Has life got you feeling a little uptight? The following smart advice, top gear, and holistic resources can help you let go and find your happy place.
By Deborah Skolnik with Paul Adler and Michelle Gillan Larkin
COVID-19, protests, wildfires, unemployment, the election — oh, and did we mention murder hornets? Whatever the past year has thrown at you personally, it’s been particularly trying for us collectively. Surrounded by controversy, peril, and civil unrest, what are we supposed to do?
Breathe slowly and relax. Maybe that sounds cliché, but seriously, give it a try. If you need a little serenity, check out this guide to promoting tranquility, calm, and peace. We’ve got everything you need to unwind, from products and exercises to eating strategies, mental health tactics, holistic treatments, and much more.
– Food for Thought –
We asked Chappaqua-based certified nutritionist and founder of goodfoodrx, Linda Fears, for the top diets tailored to beating stress.
To reduce your chances of feeling stress and anxiety, follow an anti-inflammatory eating plan. Fears’ favorite is the Mediterranean diet. “There was a study in 2018 by the National Institutes of Health that found participants who followed this eating plan had lower levels of inflammation,” she says. The Mediterranean way of eating emphasizes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans (legumes), healthy fats like olive oil and avocado oil, plus nuts and seeds, fish, chicken, and eggs. You can also consume moderate amounts of dairy, especially plain yogurt. Red meat and sweets or desserts are consumed in small portions, and only on special occasions. “These whole foods are metabolized much more slowly than processed food,” adds Fears, “so they keep your blood sugar stable, and having a stable level of blood sugar keeps you calm.”
Another stress-reducing eating plan that gets the nod from Fears is the paleo diet — short for “Paleolithic diet.” It emphasizes the same anti-inflammatory foods as the Mediterranean diet, with several key exceptions. “If you’re someone who suspects that you might have an intolerance to certain common allergens, like gluten or dairy or legumes, these foods are eliminated in paleo,” Fears explains. She suggests using the paleo plan as a starting point, gradually adding in small amounts of gluten, dairy, and legumes, and seeing how you fare. “I think paleo is interesting if you suspect that something in your diet, aside from the garbage foods that you know were bad, has been making you feel not so great,” she says. “There has been a ton of studies that found a correlation between a diet that’s high in refined sugar and refined carbs and impaired brain function, including a worsening of mood disorders,” Fears points out.
“[Intermittent fasting] is turning out to be one of the best ways to eat for weight loss, mental clarity, increased energy, and overall wellness,” Fears says. She likes the 16/8 version of the plan, which means fasting for 16 hours and eating only during an eight-hour window each day, emphasizing a combination of protein, fiber, and healthy fats during meals. (Generally, adherents eat two meals plus a snack or mini-meal between them.) “What happens during the fast is that it speeds up your body’s autophagy — the biological mechanism that clears away dead and diseased cells and proteins and allows new cells to form,” Fears says. During the fasting period, your body is also spared a constant onslaught of glucose and fluctuations in blood sugar levels, which can lead to energy crashes and anxiety. “In the Journal of Nutrition, Health, and Aging, there was a study that found that after three months of intermittent fasting, participants reported improved mood and decreased tension, anger, and confusion,” notes Fears.
– Eat to Beat Stress –
Wondering what foods to seek out, or avoid, in a quest to gain calm? Chappaqua-based nutritionist Linda Fears lets us in on the best and worst foods for avoiding stress.
Edibles to Avoid
Packaged pretzels, chips, and crackers: “[These products tend to contain] refined seed oils, like canola, corn, soy bean, and vegetable oils, primarily because they’re really cheap and because they’re very shelf-stable,” explains Fears. “They’re high in omega-6 fatty acids, which cause inflammation.”
Sugary soda and candy: These foods can set you up for an anxiety-provoking roller coaster of blood sugar spikes and falls. Caffeine, whether it’s in beverages or foods, is something to steer clear of, as well, especially if you’re already feeling strung out, since it raises your body’s level of the stress hormone cortisol. “Also, if you’re a person who metabolizes caffeine slowly, it can interfere with your sleep, and if you’re tired, it can lead to even more stress,” Fears warns.
