know exactly how passionflower works, but they theorize that the flavonoids and alkaloids regulate neurotransmitters that reduce anxiety. Neurotransmitters are the brain chemicals that communicate information throughout your brain and body. The brain uses neurotransmitters to tell your heart to beat, your lungs to breathe, and your stomach to digest. They can also affect mood, sleep, concentration, weight, and can cause adverse symptoms when they are out of balance. Passionflower is available as an herbal tea or nutritional supplement.
3. L-Theanine is another outstanding treatment for anxiety. This unique amino acid is found almost solely in tea plants and is the main chemical constituent in green tea.
L-theanine is an ideal nutritional aid for stress because it produces alpha-wave activity that leads to deep relaxation and mental alertness. This is especially important because in order to mitigate stressful situations, it’s important to remain calm and alert. Theanine also stimulates the release of the neurotransmitters GABA, serotonin and dopamine, which help us feel happy, motivated and calm.
Research with human volunteers has shown that L-theanine stimulates production of alpha brain waves, resulting in a deep relaxed state, much like the state achieved during meditation. In human volunteers, α-waves were generated on the occipital and parietal regions of the brain surface within 40 minutes after the oral administration of theanine (50–200 mg), signifying relaxation without causing drowsiness. In another study, theanine was given to participants taking a mental arithmetic task. The results showed that when the participants took L-theanine their heart rate was reduced, as well. Green tea contains L-theanine but you’d have to drink a whole lot of cups to reap the full benefits. It’s available as a nutritional supplement, which might be easier and quicker to take, and it’ll save you a lot of trips to the bathroom.
4. Snacks that might calm you down
According to Dr. Andrew Saul from the Food Matters film, two handfuls of cashews (make that a small handful, please; one ounce of cashews contain 157 calories.) provide the equivalent mood-boosting effect as a therapeutic dose of Prozac because they are one of the highest natural sources of tryptophan, the precursor for serotonin, the feel-good neurotransmitter.
Dark chocolate reduces cortisol, the stress hormone that causes anxiety symptoms. Just a couple of pieces should do the trick. These two snacks can help when you’re stuck in traffic and they might even prevent you from swearing at the driver who just cut you off.
5. Music is the universal language, and it is also the universal stress reliever. Whether it’s jazz, classical, or hard rock that makes you feel better, by all means, play it loud, play it soft, dance to it, drive to it, go to sleep to it. It will definitely help.
If you, or someone you care about, tend to suffer from stress, anxiety, or depression, these recommendations might just “take the edge off” and improve your quality of life … without the risk of side effects. May the holiday season begin!