From listening to nature sounds to smelling the clothing of a loved one, scientists have discovered several simple strategies for reducing stress.
Feeling truly, deeply calm isn’t something many of us experience for long stretches of time. We might enjoy the odd pocket of tranquillity, but generally, these peaceful moments are significantly outweighed - and often interrupted – by the chaos of everyday life.
Of course, one ideal solution would be jetting off to a tropical island for a two-week silent retreat, but that’s not an option for most women. Fortunately, psychologists, scientists and doctors have spent years researching the science of calmness, and identifying strategies we can use to make ourselves feel more at peace.
Below, we’ve rounded up some of the most fascinating research on ways to reduce stress and increase calmness.
Cynics might dismiss self-affirmations – the practice of saying, thinking or writing down positive things about yourself – as hippy-dippy nonsense. But there’s real science to support the idea that they help diminish nervousness.
In 2015, psychologists in Canada discovered that self-affirmations can help calm jitters in stressful professional moments. The research, published in the journal Society for Personality and Social Psychology, showed that employees tended to perform less well than people with more power in pressure-filled situations. (This isn’t surprising, really: who hasn’t inwardly freaked out after being put on the spot by their boss?)
But when employees spent five minutes writing about their most important and relevant professional skills before beginning a nerve-wracking task, they performed significantly better – effectively eliminating the performance gap between them and those with more power.
Psychologist Sonia Kang, who led the study, said that self-affirmations should be used to calm frayed nerves before major career-related tests. “You should reflect on things that you know are good about yourself,” she said. “Anyone has the potential to do really well. It’s how you respond under pressure that makes a key difference.”
Get thee to a body of water
Scientists have long known that being near water induces feelings of calmness and serenity. In his book Blue Mind, the scientist and marine biologist Wallace J Nichols writes: “Our brains are hardwired to react positively to water… being near it can calm and connect us, increase innovation and insight, and even heal what’s broken.”
Nichols cites the work of environmental psychologists Stephen and Rachel Kaplan, who outlined two states of mental attention: “directed” and “involuntary”. Directed attention is required when we’re busying ourselves with a specific task, while involuntary attention “occurs when we are in an environment outside our ordinary habitat, with enough interest to keep the brain engaged”.
Gazing at water or floating in a swimming pool encourages our attention to “drift”, Nichols says, creating a sense of meditative peace.
Then there’s the innately soothing sound of water – which brings us neatly to our next stress-busting tip…
Listen to nature sounds
You probably didn’t need a team of scientists to tell you that the sounds of rushing water and rustling leaves are inherently relaxing. But in March 2017, researchers at Brighton and Sussex Medical School published a study that shed light on exactly why nature sounds have such powerful calming abilities.
According to the research, which appeared in the journal Scientific Reports, natural sounds physically change the connections in our brains, reducing our body’s innate fight-or-flight instinct. This has the effect of making us feel more peaceful.
Researchers recruited a group of healthy adults for the experiment, and asked them to perform a task while having their brains scanned and their heart rates monitored. Some of the participants listened to a natural soundscape while they were carrying out the task, while the others were surrounded by noises from a manmade environment.
It was found that the sounds had an effect on activity in the area of the brain associated with attention. Specifically, manmade noises were linked to patterns of inward-focused attention, which can include obsessional thinking, worrying and ruminating on issues related to oneself. Nature sounds, in contrast, were associated with external-focused attention, where we concentrate on the world around us rather than our internal thoughts and feelings. This can be helpful in controlling anxiety.
Those who listened to nature sounds also experienced a decrease in their body’s sympathetic response (which causes the ‘fight-or-flight’ sensation of nervousness) and an increase in parasympathetic response, which helps the body relax.
Being around nature has also been found to have mental health benefits - but if you can’t access the real thing, calmsound.com has lots of free and gentle natural soundscapes that don’t make you feel like you’re stuck in a bad spa.
Smell clothing belonging to a loved one
This one’s a little gross, perhaps, but kind of understandable? In January this year, academics at the University of British Columbia discovered that people felt more peaceful and experienced decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol after sniffing the clothing of someone they loved.
“Many people wear their partner’s shirt or sleep on their partner’s side of the bed when their partner is away, but may not realise why they engage in these behaviours,” said Marlise Hofer, the lead author on the study, which was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in January.
For the study, researchers recruited 96 straight couples and asked the women to smell their partner’s shirt before going to a mock job interview. (They chose straight couples because men tend to produce more body odour than women, but there’s no reason to suggest that a woman’s scent wouldn’t also be soothing.) They found that those who smelled the shirt felt calmer, both before and after the interview.
“Our findings suggest that a partner’s scent alone, even without their physical presence, can be a powerful tool to help reduce stress,” said Hofer.
Call a woman you look up to for a chat
In 2010, researchers in the US found that girls who called their mothers in anxiety-inducing situations experienced the release of the potent anti-stress hormone oxytocin. Interestingly, a phone call with their mother was almost as effective at reducing nerves as a physical hug.
“It’s clear from these results that a mother’s voice can have the same effect as a hug, even if they’re not standing there,” said Leslie Seltzer, a biological anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The researchers explained that women could be more soothed by their mother’s voice than men. This is because females often react to stressful situations by trying to form social bonds with others, while males are generally more likely to go into ‘fight or flight’ mode.
But of course, not everyone is able to call their mothers when times get tough – and not everyone’s mum is a particularly comforting presence. If your mum isn’t around or the two of you have a rocky relationship, try calling another older woman you’re close with. While there isn’t any scientific evidence to prove that this will calm you down (yet), she’ll likely be able to offer some pearls of wisdom that will give you some perspective and make you feel less rattled.
For one day only on Tuesday 27 March, Fearne Cotton has taken over stylist.co.uk and transformed it into her very own Happy Place– a digital sanctuary, focusing entirely on wellness, happiness and good mental health.
For similarly inspiring and uplifting content, check out Fearne Cotton’s Happy Place, available on Apple Podcasts now.
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