You can build a pro-sleep environment and count all the sheep you want. But if your stress hormones are out of whack, a good night’s sleep will be tough to come by.
It’s no secret that small amounts of stress are good. A little bit can ramp up your immune function to help you get over a cold or an infection faster, as well as boost your mental performance so you’re sharper and more productive at work.
But when your system is constantly flooded with stress hormones like cortisol, your snooze sessions can suffer big time. In fact, a whopping 65% of Americans say sky-high levels of tension and anxiety are causing them to losing sleep at night, according to the Better Sleep Council.
But aside from the oft-recommended yoga, meditation, and warm baths, what can you do to lower your stress and feel more relaxed at bedtime? Turns out, there are plenty of other surprising tactics to help you de-stress so you can sleep better at night—and have the energy to tackle your to-do list at full speed in the morning.
Here, we’re going a step beyond the usual stress relief tips for science-backed advice that help lower your levels of cortisol and ramp up your levels of feel-good hormones like serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin.
1. Hug it out.
Hey, love really is all you need! Physical contact instantly ramps up your body’s production of oxytocin, the hormone that’s responsible for promoting feelings of bliss and relaxation.
In fact, healthy men who were given an oxytocin-filled nasal spray dozed off faster and slept more soundly compared to those who got a placebo spray, found a study published in the journal Biological Rhythm Research.
Even better? You don’t need a spray to get an oxytocin boost. Just hug your friend or spend some time snuggling with your partner. The simple act of connecting with someone else can help you chill out fast.
2. Look out the window.
It’s no secret that nature is a potent tranquilizer. (After all, it’s tough to feel stressed when the sun’s on your face and the birds are chirping.)
But when things are so insane that you don’t even have time to, say, take your lunch outside, looking outdoors might be enough, suggest University of Washington experts.
So put down your phone for a few minutes and stare out the window instead. You’ll slow your heart rate, boost your cognitive function, and feel happier—and less tense—overall.
3. Snack on some mango.
Tempted to reach for the cookie jar when you sense your day getting crazy? Skip the sugary junk and reach for a juicy mango. The orange fruit is rich in linalool, a compound that Japanese research suggests can slash stress levels.
And if you can’t find the fresh stuff? No big deal. Snack on a few strips of sweet dried mango, or toss some frozen mango into the blender with chopped bananas and plain yogurt to make a smoothie.
4. Pet your pooch (or cat).
He’s not only your best friend—he’s your key to feeling calmer, fast.
Studies show that just petting your furry companion can sap stress by lowering your blood pressure and slowing your heart rate. So when the going gets tough, give them a quick snuggle. (Just part ways before it’s actually time for bed, since pets are notorious sleep wreckers.)
5. Stare at something repetitive.
Snowflakes, ocean waves, leaves, flower petals, or even swirls in a trippy painting all work. Gazing at patterns seems to have a chill-out effect on the brain, findings suggest.
In one University of Oregon study, participants performed stressful math problems on computer screens that showed images of patterns, like clouds, in the background. And guess what? The patterns helped lower participants’ stress levels by as much as 60%.
6. Grin and bear it.
You’re probably in more of a mood to clench your teeth than show your pearly whites. But weirdly, faking a smile can actually make you feel happier.
Participants who were forced to smile while performing stressful tasks reported feeling more positive and had lower heart rates compared to those who were told to keep a neutral expression, found a recent Dutch study.
See? You really can fake it ‘til you make it. And as a result, snooze more soundly.
Do you have any weird ways for coping with stress—that really work? Share them in the comments!
This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.