If you’re feeling anxious, “chilling out” may just be the opposite of what you need.
Experts say warming up your body temperature slightly could be a potential off button for stress. The technique, which stems from an ancient practice from India called ayurveda, has gained traction among some mental health professionals.
Practicing ayurveda ― which is considered a form of complementary and alternative medicine in the United States ― comes with some warnings from the National Institutes of Health. For example, some medicinal products used in ayurveda contain herbs, minerals or metals that “may be harmful, particularly if used improperly or without the direction of a trained practitioner,” according to the NIH.
According to psychotherapist and anxiety expert Jodi Aman, author of You 1, Anxiety 0, employing heat as a form of instant anxiety relief is something she suggests to her own patients.
“I used to use warming when I was anxious myself,” Aman said. “When I was in recovery [for my own mental health], I always ate my food warm: soups, stews, tea.” She also avoided consuming items that aggravated her anxiety, including sugar, caffeine and alcohol.
Eating warm food, putting a heating pad on your feet or getting your whole body under a blanket (bonus if it’s a weighted blanket, which some studies have shown to significantly reduce anxiety) are all warming activities that “help your brain feel safe,” Aman said. Soaking in warm water may also help.
“I often prescribe warm or hot baths to my patients to calm them,” said John Mayer, a Chicago-based clinical psychologist at Doctor On Demand. “The warm bath promotes the release of tranquilizing enzymes that physically treat anxiety, and the solitude of the bath works as a mindfulness exercise, so we have the physiological and psychological approach as best practices.”
“Any physical sensation that brings patients to relaxation and into the present moment may be helpful in anxiety reduction.”
Christa Santangelo, a clinical psychologist and an assistant clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco, said the warming technique might specifically be effective because of the physical change a person experiences. When the body physically relaxes, that can then signal to your brain to calm down.
“Any physical sensation that brings patients to relaxation and into the present moment may be helpful in anxiety reduction,” Santangelo said.
But while warmth may be therapeutic in the moment, you still need to get to the root of your anxiety to help treat it overall, said Roselyn G. Smith, a licensed therapist based in Florida.
If used with a cognitive-based therapeutic approach, heat applications can be helpful because they “contribute to an internal environment where someone may be able to view and interpret anxiety-evoking stimuli differently,” she said.
In other words, if you’re more relaxed after you get warm, you’re better able to focus on the big things that are causing your anxiety and to tackle them more calmly.
Of course, heat isn’t an anxiety cure-all. Some experts even suggest that heat may exacerbate anxiety. It’s important to use natural methods like heating to supplement a treatment plan outlined by your physician, which could include talk therapy, medication or a combination of both. Habits like exercise, confronting the triggers of your anxiety, taking social media breaks and journaling also come highly recommended by experts.
That being said, warming your body temperature doesn’t necessarily hurt if you want to give it a go. The next time you’re feeling high-strung or super anxious and you’re searching for something to help you calm down ASAP, try heating up. It’s likely more effective than being told to “just chill,” anyway.