Scientists believe exercise increases blood circulation to the brain, especially areas like the amygdala and hippocampus — which both have roles in controlling motivation, mood and response to stress. For one thing, it releases endorphins, the body’s feel-good hormones.
“A brisk walk, jog or bike ride can help keep you calm and healthy during these uncertain times,” said Helsz, who is an associate professor in kinesiology at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada.
Focus on sleep
Develop a routine. You want to teach your body (and brain) to calm down, so try to begin relaxing at least an hour before bedtime. Shut off the news and put down your smartphone. Taking a warm bath or shower, reading a book, listening to soothing music, meditating or doing light stretches are all good options.
You should also have a regular bedtime and a regular time for getting up in the morning, even on weekends, experts said.
Avoid certain food and drink. Avoid stimulants such as nicotine or coffee after midafternoon, especially if you have insomnia. Alcohol is another no-no. You may think it helps you doze off, but you are more likely to wake in the night as your body begins to process the spirits.
Strive for cooler temperatures. Make sure your bed and pillows are comfortable, and the room is cool: Between 60 and 67 degrees is best. Don’t watch television or work in your bedroom. You want your brain to think of the room as only for sleep.
Keep yourself in the dark. Be sure to eliminate all bright lights, as even the blue light of cellphones or laptops can be disruptive. If that’s hard to accomplish, think about using eye shades and blackout curtains to keep the room dark. But during the day, try to get good exposure to natural light since that will help regulate your circadian rhythm.
Something as simple as taking deep, slow breaths can do amazing things to our brain and therefore our stress, experts said.
“When you physiologically calm yourself, you actually change your brainwaves,” Ackrill said. “I used to do neurofeedback, which is brainwave training, and I would have people hooked up to all kinds of machines. And after doing breathwork with them you could see these massive changes in the brain. It also lowered blood pressure.”
Deep breathing realigns the stressed-out part of our bodies, called the the sympathetic system, with the parasympathetic, or “rest and restore” system, Ackrill explained.
While there are many types of breathing, a lot of research has focused on “cardiac coherence,” where you inhale for six seconds and exhale for six seconds for a short period of time. Focus on belly breathing, or breathing to the bottom of your lungs, by putting your hand on your tummy to feel it move.
“Anytime you intentionally bring your attention to your breath and slow it down, you’ve already done a good thing,” Ackrill said. “That’s just one simple tool that you can use and it gives you back a feeling of power and control.
“And it gives you that pause where you begin to realize that you are separate from what’s happening to you, and you can choose a response instead of just a primal reaction.”
Take up yoga, tai chi or qi gong
But yoga is also a spiritual discipline, designed to meld body and mind. A yoga lifestyle incorporates physical postures, breath regulation and mindfulness through the practice of meditation.
“Yogic philosophy teaches that the body, mind and spirit are all interconnected — what you do in one area, for example, a physical exercise to strengthen your leg muscles, will have an effect in all of the other areas of your system,” said Laurie Hyland Robertson, the editor in chief of Yoga Therapy Today, a journal published by the International Association of Yoga Therapists.
Two traditional Chinese exercises, tai chi and qi gong, have also been shown to be excellent stress reducers. Both are low-impact, moderate-intensity aerobic exercises that contain a flowing sequence of movements coupled with changes in mental focus, breathing, coordination and relaxation.
Meditation and mindfulness are two excellent ways to lower stress.
But you don’t have to devote your life to meditation to see change, said Richard Davidson, founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds, the institute that did the research on the monks.
“When these kinds of mental exercises are taught to people, it actually changes the function and the structure of their brain in ways that we think support these kinds of positive qualities,” Davidson said. “And that may be key in producing the downstream impact on the body.”
One of Davidson’s favorite mindfulness exercises cultivates appreciation.
“Simply to bring to mind people that are in our lives from whom we have received some kind of help,” Davidson said. “Bring them to mind and appreciate the care and support or whatever it might be that these individuals have provided.”
“You can spend one minute each morning and each evening doing this,” he said. “And that kind of appreciation is something that can foster a sense of optimism about the future.”
Like exercise, mindfulness will need to be practiced on a regular basis to keep the brain’s positive outlook in good shape, Davidson said. But the effort is definitely worth it.
“This is really about nurturing the mind,” he said. “And there is ample evidence to suggest that there are real psychological and physical health-related benefits.”