When do you ever really feel truly relaxed? A glass of red wine fuzzes the edges of a hard day. Sundays lying in bed catching up on TV (TOWIE anyone, or is that just me?) launches you into another week with renewed energy. It might even be a food thing. Breaking out the Green & Black's Butterscotch to have alongside a cup of builder's gets me through many a deadline. When I worked in an office, it was the afternoon ritual of a trip to Pret for an Americano and a brownie.
Trouble is, these sugary, caffeine-fuelled crutches actually feed the "fight or flight" stress response. When we're under pressure, our bodies release the hormones cortisol and adrenaline that make us more alert, focused and able to cope. It's a very fine-tuned thing, each hormone acting on the body in many ways: cortisol spikes our short-term memory and adrenaline speeds up the heart rate.
No wonder we get hooked on these hormones in our 24/7 iPhone/BlackBerry-dependent lives. And it's why we seem drawn to stimulants such as caffeine. But in the end it's a false kind of energy, hence the negative connotations of "running on adrenaline" (and we should add cortisol).
If we pay attention, we can feel the obvious signs of stress. The minute I feel overwhelmed, I tighten up and start wearing shoulders as earrings. My posture goes to pot as I hunch up. And then there's the gut-wrenching, tightening of the stomach. We all know those feelings.
Still, everything in moderation. We need fire in our bellies to get things done. It's what drives us. And there's nothing wrong with comfort blankets: I'm not giving up chocolate any day soon. But we do have to stop stress before it becomes chronic medical condition. And the way to break the cycle without props is to go to another level of consciousness. It is surprisingly simple to do.
Here are five easy ways in which you can take yourself out of a stressful situation, slow yourself down and become more mindful so that you are living in the moment. The result? Less stress instantly.
Babies and toddlers breathe freely, their bellies contracting and expanding like little Buddhas. However, as you read this, like me, you're probably hunched over your computer shallow breathing via your mouth into your chest, starving your body of oxygen, creating a mini-stress cycle. It's what most busy adults do. Try breathing properly now. Sit with your spine as straight as possible and as you inhale let your belly pop out. It will feel wrong, but it is correct. You exhale, pull your navel gently towards your spine. Practise until it becomes second nature, eventually becoming smooth and not forced, as the air naturally expands from your belly to fill your lungs and expands up to your collar bone.
Repeat after me
Chanting a mantra calms a troubled mind. Roughly translated, mantra means "free your mind", and the sound vibration of chanting repetitively will deeply relax you. Each mantra has a different significance, level of vibration and effect on the brain. The most simple and universal being om, as the lovely LA-based yogi Tamal Dodge ( www.tamalyoga.com ) reminded me. Try his Buddhist monk method: close your eyes and as you breathe in think om, then as you exhale, vibrate the sound of om gently through your relaxed lips. It's amazing how lulling it is once you get into the rhythm of your breath.
New age-y screensavers may go some way to soften office surroundings, but active visualisation (a meditation technique) is a more advanced way to control stress levels. Take a minute to sit comfortably and close your eyes. Conjure up an image of a place in which you were truly happy and relaxed. Feel yourself there, engage your senses: what does it smell like, what are the sounds, how does it feel to be there (are you laughing, smiling, sleeping?). Picture yourself there and take 5-10 deep breaths. The more you do this, the more powerful it becomes.
You don't have to ditch the ritual of having a cuppa. Try going caffeine-free: there are some great herbals which hit the spot. At the Ushvani Spa, London ( www.ushvani.com ) post-treatment, delicious hibiscus flower tea is served which tastes light, slightly sweet and almost rosehip-ish. Turns out it is good for lowering blood pressure. Try Hambleden Organic Hibiscus Tea (£2.59, www.victoriahealth.com ) or Pukka Three Tulsi Tea (£2.25, www.pukkaherbs.com ). In Indian Ayurvedic health philosophy, tulsi is known as the sacred herb because of its healing properties. I find sipping on this ever-so-light citrusy blend so soothing.
Scents of peace
Choose the right aroma, and you your mind will switch off for you, it's an automatic brain response. I'm addicted to Aromatherapy Associates De-Stress Bath & Shower Oils (£37, www.aromatherapyassociates.com ). These are proper therapeutic essential oil blends. The Mind version of the oil is for emotional stress, when your head feels as if it might explode, and contains frankincense, soothing camomile and rosemary. The Muscle one is a gorgeous, warming, circulation-boosting blend with ginger, black pepper and lavender to ease muscle stress when you feel as if you've run a marathon when you've only been sitting at your desk.