Alcohol: “The reason you should cut down on, if not completely avoid, alcohol is because it changes the levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain, and that can worsen anxiety,” says Fears.
Deli meats and hot dogs: These foods are usually quite high in sodium. “When you have too much sodium, it puts more stress on your heart. It can raise your blood pressure, and since stress also can raise your blood pressure, this can be really dangerous,” Fears cautions. “If your blood pressure gets too high — it’s the combination of being stressed and having too much sodium in your diet — it can damage your blood vessels, heart, and kidneys.”
Mushrooms, sesame seeds, shrimp, and Brazil nuts: These foods contain selenium, a mineral that Fears notes is both an inflammation fighter and a mood booster.
Salmon and eggs: “Salmon is very high in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been found to reduce anxiety and promote feelings of calm,” says Fears. Also enjoy some eggs, since they contain lots of vitamin D, a natural mood lifter.
Chocolate: Chocolate fans rejoice: dark chocolate (70% cocoa or above) is a prime source of tryptophan, which the body uses to produce the mood-balancing, happiness-inducing hormone serotonin.
Spinach: It seems Mom wasn’t wrong when she said “Eat your spinach!” This green, leafy vegetable is full of magnesium, which research shows helps with brain functions and reduces stress and anxiety.
– Breathing and Meditation –
Looking for the perfect way to wind down? Why not find some inner Zen with these breathing and meditation tactics from a local pro.
Now that you’ve learned to eat right, it’s time to turn your attention to something you do even more often: breathe. “I believe that one of the most effective stress management tools is the practice of mindful breathing,” says Jennifer Monness, a mindfulness/meditation facilitator and owner of The Meditation Lab, in Irvington.
Breathing exercises are a natural answer to the unrest we all feel daily. “When we experience stress, the fight-or-flight response is activated, and your heart rate is elevated. You have a lot of adrenaline moving through your body and cortisol,” Monness explains. “When we start to take some long, deep breaths in very patterned, rhythmic ways, we actually signal our nervous system that now, in response to fight-or-flight, we can rest and digest. The heart rate is lowered, and blood pressure goes down.”
To experience these effects for yourself, try a couple of simple breathing exercises. “One would be counting the beats to your inhale and then doing your best to double the count of the beats on your exhale, so if you’re inhaling for three beats, you would do your best to exhale for six,” Monness says. “You could begin to feel benefits in as little as one to two minutes.” Or, try simply counting ten breaths, she suggests. “Sometimes practitioners just make a mental note of the word ‘in’ as they inhale, and then they exhale the number one, and then they mentally note the word ‘in’ as they inhale, and exhale the number two, working their way from one to 10.” By taking time each day to close your eyes and connect with your breath, you’re allowing yourself to slowly let some of the thoughts in your mind to begin to settle, Monness says.
Meditation, on the other hand, “allows us a bit of perspective so that we can observe ourselves, observe the mind moving all around and create a bit of space from it, so we feel a little more detached from the chatter,” she explains. “The chatter loses its charge and doesn’t have such a strong power over us, because we’re not in its grip; we’re creating that space that allows us to be a little less connected to that stressful dialogue.” Yet many shy away from giving meditation a try. “A lot of people think, There’s no way I would be able to do it, because I’m just not a relaxed person,” Monness observes. “Like any other skill, you have to think of it like exercising a muscle that you haven’t really worked out before. Over time and with consistent practice, that muscle will get stronger.”
Start with these easy exercises: Sit up tall (this sends a signal to your nervous system that you’re focused and alert) and take long, deep breaths. Then, anchor your attention on the sounds that are around you. Simply note them, without trying to mentally process them in any way. “I might make a mental note, ‘birds chirping,’ and then I’m bringing myself back to the breath, and I bring myself back to the breath again and again and again,” Monness says. Try this exercise for three to five minutes — chances are you’ll be successful, making it your first step in achieving mellow mindfulness.
– Working Out Stress –
General exercise, and especially yoga, just might be your ticket to a calmer state of mind.
