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Cultivating Calm

Fuel Your Mood continued...

Thayer argues that calm energy must be attained through self-awareness and smart lifestyle decisions. In one study, he randomly assigned 18 subjects the task of either eating a candy bar or walking briskly for 10 minutes and then mapping their energy and tension level at several points during the two hours afterward. After an initial, fleeting uptick in energy, the sugar eaters reported plummeting energy levels and rising tension; the walkers, on the other hand, said they consistently were less tense and more energetic. "And yet, how do most of us deal with stress? We overeat and indulge in high-density foods," Thayer says. "Daily exercise is essential to feeling energetic and calm at the same time. The trick is to work out at the right intensity to find that balance. If you had a stressful day and are wound up tight, you need to release lots of tension and would do best with a challenging gym session or power walk, but if you're lagging at midday, you're better off with a short walk that will provide an energy burst without depleting you."

In the evening, calm tiredness becomes the ideal state for getting the rejuvenating sleep that's essential to maintaining your cool and calm. Although a glass of wine seems like a simple, effective way to shake off the stresses of the day, "drinking offers a fleeting, superficial fix rather than an abiding sense of calm," cautions Thayer. Initially, alcohol turns off adrenaline production in the body, generating a sense of relaxation. But this effect wears off after 90 minutes or so, according to British nutritionist Patrick Holford, who specializes in food and mood. "Later, alcohol suppresses dreaming, a mental process that releases emotional stress. Not only do you wake up dehydrated but also tired and irritated."

A better way to ratchet down tension at the end of a long day is doing easy relaxation exercises. A 2004 Harvard Medical School study found that gentle yoga helped insomniacs increase their sleep time by an average of 12 percent. Judith Hanson Lasater, Ph.D., a renowned restorative-yoga teacher and author of Relax & Renew: Restful Yoga for Stressful Times, recommends practicing a pose she calls "basic relaxation with legs elevated" daily for 15 to 20 minutes: Lie on the floor with your head on a pillow, bend your knees, and rest your calves on the couch; drop your chin toward your chest, rest your arms a few inches away from your sides, close your eyes, and let go.

Recently, after a maddening day of cranky baby, irate mom, lazy husband, messy house, and overcooked dinner, I tried this position, hoping to calm my jangled nerves and maybe, just for a few minutes, reconnect with that lush, breeze-a-blowing, happy Costa Rican vibe. True, my brain was never duped into believing we had traveled to greener pastures, but I felt the tightness in my jaw and shoulders diminish and my choppy breath get smoother. When I got up a short time later and came out into the living room, I decided to forgo my habitual, cranky nighttime-chore mode and sit down next to my husband on the sofa. We read quietly, side by side, holding hands.

"Cultivating calm is like investing in a good long-term relationship — it feels good from the beginning, but as you develop, it gets better, sweeter, and more rewarding," Lasater observes. "You learn to focus on what really matters rather than the task at hand. Eventually, it will change the way you behave in traffic jams, interact with strangers, and care for the people you love."

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