There are plenty of great ways to relax, from sweating it out to doing something nice for others to taking a nice, long stroll in nature. Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation. Bratman GN, Hamilton JP, Hahn KS. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 2015, Jun.;112(28):1091-6490. But when you're about to walk into a big meeting with your boss or finally meet Tinder bae IRL, ain't nobody got time for a walk in the park. Next time you feel that rush of anxiety—and that red face—coming on, try one (or all) of these easy tips to calm down before anyone sees you break a sweat.
1. Get excited!
Getting rid of your nerves doesn't always mean taking a chill pill. "It's very hard to move from anxious thoughts to calm thoughts," says Gail Saltz, M.D., a psychiatry professor at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. Both nervousness and excitement are amped-up emotions, so it's an easier transition. For most people (unless you're a master meditator), Saltz says hopping on the excitement train is your best bet.
Think: "I feel amped up because I'm going to go in and kill this meeting," or "My boss is going to be really impressed," Saltz suggests. She also recommends writing down these positive affirmations. "To some degree, you're forcing yourself into a positive scenario, but even if you don't fully believe yourself, you'll help transition your nerves into excited energy," Saltz says.
2. Think about pancakes.
We're always down for pancakes, so we were pretty stoked when Meg Jay, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and the author of The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter— and How to Make the Most of Them Now, told us to think about the breakfast treat during a stressful event, like a performance review.
If your manager suggests things you can improve upon (such as replying to emails more professionally or turning around reports more quickly), think of them as pancakes on the griddle. "You need to take them off the stove, turn on a fan, or open a window," Jay explains, "but the house is not burning down, so you don't need to run screaming from the place." In other words, if a meeting is getting you all worked up, thinking about "pancakes" can put it into perspective.
Similarly, turning to Mother Nature (whether it's looking out a window or Googling some awe-inspiring photos), can help your stresses seem small compared to how huge the world is. It can also help clear away inner turmoil, research suggests. Finally, as Tiffany Cruikshank, a certified yoga teacher and author of Meditate Your Weight, says, remind yourself (in your head or out loud) that everything passes. And think of past experiences where that has been true.
3. Put your hands on your hips.
Striking a "power pose" (exhibit A: Queen Bey with her hands on her hips or any of these high-power positions) can make a huge difference in the way you feel, Saltz says. In one study, people who struck a power pose for just two minutes per day had lower levels of cortisol, the body's stress hormone. Power posing: brief nonverbal displays affect neuroendocrine levels and risk tolerance. Carney DR, Cuddy AJ, Yap AJ. Psychological science, 2010, Sep.;21(10):1467-9280.
Practice in front of the mirror (or inside a bathroom stall) before a big meeting or a first date. That confidence can carry over into the nerve-wracking situation. Even sitting up tall and stretching your hands across your desk (like you own it!) is a great way to reap the benefits of power posing if you can't sneak away to a private space.
4. Count your breaths.
You've probably heard that breathing can help you calm down, but have you actually tried it? Thought so. Here's an easy place to start: Take five conscious, deep breaths anytime you feel stress coming on, Jay suggests, so your body starts to receive the breaths as a signal to calm down. Cruikshank suggests inhaling for three or four seconds and then exhaling for one or two seconds longer.
Whichever breathing exercise you choose, it's best to stick with one, consistent method that works for you. "Having a regular practice of some sort is really the way to train the mind and the nervous system," Cruikshank says—just like training a muscle.
5. Go ahead—grab those chocolate chips.
Stress eating isn't always healthy, but there are certain foods that can help your mind calm down a bit. Green tea, a handful of chocolate chips, or a slice of cheese are all good choices that contain compounds that may help bust anxiety and stress, says Taz Bhatia, M.D., an integrative wellness expert. Neurobiological effects of the green tea constituent theanine and its potential role in the treatment of psychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders. Lardner AL. Nutritional neuroscience, 2013, Nov.;17(4):1476-8305. Serotonin, tryptophan metabolism and the brain-gut-microbiome axis. O'Mahony SM, Clarke G, Borre YE. Behavioural brain research, 2014, Jul.;277():1872-7549. (Here are 25 more meals, from breakfast to dinner, that can also help boost your mood.) And steer clear of caffeine, alcohol, and super-sugary snacks if you're getting nervous, Bhatia suggests, since they may make you more jittery.
6. Imagine being in your favorite yoga pose.
Or doing any other exercise you love. Picture something that's particularly relaxing when you start to get nervous, Cruikshank says. Even if you can't launch into tree pose or sneak out for a run, imagining the feeling of a calming activity can help you chill out. From mental power to muscle power--gaining strength by using the mind. Ranganathan VK, Siemionow V, Liu JZ. Neuropsychologia, 2004, May.;42(7):0028-3932.
When you conjure up the specific details of what it feels like to be on a nice, long run or killing it at kick-boxing class, you'll be surprised how your nervous thoughts will begin to drift away.
7. Wiggle your toes.
Mindfulness is a term that gets tossed around a lot, but at the most basic level, it's all about being grounded, or centered, and aware of your body in some way. Go ahead and "ground" yourself: Focus on your feet, pushing them into the ground or wiggling your toes (easier in sandals!) to check in with your body. "Picking one point of your body to focus on helps direct your body into relaxation mode," Cruikshank says.
8. Make small talk.
Intimidated by the person you're about to face, whether a romantic interest or work supervisor? Remember they're all just people. If you're prone to getting nervous around your boss, make small talk with him or her around the office before you have a formal encounter, says Lynne Eisaguirre, a workplace consultant and author of We Need to Talk: Tough Conversations With Your Boss. "If you can develop a relationship, even through mundane conversation, it will make difficult conversations a lot easier," she says.
What about a situation where prior relationship building isn't really an option (a.k.a. a first date)? Ask an open-ended question, Eisaguirre says. "If you get flooded by emotion, realize you don't need to be talking all the time. People love to talk, and it will give you a chance to take a deep breath." (Just avoid these nine treacherous topics on a first date!)
We can't control the way our bodies respond to stress (thanks, evolution!), but there are ways we can train—and maybe even trick—our minds to go from freaked out to excited or calm. It's also important to remember that anxiety is something everyone faces at work and in life, but not everyone has an anxiety disorder, which requires professional help, not a few quick tips.
Finally, stress at work (outside the normal "Ahh! This meeting is a really BFD!") could also indicate that you may be in the wrong job. "Listen to the things you say to yourself when you're feeling anxious at work," Jay says. There's a major difference between "I really don't want to do this" and "I really don't want to fail at this."