If you’re looking for another anxiety-busting exercise, try, well, literal exercise. “Everyone needs to move,” says Anita Greenwald, an Armonk-based certified health coach and yoga teacher. “Move your body for a minimum of 20 minutes a day. Go on a walk or, if there’s a storm, go on the treadmill or just walk up and down your steps 10 times. As we age, we need strength training. I do it for 15 minutes a day, twice a week.” Science agrees with her assessment: a 2014 study published in the journal Frontiers in Physiology found that regular exercise makes healthy people more emotionally resilient to sudden stress.
Greenwald believes bodies have another physical need, as well: “You should do stretching or have a yoga practice, especially for stress,” she insists. Yoga has long been known to help people chill out. One study of depressed people, for instance, found that practicing yoga reduced their levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Another found that a three-month yoga retreat reduced both stress and inflammation in its subjects. Greenwald believes she knows the reason behind these results: Since yoga involves focusing on your breath and poses, “you can’t be thinking about the news or the crazy world we’re living in,” she says.
– Poses for a Peaceful Mind –
Local health coach Anita Greenwald says there are plenty of easy yoga moves that almost anybody can squeeze into their busy lives.
Pose 1: Raise your arms overhead as you inhale, and allow your palms to touch as your gaze goes to the ceiling. Then exhale and allow your arms to go down again to your sides.
Pose 2: Do a forward bend, bending at the hip flexor and keeping a very straight back. Keep a micro-bend in your knees, and shake your head ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to make sure you’re not straining your back.
Pose 3: Sitting in a chair, take one hand and place it on the opposite knee as you twist and breathe. As you inhale, get tall. As you exhale, relax and look over your shoulder for a twist. Then lean to the right, keeping a wide-open chest. Come to the center and repeat to the left.
Pose 4: Go into “corpse pose”: Lie down and scan your body to relieve any tension you discover.
Pose 5: Try “child’s pose”: With your knees bent and your feet out, sit on your heels and lean forward with your hands outstretched in front of you, pressing your tailbone down. If you like, separate your knees, so your chest comes in between them, toward the floor.
Pose 6: Lying down, face up, shimmy yourself so that your hips touch a wall and your legs go up it. You can bring the soles of your feet together or separate yourself for a wide-angle pose. Or, just stay as you are, allowing your blood to flow in reverse, to relieve stress.
– The Top 10 Ways to Outsmart Stress –
Looking for a few moves that can conquer your anxiety? Try these tips from health coach Anita Greenwald.
- Get enough sleep. Try to get at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night. Your brain and body need it. If you don’t have sufficient shuteye, then everything else will feel off.
- Socialize. Make time for your tribe. It’s easy to find yourself sitting alone these days, due to COVID, but you need to nurture your friendships. Mask up and take a socially distanced walk with a pal or get a group together for a virtual “whine and wine” party, card game, or book group.
- Eat and drink clean. Stay away from processed and sugary foods, and go easy on alcohol and caffeine. Keeping your body healthy and strong will make you better-equipped to cope with angst-inducing events.
- Keep a gratitude journal. It will set you up with an optimistic lens on life. If you focus on the good, that’s what you’ll see.
- Meditate daily. It gives your mind a vacation.
- Seek out joy. Make a point of doing something that makes you really happy, such as listening to music you like, taking a walk in nature, or watching a Seinfeld rerun.
- Treat yourself to a news detox. You don’t have to cut yourself off from world events entirely, but take a break for a few days, so you aren’t continually wrapped up in the latest natural disaster or heart-wrenching tale of injustice.
- Shut off your screens. We scroll all day long, taking in a dizzying amount of info. See if you can’t power down by 10 p.m.; it will raise your chances of relaxing enough to get a good night’s rest.
- Take a bath. Mix a cup of Epsom salts and a half-cup of baking soda in the water, along with a few drops of lavender bath oil. You’ll be enveloped in warmth and a pleasant scent. For a heightened sensory experience, light a candle too.
- Stay organized. The work you put in to making your environment orderly will pay off in the long term, reducing visual stressors, and making it easier to find everything you need, when you need it.
