Live a happier, less strung-out life.
Live a happier, less strung-out life. (Hannah McCaughey)
Chill Out

How to Chill Out and Relax Already

17 surprisingly easy steps to a happier, less strung-out life—starting with your vagus nerve

Live a happier, less strung-out life.

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Activate Your Vagus Nerve

It’s the secret to calming down

Activate what now? Stick with us: The vagus is the largest and longest of the 12 nerve fibers emanating from your brain. It branches out to reach every major organ in your body, making the mind-body connection a literal one. Researchers hypothesize that the vagus is part of what’s known as the microbiota-gut-brain axis, and John Cryan, an Irish neuroscientist, has identified the nerve as one way that microbes in your gut send signals to your brain. Which, as he likes to say, proves that what happens in vagus does not stay in vagus.

Why should you care?

Because the vagus nerve is a link to your parasympathetic, or “rest and digest,” nervous system. When stimulated, it slows down your heart rate, switches off your fight-or-flight response, and relaxes you. Things like yoga, deep breathing, massage therapy, and moderate exercise can activate it, which might help explain the positive feelings we get when we do them.

In an effort to trigger my own vagus nerve, I began searching for a quick and effective technique. Beyond stimulation therapy, in which surgeons implant a device that sends electrical impulses to the brain, there are no other FDA-­approved methods to get the health benefits. “I’ve yet to find a piece of scientific evidence that doesn’t get extrapolated well beyond where it should be,” says Mike Tipton, a professor of environmental physiology at England’s Univer­sity of Portsmouth.

I ruled out any method that required surgery, hiring a specialist, chanting, or gagging (the vagus nerve is connected to the throat muscles), as well as long-term investments like changing the composition of my gut microbiota or developing more meaningful friendships. The technique I kept returning to was cold-water face immersion. A number of experiments have shown that dunking your face in cold water reduces your heart rate and blood pressure. Even Tipton agrees that it’s “a legitimate way of stimulating the vagus nerve,” but notes that the therapeutic benefits are currently unproven.

A group of scientists in Luxembourg recently tested wearable devices that cool the vagus nerve via a patch of skin above the clavicle, but you don’t need to buy any new gadgets. Simply submerge your face in cold water for a few seconds. I tried it for several days, using water at about 55 ­degrees, and found the experience refreshing and, after the initial shock, somewhat calming. Even a quick splash can work. Ahhhhh. Feel that? That’s vagus-nerve stimulation. —Peter Andrey Smith

Quick Fix: Sleep Outdoors

It helps to reset your circadian rhythm and provides a sense of well-being, whether you’re in your backyard or on a mountaintop. Or glamp it up in a beautifully sited tent just outside a national park with Under Canvas, a company with locations from Zion to the Smoky Mountains.

Do Nothing

Just go outside. That’s it.

The crux of Jenny Odell’s argument in her book How to Do Nothing is that a narrow definition of productivity, which plays out on devices and social-media platforms, has monopolized our minds. Her solution? The 33-year-old Stanford lecturer urges us to pay attention to the natural world wherever we are—whether that’s the wilderness or the middle of the city. We asked Odell what that looks like. —Molly Mirhashem

“I don’t spend time outdoors to think about myself. It’s not about self-improvement. It’s about fundamentally refiguring your relationship to everything around you.”

“My book isn’t anti-technology. I teach digital and internet art, and there are amazing things online. But within the attention economy and social media, time feels very stunted. You’re trapped in an endless urgent present. When I think about how it feels to go for a walk around the block and just look at things, it’s almost the direct opposite.”

“I use the crowdsourcing app iNaturalist to help identify local flora and fauna. It works well in places like the Bay Area where there’s an active community of users. And I find it heartwarming to know that someone else is paying attention to the same thing as me and cares about it.”

“I considered myself to be in conversation with the outdoors as I worked on the book. Whatever environment I was in played an active role in how I formed my thoughts. It sounds cheesy, but I considered parks a collaborator, just like if you had a partner on a project who you talked through your ideas with.”

(Hannah McCaughey)

Quick Fix: Break the Rules

Binge-watch Netflix. Eat pizza. Take that tequila shot. Not every day, but some days. Because a little indulgence is liberating.

Learn a New Sport

It’s good for your brain

Each time we acquire a complex skill, our brains spring into action, shifting gray and white matter around in a process sometimes referred to as activation-dependent structural plasticity. To use an analogy from running, it’s like trading a steady 5K jog for a series of high-intensity sprints. It might be painful at first, but it makes your brain stronger. Even more appealing, developing new abilities may make us less stressed.

