I Tried Everything from Virtual Sound Baths to Stress Baking to Unwind—Here’s What Worked
Maybe Taylor Swift—and the nation’s paint companies—are the collective second coming of Nostradamus, because they predicted something months ago that’s ringing truer by the day: We all need to calm down. Or rather, we’re looking for ways to calm down, especially as we stay at home/shelter in place/lock the eff down (whatever your preferred verbiage) to combat COVID-19.
As cathartic as playing T-Swift on loop and staring at my ocean blue walls are, it wasn’t quite enough to quell my ebbing-and-flowing anxiety over what’s to come—and when this will all be over. So, I took to the internet, researching some of the top ways to unwind and tested them out firsthand over a two-week period to see what genuinely helped…and what did the complete opposite.
1. Sensory Deprivation Eye Mask
Spending all day staring at a computer screen—literally all day, now that even our socially distanced hangouts involve Zoom happy hours and Portal calls—means my eyes tend to be achy by the evening. I’ve tried blue light glasses and adjusting my screen’s brightness, but when I heard people rave about how refreshed they felt after using the Ostrichpillow, I decided to give it a shot, trying its cheaper—but equally hilarious-looking—eye mask, the Loop. It twists around your head, covering your eyes while forming an X over your face, like you’re a rejected superhero from Ben Stiller’s Mystery Men. But then it’s on, and the microbead-filled straps feel like a gentle hug, applying light pressure on your eyes and temples while blocking out all light. It left my lids feeling refreshed post-nap, but I still found myself ping-ponging “what ifs” as I struggled to clear my mind, which is why I decided to take things to the next level.
How Calm I Felt Afterward (from zero chill to a totally-zen 10): 6
2. ASMR Videos
I have friends who swear by listening to ASMR—short for autonomous sensory meridian response, aka a soothing sensation people get when gentle sounds like whispers, crackling sounds and the turning of pages. Some even call it a “brain massage,” and with searches for said videos more popular than “candy” or “chocolate” on YouTube, I figured I’d give it a shot. I started hearing the rustling of leaves and the patter of rain and felt my shoulders drop, then it auto-played a video that featured the smacking of lip gloss and…No. No, no, no, no. I quickly started flipping through videos, realizing that whispers creeped me out, as did people eating or playing with slime (other popular categories). My body reflexively cringed, and I slammed my laptop shut. This may work for some, but when it comes to ASMR, the only kind I like is the antisocial variety: nature sounds or um, Harry Potter ambient noises. Which is genuinely a thing, and I, well, didn’t hate it.
How Calm I Felt Afterward: 2
3. Virtual Sound Baths
After learning that yoga brand Alo was offering online sound bath classes, I decided to sign up for a free, two-week trial. Sound baths use a variety of instruments—though most often, crystal singing bowls and gongs—to guide you through meditation. After multiple studies (including a review of 400 articles on the topic) found that sound meditation helped reduce anger, fatigue, anxiety and depression, I was ready to give it a shot.
Alo’s workout platform, Alo Moves, offers a few courses on the topic, which you watch at your own pace. I chose “Healing for Anxiety,” fully prepared to have an ASMR-like reaction. But I didn’t. The bowls provided a mellow humming, and while I typically roll my eyes at commands to imagine your fears “floating away like clouds,” I was so relaxed I didn’t mind it.
For my second class, I decided to combine it with the Loop eye mask, though I quickly had to remove it, because every time I found myself obsessing over unanswered emails, I’d grab a notepad and add it to my to-do list. It’s the only way, I’ve found, to actually clear my head.
How Calm I Felt Afterward: 7
4. Forest Bathing
More bathing! This time in the form of meandering walks amid nature, based on the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, The idea is that is you take in the forest through your senses, really being aware of your surroundings. There’s a park near my house that’s still open, with plenty of trails to hike, so I went for it. I focused on the sounds of birds chirping, the dampness of the spring air, the sight of a…baby alligator eying me from mere feet away. No, really. (Look closely at the photo above for proof.) Growing up in Florida, I’ve learned that they tend not to bother you unless you bother them, making them about half as jarring as someone smacking their lip gloss into a microphone.
Even with the alligator sighting, I felt more at ease than I had all day, which makes sense, considering that a 2014 study found that forest bathing resulted in a lowered heart rate and a reduction in feelings of depression and anxiety. It quickly became a daily practice—though I haven’t seen that alligator since.
How Calm I Felt After the Alligator Sighting: 5
How Calm I Felt on Other Walks: 8
5. Stress Baking
During five weeks of sheltering in place, I’ve baked two loaves of banana bread, two trays of brownies and 24 cupcakes, many of which have been frosted to look like whatever I’m simultaneously binge-watching, be it Sesame Street or Tiger King. I can’t help it. There's a reason for that, it turns out.
“Baking is super absorbing, so it's very difficult to have anxiety,” clinical psychologist Dr. Mary McNaughton-Cassill told Delish. “It chases bad thoughts away because you have to focus on making sure that you measure your flour.” She didn’t say whether there are increased benefits to carefully frosting Joe Exotic’s dark brown goatee, but given how rewarding it felt to #nailit, I swear it does.
How Calm I Felt Afterward: 9.5
We’ve all heard that certain scents can be mood-boosters, and when I heard PureWow readers are obsessed with Vitruvi’s diffuser and essential oils, I decided to jump on the bandwagon. Immediately, I understood the fanfare: The stone diffuser’s much sleeker than many of the other models I’ve seen, looking more like a sculptural piece of art than a bulky gadget. And it’s easy to set up, requiring you to pour water into the canister, add 10 to 15 drops of your favorite essential oil, plug it in and turn it on.
I tested out the Retreat scent—a blend of grapefruit, palma rosa and eucalyptus—while writing and editing stories, since it’s supposed to be transporting and restorative. There was a subtle citrus scent, gentle enough to never overwhelm the space. Did I feel like I was on vacation as I worked? Not exactly. Did it make fact-checking and making copy edits a little more pleasant? Definitely.
How Calm I Felt Afterward: 7
7. YouTube Yoga
If I’m living in leggings, I might as well actually exercise in them. Plus, my life-guru-who-I’ve-never-actually-met, Brené Brown, says that movement can help quell feelings of anxiety, so I pulled up a Bad Yogi routine and hit the mat. Stretching honestly felt so good, especially after spending so many hours a day hunched over a laptop, though for some reason, it seems to trigger our dog. And my daughter. Halfway into a vinyasa, they both feel the need to wriggle between my legs or climb onto me, making things decidedly less zen. I’m working on reframing my annoyance with gratitude—“Thank you for the added challenge!”—which is easier said than done when you’re someone who already struggles to hold a plank for more than seven seconds.
How Calm I Felt Afterward: 5.5
Before my daughter was born, I swore I’d knit her a blanket. She’s closing in on a year and a half old, and at night, she can snuggle with…a 16-inch square. (It was supposed to be 42 inches by 58 inches…whoops.) So I decided to start fresh, choosing the most basic, beginner knitting project I could online—a snood, which is not a Seussian character, it turns out, but a scarf in choker form. It came with detailed instructions, but I still found myself pulling up YouTube to remember the basics of casting on stitches. I’d watch, pause the video, rewind and watch each step again. All I wanted to do was fast-forward to the part where I was a knitting pro, so I could revel in the confidence boost and lowered cortisol levels that devotees experience.
Still, I’m sticking with it, and I’m pleased to say that in 2022, when we’re all allowed outdoors again, I should have a very nice string of yarn to wear around my neck. Here’s to hoping bolo ties make as strong of a comeback as tie-dye is right now.
How Calm I Felt Afterward: 4