Those hoping to avoid anxiety and shop locally can find plenty of help with inner peace in this roundup of calming products.
These red mandarin gummies available at local farm-to-table CBD shop Via Viaggio include 50 mg each of organic, full-spectrum raw CBD that preserves the plant’s naturally occurring oils and help promote a comforting, meditative, and restorative state.
Mom Made Candle Co.
This handmade candle by beloved local company, Mom Made Candle Co. combines a bouquet of calming scents, including lavender, chamomile, rosemary, and sage, to lend a soothing smell to any room.
Coco, Columbian Dark
Chelsea Dry Goods
You may have noticed chocolate among lists of calming foods, so why not shop locally for a truly top-notch bar made by internationally recognized chocolatier Coco.
Stress Relieving Tea
Sage’s Herbal Apothecary
$15 (four ounces)
Just across the Hudson River, in Nyack, this celebrated apothecary combines organic licorice root, organic rosebuds and petals, and organic lavender to make a tea that it says calms the nerves and has antianxiety and anti-depressive properties.
Calm Aromatherapy Spray
Scented with lavender, as well a number of additional oils purported to promote calm, this convenient two-ounce spray bottle is designed to give your entire home a tranquil, anxiety-easing atmosphere.
– Managing Mental Health –
Sometimes stress and anxiety can be so intense that they begin to negatively affect everyday life and relationships. We asked two professionals from Westmed Medical Group, Jacqueline S. Rose, LCSW, and Dr. Sandy P. Marantz, LCSW, for some insight into dealing with fear and when to seek help.
How do anxiety and fear affect the body?
JR: Anxiety and fear can cause the body to develop different eating and sleep patterns, lower one’s self-esteem, it may make people more irritable and less able to cope with daily chores
When is time to seek professional help?
JR: It is time to seek professional help when you feel the anxiety is taking over and you are experiencing increased inability to manage your symptoms.
What is the difference between a psychologist and psychiatrist, and how do you know which you need if you are feeling anxious?
JR: A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who can prescribe medications to help the person with anxious symptoms. A psychologist engages in talk therapy, wherein the patient learns underlying reasons for the anxiety, how to recognize triggers and self-calming skills and techniques to help manage the anxiety moving forward.
How has the pandemic impacted mental health, and how can people better deal with this?
SM: It’s a good idea to talk to someone you love and get your feelings out. A good conversation and deeper connection can go a long way to making you feel supported and validated. If you’re feeling a little isolated, it could also help to write down your feelings or find a behavioral-health provider to help you find healthy solutions to manage your problems and your thoughts. It is crucial to live one moment at a time. Live and eat mindfully. When you wake up and get ready for the day, smell the shampoo in your hair, feel the crunch of the toast when you bite down, look at the sky outside, hear the sounds of birds chirping. Remember: Getting good sleep, eating well, and exercising all contribute to your overall mood and energy levels.
– Where to Wind Down –
Whether it’s a comedy club, calming trail, or serene art exhibition, there is a multitude of spots to shake off the blues or find a bit of peace in Westchester.
Laugh It Out
Paramount Hudson Valley Theater
This beloved Peekskill venue is one of the county’s top spots to release some stress with a little laughter. Recently host to noted local comedian Anthony Rodia, the Paramount will welcome famed actor and funnyman Jay Mohr (Jerry Maguire) and Curb Your Enthusiasm mainstay JB Smoove in the fall.
Just over the border, in Ridgefield, this venue is often host to some of the most sidesplitting funnymen and women to grace the stage. Case in point: Famed comedian Christine O’Leary was cracking wise here in March and late-night legend Jay Leno will be taking the stage in May.
The Art of Calm
Hammond Museum & Japanese Stroll Garden
North Salem Set to reopen its doors this month, the museum is known for its tranquil Japanese stroll garden, populated with a soothing pond, tea and courtyard gardens, dry landscaping, and gorgeous, flowering trees. In addition, art lovers can enjoy a host of exhibitions, both real and virtual.