I reminded myself of this one morning last fall as I stood on the deck of the Wild Pigeon, a J/24 keelboat with a jaunty red hull owned by the Manhattan Yacht Club—which, despite its name, is located at Jersey City’s Liberty Harbor Marina. I was here to learn to sail, but also to explore the broader upside of doing so. In instructor Krista DeMille, I had an encouraging role model. She started sailing only a few years ago. A classically trained dancer and actor who also led river-rafting trips, she was a walking advertisement for the polyvalent self.

With the metallic clang of nearby construction as a backdrop, DeMille kicked off the two-day intensive course by guiding me through sailing’s dizzying multitude of terms. I struggled to keep up with the flurry of hanks and clews and halyards, my Scrabble arsenal expanding by the minute. Next we moved to knots: square knots, slipknots, figure-eight stopper knots. To teach me the bowline, DeMille used a little story of a rabbit and a tree. Then she had me raise the jib and mainsail and fix the trio of tensioners, each with its own dynamics. It felt like doing a full-body workout while standing on a balance board.

This dockside training was a tonic for my brain, suggests Denise Park, director of re­search at the University of Tex­as’s Center for Vital Longevity. There is “some evidence,” she says, that engaging in “cognitively demanding tasks over a sustained period of time” keeps our brains sharp as we age. The ideal task is something “intellectually challenging and preferably novel.” As much as the brain likes a mental workout, it also likes physical exertion: exercise has been shown to enhance cognition.

DeMille took us into New York Harbor, one of the world’s busiest, filled with a staggering array of large vessels, most of which seemed to be bearing down on us. “Raise the jib!” she shouted. I clambered toward the bow and began hoisting. The sail unfurled a few feet and then refused to budge. DeMille took a look. “Sailing,” she told me, “is about problem-­solving.” Eventually, she found that I’d shackled the line not only to the grommet (correct), but also to the forestay (incorrect).

Once that was sorted, she handed me the tiller, and all that previously abstract instruction became very real: we were a crew of two, and the winds were robust. Sailing demanded all my attention. This itself, in an age of endless distraction, has benefits. While at the tiller, I couldn’t reach for my phone or think about the sources of anxiety in my life (bills, story deadlines, middle school application forms). No surprise there. But the fact that I was also learning a new skill provided its own form of stress reduction. As a recent study in the Journal of Applied Psychology on stress in the workplace suggests, learning gives us powerful psychological tools to combat job stressors, building our feeling of competence and enlarging our sense of self.

In my case, I’d studied several things at once: knots, nav­igation, the wind, the etiquette of the sea—the 100-question certification test I took afterward (I passed) only scratched the surface. Ultimately, sailing seemed like a metaphor for learning itself: something that takes you to new places and uses the power of nature to make you feel better. —Tom Vanderbilt

Quick Fix: Take Notes

Just don’t call it journaling. Research shows that a daily ritual of writing down your feelings is one of the best stress-management tools.

Put Down That Espresso

It isn’t making you happier

Caffeine is the world’s most popular psychoactive substance—Americans alone spend $72 billion on coffee each year. But surprising research suggests that it doesn’t work the way we think it does. According to Jack James, former editor of the Journal of Caffeine Research, if you’re a regular coffee drinker, caffeine doesn’t make you sharp, improve mood, or perk you up. And some of the world’s leading drug researchers, including David Nutt at Imperial College London and Peter Rogers at the University of Bristol, have confirmed that caffeine doesn’t boost wakefulness above baseline for those who are dependent on it. They explain it this way: You feel fatigued as your first espresso wears off, and you start going into withdrawal. So your next jolt is really just bringing you back to normal. “That’s pleasant and encourages caffeine consumption,” Rogers says, “but it’s not providing a net benefit to functioning.” Given that, and the fact that caffeine can cause sleep disruption and elevate blood pressure, it may be time to wean yourself. Life really is possible without it. —Peter Andrey Smith

Quick Fix: Swing in a Hammock

Hang time is easy and portable with the Eno Double­Nest. It’s small and light enough to bring on any adventure, easy to set up, and roomy enough for two.

