By Sherry McAllister, DC, president, Foundation for Chiropractic Progress

The understatement of the century could be: “We are living in stressful times.” Perhaps due to this widespread stress—manifested in feelings of anxiety, irritability, despair, depression and others–my previous post on Thrive about the science behind stress relief, was well received. In that post, I described how sleep, meditation and yoga can change your brain and hormones to improve your mood.

This post is a sequel to the first, but this time we’ll explore the mechanisms at work behind popular self-care activities.

  1. Stretching

Similar to yoga, stretching reduces cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, in the body. Yet in one study, it appears stretching may be more effective. Researchers compared the effects of stress and cortisol in two groups over six months: one who performed low-impact stretching exercises and one who performed relaxation yoga. The stretching group had decreased cortisol at waking and bedtime compared to the restorative yoga group and reported reductions in their chronic stress and a more positive perspective about their stress levels.

  • Massage

Although massage therapy was mostly unavailable nationwide early in the COVID-19 pandemic, services are now available in many states. Anyone who receives massages regularly knows how relaxed they feel afterward and likely welcomed the news that their local massage therapist opened their doors again. The science behind massage’s stress-reducing effects have been thoroughly researched. One published analysis that looked at these studies concluded that, like yoga and stretching, massage decreased levels of cortisol and increased levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, both of which improve mood. The average decrease in cortisol with massage therapy was 31% while serotonin levels increased by 28% and dopamine by 31%.

  • Aerobic exercise

Perhaps the simplest stress reliever that is easy to accomplish even with social distancing (other than sleep) is aerobic exercise because all you need to do is walk. Depending on your fitness level, running is an even better option. The idea that aerobic exercise is good for our physical and mental health is a fairly new concept, originating in 1968 with medical doctor Kenneth Cooper’s book, Aerobics. Since then, aerobic exercise has experienced enormous growth, as has the research behind it. A recent study explains that aerobic exercise improves your brain’s neuroplasticity, which means it helps our brains fix the damage caused by chronic stress, depression or other environmental factors. Another study found that after just 12 moderate-intensity, 25-minute aerobic exercise sessions, participants lowered their perceived anxiety and depression symptoms.

  • Acupuncture

A 3,000-year-old practice, acupuncture is currently used to treat 117 conditions, according to a scientific review by an Australian acupuncture organization, including mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression. The care method involves inserting very thin needles into the face and body, commonly at or near the location of the health problem. Upon insertion, the acupuncture needles stimulate the central nervous system to release chemicals throughout the body that are believed to trigger natural healing abilities and improve emotional well-being. In one such related study, a group of patients with anxiety disorders who did not respond to other treatments, including medication, received 10 weeks of acupuncture. Afterward, participants reported a significant improvement in their anxiety symptoms, which were maintained after a 10-week follow up.

  • Chiropractic care

Full disclosure: I am a doctor of chiropractic, so I am a bit biased about its stress-reducing effects, not to mention its ability to relieve pain, improve mobility and enhance well-being. But don’t just take my word for it – you can read about chiropractic’s positive outcomes here. I have also witnessed this firsthand in my own practice, and it is one of the many physical and psychological well-being reasons patients return for care from me and other doctors of chiropractic around the world.

Make informed decisions

Chances are at least one (if not more) of these activities will reduce your stress level and improve your mood. Understanding the science behind certain self-care activities will help you make informed decisions and hopefully strengthen your resolve to keep doing them.