7 Surprising Things That Can Help You Stop Worrying

What has you up at night? The economy? The divided government? Jobs? Health care? Ebola?

According to an October 2014 Gallup poll, Americans worry about a lot of issues. Many of those things are outside of our control, and worrying just compounds the grief.

According to a study by the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom, worrying can have long-term chronic health consequences, including cardiovascular disease.

How do you stop? While exercise is a commonly prescribed cure for easing your worries—it’s considered better than Xanax because it releases feel-good hormones—you don’t have to break a sweat to calm your fears.

Here are seven other actions you can take to take your mind off of your troubles:

1. Change Your Bedtime

If you like to stay up late at night, you might be feeding your inner worrier. Researchers at Binghamton University in New York found that people who go to bed very late and sleep for short amounts of time are more overwhelmed with negative thoughts than those who keep more regular sleeping hours. They tend to worry about the future and dwell over past events, and they have a higher risk of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

“Making sure that sleep is obtained during the right time of day may be an inexpensive and easily disseminable intervention for individuals who are bothered by intrusive thoughts,” said Jacob Nota, one of the study’s researchers.

2. Smell A Grapefruit

Breathing in certain aromas can help reduce stress. In a study at James Cancer Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, researchers tested the effect of pleasant-smelling essential oils by diffusing them in the central nurses station. Oncology nurses, who frequently suffer from work-related stress, compassion fatigue, and burnout, reported significant improvements in tension, worry, and demands over the course of the study.

One of the essential oils tested was grapefruit, which is refreshing and revitalizing, and helped boost the body’s feelings of energy and happiness.

3. Breathe Slowly

Deep breathing, also called yoga breathing, is known to lower stress and anxiety. In his book Spontaneous Happiness: A New Path to Emotional Well-Being (Little, Brown Company; 2013), Andrew Weil suggests using a technique he calls the “4-7-8 breath” as a calming practice and tool to use when you are feeling upset.

First, exhale completely through your mouth, then inhale through your nose for a count of four. Hold your breath for seven seconds, then exhale through your mouth for a count of eight. It’s not possible to breathe deeply and be anxious at the same time, says Weil. He recommends using the 4-7-8 breath technique at least twice a day or whenever you feel stressed.

4. Eat Chocolate

While sweets can cause you to have a sugar high and crash, researchers have found that a little chocolate can be beneficial for worriers. According to a study published in the Journal of Proteome Research, dark chocolate can help calm your nerves. Participants who ate one and a half ounces of dark chocolate a day for two weeks had reduced levels of stress hormones.

5. Engage In Forest Therapy

Walking in the woods and listening to the sounds of nature can reduce stress. Called shinrin-yoku, which means “forest bath” in Japanese, the practice lowers stress hormone levels compared with walking in an urban area.

“Studies have confirmed that spending time within a forest setting can reduce psychological stress, depressive symptoms, and hostility, while at the same time improving sleep, and increasing both vigor and a feeling of liveliness,” write Eva Selhub and Alan Logan in their book Your Brain on Nature (Collins; 2013). “Japanese researchers found that 20 minutes of shinrin-yoku—compared with 20 minutes in an urban setting—altered cerebral blood flow in a manner that indicated a state of relaxation.”

6. Write Down Your Worries

Getting your emotions down on paper sounds like it could fuel anxieties, but according to a University of Chicago study published in the journal Science, the activity has the opposite effect. Students who were prone to test anxiety were asked to write about their fears before an exam; those who journaled improved their test scores by nearly one grade point.

“It might be counterintuitive, but it’s almost as if you empty the fears out of your mind,” Sian Beilock, an associate professor in psychology at the University of Chicago, told U.S. News And World Report. “You reassess that situation so that you’re not as likely to worry about those situations because you’ve slain that beast.”

7. Take Up Knitting

Keeping your hands busy can help keep your mind off of worries. In a study at the Medical Research Council in Cambridge, England, volunteers watched graphic footage of car wrecks. Participants who had been asked to type a repetitive pattern while viewing the film suffered fewer flashbacks later on. Verbal distractions, such as counting out loud, had no benefit.

Researchers discovered that keeping your hands and mind busy interferes with storing and encoding visual images, which explains why worry beads and knitting calm us down.