Rein In Your Digital Life

Three simple steps

Jennifer Stewart is a cofounder of Gateway Productivity, which coaches business owners on how to be digitally organized. She shares the core principles that help her clients. —Abigail Barronian

(Hannah McCaughey)

1. Focus on one thing at a time.

Multitasking is a myth, Stewart says. She recommends that you turn off all notifications except texts and phone calls and consider installing an app and website blocker like Freedom, which forces you to choose when you digitally engage.

2. Put all your to-do items in one place.

“We hold everything in our head, and that causes stress,” says Stewart. “Pick a place where all those things can go. That way your brain can relax.” Things 3 is a simple management tool that allows you to sort and schedule your chores.

3. Account for your time.

Wonder where the day went? Try Toggl, a piece of time-tracking software. You record how you spend your work hours. After a few days, you’ll have a clear sense of where your energy is going and how you can adjust.

Quick Fix: Try a Staycation

Avoid the stress of airport lines and delayed flights and be a tourist in your own town.

Hit Snooze

You need more sleep

I’ve always been a morning person. I set my alarm for before dawn and head to the trail or gym when most people are still asleep. Then I shower and sip coffee while I catch up on the news or sift through e-mail. But a few months ago, I started to feel sluggish during those sunrise jogs, and I watched my mile times slow. As I yawned through the day, I wondered whether I was a morning person after all.

It turns out a lot of us feel tired. According to a Gallup poll, 40 percent of Americans report getting less than the recommended seven hours of sleep per night. The fewer z’s we get, the more our bodies and brains are compromised. “You might see a significant decline in physi­cal performance over a period of three or four days,” says W. Christopher Winter, a sleep researcher, neurologist, and author of The Sleep Solution. “And you’re likely to make three times as many mental errors.”

So I vowed that for two weeks, I would sleep in. I reset my alarm from 5 A.M. to 6:30, kept my regular bedtime of 11:30 P.M., and meticulously tracked how every day went.

It didn’t go well. Each morning, I woke up before my alarm and forced myself to close my eyes again. When the alarm went off, I’d bolt upright, race to the shower, and start my day feeling unprepared. That frazzled state stuck with me as I hurried to meetings.

Yet I did notice that I was more engaged at work and made fewer mistakes. I started running in the evening and shaved five seconds off my mile time. While sleeping later isn’t for me, it confirmed that my body feels healthier and my brain sharper when I’m getting at least seven hours. So I’ve set my alarm for 5 A.M. again, and I now have a second alarm that chimes at 10 P.M., telling me to go to bed. What I needed all along was to get more overall rest, something a lot of us could use. —Abigail Wise

Quick Fix: Get Your Hands Dirty

Exposure to biodiverse soil is good for your microbiome, which has been correlated with improved mood. Plant a tree, start a garden—or dig in at the Many Hands Peace Farm in Highlands, North Carolina, where guests learn and practice regenerative agriculture.

Take to the Needle

Want to relax? Try knitting. Seriously.

Last winter, bucking gender stereotypes and the derisive looks of my 11-year-old daughter, I became a proud knitter. But let’s back up. It all started as I was preparing for a podcast interview with Cal Newport, the author of Digital Minimalism, a bestselling book that examines the pitfalls of our screen-addicted lifestyles. My work project quickly evolved into a self-help mission. Newport’s book described a litany of bad habits—tuning out the world with music, mindless social-media scrolling—that sounded eerily familiar. So I decided to commit to his prescribed “digital declutter”—30 days without recreational screen time.

Newport is careful not tocall his plan a detox, a word he worries implies a short-term break rather than the trans­formation of one’s relationship to technology that he’s promoting. “One of the things I’ve noticed is that the people who succeed actually took advantage of the 30-day break to think seriously about what they really want to do with their time,” Newport told me. “You have to have a positive thing to replace this with.” In other words, you need a hobby—something you value that can fill the time you once spent scrolling through your Instagram feed when the monthlong moratorium expires.

(Hannah McCaughey; KingandEyeCrochet)

That’s when I picked up knitting, essentially by default. It was February, so gardening and other outdoor hobbies werea no-go. I love reading, but I knew my passion for dense nonfiction would inevitably be overrun by the lure of Twitter’s more snackable nuggets. Woodworking sounded cool, but I have few tools and zero carpentry skills. Knitting? That seemed doable, perhaps even easy. I picked up two pairs of needles and two balls of yarn, recruited my wife to join me, then briefly broke my digital fast for a quick YouTube tutorial.

