By Eric Barker
August 6, 2017
IDEAS
Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

The modern world seems to be designed to increase stress and I’m starting to wonder if worrying will soon be an Olympic sport.

You may have your own ways of coping with stress. Problem is, research says they probably don’t work.

From The Willpower Instinct:

So let’s go after this stress thing where it lives: your brain. There are some great methods to train your mind to reduce stress…

But they take work. And right now you’re too stressed out for any of that. (Or maybe you’re just lazy and impatient. Hey, I don’t judge.)

So we need some stuff that’s diabolically easy and backed by neuroscience research — but let’s keep the emphasis on diabolical. If your brain won’t play fair, neither will we. So what do we need here?

Old fashioned treachery. Of the neuroscience variety. Time to do an end run around your brain’s stress response and exploit physiology to trick it into calming down. Let’s play neurological hardball…

Read more: New Neuroscience Reveals 4 Rituals That Will Make You Happy

1) Clench Your Facial Muscles And Relax Them

Communication between your brain and your body is a two-way street. There’s a feedback loop. So if you can’t get your brain to make your body calm down, you can use your body to make your brain calm down.

Your grey matter gets stressed and your muscles tighten up. Then your tense muscles send a signal back to your brain, confirming you’re stressed. We gotta break the loop.

Clench your facial muscles and then relax them. Now your body is sending a signal to your brain saying, “We’re not stressed anymore. You shouldn’t be either.”

From The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time:

If your partner is around and you don’t feel like making a face that looks like you’re constipated, have them give you a massage. That works too.

(To learn the four rituals neuroscience says will make you happier, click here.)

So funny faces can beat stress. Or maybe you’re getting a massage instead. That’s even better. You’re less stressed and you’re bonding with your partner.

But what if facial scrunching doesn’t work? What other dirty physiological tricks do we have?

2) Take Slow, Deep Breaths

The vagus nerve is one of the key emotional highways in your body. It sends signals down to your heart and up to your brain playing a critical role in regulating the fight-or-flight system.

Directly stimulating the vagus nerve can fix all your issues… Only problem is that would require a scalpel and a lot of medical school loans. So we’ll stay focused on treachery.

How you breathe can hijack the way the vagus nerve works. In fact, it’s one of the fastest ways to change your emotional state.

From The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time:

So how do you do it right?

From The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time:

And this is no small effect. After the US military taught Navy SEAL recruits a few psychological tricks (including proper breathing) passing rates jumped from 25% to 33%.

An interesting side note: do the opposite and you’ll get the opposite effect. Need more energy? Breathe quickly.

From The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time:

(For more from neuroscientist Alex Korb on how to make your brain happy, click here.)

What if this doesn’t work? You’re huffing and puffing and you’re still worried your house is going to get blown down. Head to the sink, my friend…

Read more: New Harvard Research Reveals A Fun Way To Be More Successful

3) Splash Your Face With Cold Water

Cold water on your face will jolt your vagus nerve and slow your heart rate. Your brain feels your heart rate dropping and says, “We must not be stressed anymore.” (Ha! Stupid brain…)

From The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time:

(To learn the methods bomb disposal experts use to stay calm under pressure, click here.)

Alright, maybe you’ve made funny faces, you’re breathing like Darth Vader and your face is soaking wet — but you’re still stressed. Do not worry. (Or I should say, “Do not worry even more.”) Neuroscience has another sneaky trick. And this one is fun…

4) Play Music And Do A Little Dance

Music affects how you feel, right? Fight the bad feelings with good feelings by listening to the music you love.

Sound overly simple? Nope. Your favorite song will passively help straighten out key limbic system regions like your hippocampus, your anterior cingulate and your nucleus accumbens. Making music has an even more powerful effect.

And, no, you don’t have to do a little dance. But you get bonus points if you do.

From The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time:

(To learn what ancient wisdom says will make you happy, click here.)

Alright, you’ve fooled your brain into a state of calm that would make Zen masters envious. Let’s round up what we learned and do something fun together that will relieve stress and make you smile instantly…

Read more: How To Get People To Like You: 7 Ways From An FBI Behavior Expert

Sum Up

Here’s how neuroscience and treachery can make you stress-free:

  • Clench your facial muscles and relax them: (If you use Botox, just skip to the next tip.)
  • Take slow, deep breaths: If it gets Navy SEALs through Hell Week, it’ll get you through tax season.
  • Splash your face with cold water: Wakes you up, calms you down and cleans your mug. Now that’s efficiency.
  • Play some music and do a little dance: Add a “neuroscience” playlist to Spotify.

So how can you kill stress and be happier with almost no effort whatsoever?

Research shows that owning a dog reduces stress. In fact, the effect is so powerful that just watching a video of a cute animal reduces heart rate and blood pressure in under a minute.

From 59 Seconds: Change Your Life in Under a Minute:

You want easy stress relief? All you have to do is click…

(Awwwww, that’s so sweet I think I’m getting cavities.)

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This article originally appeared on Barking Up The Wrong Tree

Buy Barker’s book Barking Up The Wrong Tree here

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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