What better way to unwind than taking in elegant 19th-century architecture amid Lyndhurst’s 67 acres of verdant gardens, orchards, stone walkways, and rolling hills? Once the mansion reopens, it will also host tours and rotating exhibitions, such as Jorge OteroPailos’ sculptural installation, Watershed Moment.
Path to Tranquility
Rockefeller State Park Preserve
Stop by this bucolic park in Pleasantville for a tranquil way to unwind. Noted for its pastoral vistas and attractive greenery, this 1,400-acre park bequeathed by the Rockefeller family offers a chance to relax with some hiking, fishing, horseback riding, or birdwatching.
Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge
One of the newest additions to Westchester’s fleet of exceptional walking spots, this 3.6-mile pedestrian pathway built alongside the Cuomo Bridge offers far more than just a place to walk, run, or ride a bike. Visitors can enjoy exceptional public artwork by eight New York-based artists, as well as a host of locally sourced food vendors.
– Holistic Healing –
Sometimes unconventional methods can be your ticket to a more tranquil life. If nothing else seems to work, try giving one of these holistic treatments a go.
When stress and anxiety creep in, many people envision a day at the spa to cure what ails them, and those who have adopted a “holistic” outlook on health and healing — one that views mind, body, and spirit as intertwined — wouldn’t discourage such an endeavor. The guiding principles of the holistic mindset maintain that anxious thoughts or feelings cause pockets of energy to become trapped in the body, and when that energy is released, relaxation is restored.
While a skilled massage therapist can surely do wonders to whittle away knots of tension and pent-up energy in the body, there is a wealth of practitioners across Westchester utilizing alternative therapies and techniques, like acupuncture, energy healing, and others, to alleviate blocked energy and attain ease.
White Plains Hospital (WPH) has a team dedicated to such modalities, including gentle-touch therapy and guided imagery, and holistic nurse coordinator Toyoko Yasui, RN, says the goal with these and other holistic treatments is to “activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the opposite of the sympathetic stress response,” commonly referred to as fight-or-flight.
Yasui says gently stroking the hands, feet, or back, and/or using the imagination to generate a pleasing image can “lower stress-hormone levels and normalize blood pressure and heart rate while promoting calming hormones, such as serotonin, melatonin, and endorphins [to] elevate mood, simultaneously nurturing body and mind, thereby assisting a person to de-stress.”
WPH’s holistic team also utilizes energy healing to promote feelings of well-being in patients, just as Stephanie Filardi does with her clients at Bronxville Wellness Sanctuary. “Energy healing allows us to target the root causes of anxiety, heal wounds that we are not consciously aware of, and release core beliefs and experiences stored in the body or the subconscious, or feeling, mind.”
Typically, energy healing takes place on a massage table, with the practitioner placing the palms onto, or just slightly above, the patient in an effort to transfer “universal energy” from one to the other to achieve a state of relaxation.
More invasive, yet still relaxing, acupuncture is another way to release energy blockages and relieve stress. One of the main components of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), acupuncture involves the insertion of thin, metal needles into the body via the skin. “The needle brings the tension that’s buried deep down in the body to the surface,” says Binghui Guan, co-owner of EastWest Healing Arts & Acupuncture, LLC, in Hartsdale.
In addition, Guan and many of her counterparts in acupuncture, employ aromatherapy during treatments by diffusing highly concentrated essential oils, which have, she explains, “the capacity to reach the limbic brain area via the olfactory nerve to relax the mind.”
While TCM has been practiced for centuries, light therapy is relatively new to the holistic de-stressing scene, and at NLighten, an infrared-therapy sauna in Hastings-on-Hudson, the body is warmed internally by infrared light (similar to sunlight), as opposed to simply turning up the heat in the room, like traditional saunas, which can be stifling to some. “Sweating activates serotonin, which regulates mood, and sweating in a relaxed, parasympathetic environment is a much more efficient and productive sweat,” says owner Naomi Ortiz-Honor. Plus, NLighten also uses “medical-grade color light” during infrared sweat sessions, which, Ortiz-Honor says, “stimulates energy points in the body and has different healing attributes.”