For the next month or so, we set aside our phones and plopped on the couch for nightly sessions of knit one, purl one. As soon as I had the basics down, I found that the repetitive, mindless task was relaxing and meditative, helping me to decompress from office life. Turns out research backs that up. In 2013, British well-being coach and knitting advocate Betsan Corkhill teamed up with an occupational-therapy researcher to survey more than 3,500 active knitters from 31 countries. Their conclusion: people who knit more than three times a week report improved moods, reduced anxiety, and less stress.

When the weather improved and the days got longer, I confess I put away my needles. But I plan to be a knitter for life. Winter is here, and there’s a yard-long stretch of stitches in my closet yearning to become a scarf. —Christopher Keyes

Quick Fix: Spend Time with Giants

The scent of trees relaxes us. Skylonda Lodge, an hour south of San Francisco, has four-to-seven-day retreats that include strolling among redwoods reaching 300 feet.

Embrace Your Injury

Rest is an opportunity for reinvention

No one likes getting hurt, but sometimes the forced pause leads to much-needed downtime and an opportunity for introspection. Last May, professional ultrarunner and coach Megan Roche ruptured her hamstring when she stepped into a prairie dog hole while training near her home in Boulder, Colorado. Initially, the prognosis was that she’d never compete at the same level again. But Roche found a surgeon who told her that a reconstructed tendon could make her stronger than she was before. She had surgery soon afterward.

“It was a crazy moment in my athletic career because I fully contemplated what my life would look like without having that competitive outlet,” 29-year-old Roche says. “I went through every stage of the grieving process before ultimately getting the news that I should be OK.” The episode made her acutely aware that she didn’t want her identity wrapped up in something that could vanish in an instant. Roche, who also has a medical degree, says that her injury woke her up to the fragility of her career and inspired her to go back to school to pursue a Ph.D. in epidemiology.

Roche also points out that an injury often leads athletes to come back to their sport with a more well-rounded training approach. She appears to have found a middle ground: her research centers on bone health and the genetic predictors of sports injuries, and she plans to continue to coach and run. —Martin Fritz Huber

(Hannah McCaughey)

Quick Fix: Walk the Dog

There’s solid research on the stress-reducing benefits of having a pet. Meanwhile, Harvard researchers recently noted that walking is one of the healthiest forms of exercise.


There’s a reason tai chi has been around hundreds of years

I’m a skier, biker, and climber with a full-time job, which means I obsessively cram my free time with as much high-impact activity as possible. But lately, recreation has felt less like fun and more like an urgent invitation to beat myself up, so I decided to slow things down. Which is why, on a sunny Friday afternoon, I find myself standing at the back of a martial-arts studio, relearning how to walk.

Jill Basso, a tai chi instructor for more than 20 years, comes over to correct my form. I’m moving forward too much, she says. Which until now I considered the primary goal of walking. Tai chi, however, isn’t really about getting anywhere.

The ancient Chinese martial art has been steadily growing in popularity in the U.S. over the past decade, boosted in part by support from the medical community. Research about its potential to build strength, balance, and stability, particularly in older practitioners, has led doctors to prescribe it to their patients. But those benefits probably extend to young people as well, explains Elizabeth Eckstrom, a professor at Oregon Health and Science University who has been studying tai chi in a clinical setting for nearly two decades. The practice can improve sleep, teach mindfulness, and help athletes advance in their sport. “It’s a good partner for all the things we do,” says Eckstrom.

A typical session involves a slow series of movements. In Basso’s class, the mostly over-60 students move fluidly and confidently through side steps, lunges, and sweeping arm motions. Without the goal of getting faster or going bigger, I learn about smaller limitations: my ankles are rigid, my quads allow my knees to bend only so far, my hips catch with certain movements. My limits are internal.

I have a complicated relationship with exercise. It’s deeply tied to my sense of self-worth, and if I haven’t gotten my heart rate somewhere near 180 in a few days, I can get manic. It’s something I’m trying to change, healing my relationship with physical activities that are supposed to be enjoyable but have become a form of self-flagellation.

Tai chi, on the other hand, kept my heart rate around 80. It plugged me into a welcoming community of people who are tending to their bodies like a slow-growing garden. I started going to class twice a week, moving as deliberately as my body would allow. I learned that my sports habits and tai chi actually have the same goals—­mental calm, physical strength, and overall well-being. And tai chi doesn’t put me at risk of broken bones or a bruised ego. —Abigail Barronian

From Outside Magazine, January/February 2020 Lead Photo: Hannah McCaughey

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