Aside from Hailey Beiber’s glazed-doughnut everything, summer’s biggest style trend was dopamine dressing: wearing bright makeup or playful clothes that bring joy. The concept, as the name implies, was inspired by dopamine, the hormone responsible for feelings of pleasure. We’re big fans, naturally—but if you’re already stressed to begin with, ain’t nobody going straight from zero to cheerful.
That’s where the concept of cortisol-crushing comes in. Cortisol, colloquially known as the stress hormone, is—if this were the DC Universe—like The Joker to Batman’s calm. Or in doctor-speak: “When we’re under stress, our body will release adrenaline and cortisol to help us get some extra energy and focus to meet the demand—and maybe override, say, our typical call for sleep, relaxation, or downtime,” says Chloe Carmichael, Ph.D., a New York psychologist whose practice focuses on stress management.
The release of cortisol originally stemmed from our evolutionary fight-or-flight response, aiding us in either outcome. “We all need a little cortisol to stay active and get things done in life,” says psychologist Katherine King, Psy.D., an assistant professor of psychology at William James College in Newton, Massachusetts. “If you need to give a presentation or just bang through a bunch of to-do items, a little cortisol is part of what keeps you going.”
But when the stress keeps going…and going…and going, it’s—to pick up the comic book narrative again—like an evil Energizer Bunny (he’s got horns!). Your body starts churning out cortisol faster than it can metabolize it properly, and left unchecked, it can trap you in a stress cycle that’s hard to break. “Once that cortisol gets ramped up way too high, we’re likely to feel so overwhelmed, disorganized, or scared that we end up functioning poorly and creating more stress and anxiety,” says Dr. King. And that has major consequences, since chronic stress is a risk factor for a litany of diseases.
DON’T MISS: Pro Tips For Holiday Calm
This is why controlling stress—and, therefore, cortisol—is essential to both mind and body. “Keeping cortisol at an optimal level will help us maintain our physical and mental health, and improve our functioning in everyday life,” says Dr. King. “We will be able to avoid health conditions caused by stress alone, and reduce the ways that stress complicates or worsens other health issues we’re bound to experience.”
There are tons of anxiety-reducing techniques available, but hey, it’s holiday season, so as you’re considering gifts (for yourself, too!), we offer our concept of cortisol-crushing. Why not slay stress while diving into cozy clothes, winter nail colors, and great reads? We took the science of relaxation and applied it to 13 cool lifestyle products. Let’s put cortisol (and, hopefully, you) to bed.
Cortisol Crusher: Calming Clothes
When you’re feeling down, use psychology—and sweatpants—to (mwa-ha-ha) trick your brain into feeling more up. How, pray tell? You can help lower cortisol by turning any given item into an “environmental cue,” says Dr. Carmichael, author of Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety. Take sweatpants: If you wear them every time you’re intentionally relaxing, you’ll eventually be able to chill out just by slipping them on.
Mental Likes: Pangaia Signature Track Pants Core, $155
Among a pandemic-fueled overpopulation in the sweatpants world, this Pangaia pair is noteworthy. The tiny, all-uppercase text is minimalistic chic, there’s an eco-friendly mix of organic and recycled cotton, and we’ll never be mad at side pockets. Choose a soothing hue, such as Orchid Purple (shown here).
Cortisol Crusher: The Color Green
Blue often wears the calming-color crown, but green is the less-expected contender: In one study examining color theory as a complementary treatment to various health conditions, researchers pegged green as helpful for stress and depression. Another study published in SAGE Journals concluded that “shades of green have a relaxing effect.” In true fashion-meets-function style, green happens to be a winter nail trend.
Mental Likes: Gucci Glossy Nail Polish in Melinda Green, $33
“I could have my Gucci on…” Yes, Meghan Trainor, yes you could—and we’d venture to say you’d be less stressed. The shade, the bottle, the shine…they’ll make you look.
Mental Likes: Essie Nail Lacquer in Force of Nature, $8.32
If darker green is your jam, this forest/jade/emerald mashup is free of formaldehyde, toluene, dibutyl phthalates, and five other chemicals sometimes found in polish.
Cortisol Crusher: Small Square Patterns
When we came across a study in Smart Textiles and Their Applications showing that “smaller, symmetrical, continuous repeating square shapes exhibit calmness and low arousal” in people, we immediately thought: Throw pillows! Phone cases! (But really, we did.)
Mental Likes: Ambersonne Checkered Throw Pillow Cover in Pale Brown and Chocolate, $28.99
Such a hot-chocolate-y color combo, and great to nuzzle on while reading or Hulu-ing.
Walli Blue Check by Fullmhouse, $45.99
So we kinda threw blue under the bus earlier, but it is a defrazzling color—just look at these soft shades. This Walli case has a lot going for it: a wallet pouch to stash your ID and credit card, a finger loop for easy holding, an adjustable kickstand when your hands get tired (or you want to film a TikTok), plus it’s made of vegan leather and available for 14 iPhone types.
Cortisol Crusher: Skin-Repairing Night Routine
Massaging in a moisturizer for a few minutes every evening is good for your skin and stress levels. Dedicating time to rituals—yes, even skincare ones—can help temper anxiety, research finds.
Mental Likes: Eadem Cloud Cushion Airy Brightening Moisturizer, $58
This potion’s plush-yet-lightweight texture makes it an ideal partner for a nighttime face massage. But it also fights off the physical effects of stress on skin—a compromised skin barrier, which allows environmental pollutants to sneak in and cause dryness and irritation. The fragrance-free formula contains all the right soothers: barrier-fortifying ceramides, redness-reducing niacinamide, and brightening peptides.
Cortisol Crusher: Plants
Hanging with nature is quite the angst antidote: There’s a mile-high stack of research linking green spaces with a decline in cortisol levels. Have lunch in a park, take mental health walks around the neighb—or, if you’re not capital-O outdoorsy, trick out your space with a few plants. One study from the Universities of Sheffield, Westminster, and Virginia found that planting just a few little guys reduces cortisol, possibly as much as eight weekly mindfulness sessions! (Good news for you non-meditators out there.)
Mental Likes: Horti Plant Subscription, $36 a month
Yes, you could just pick up a few cheapies at the corner store—by all means! But if you need regular prompting, a Horti subscription can help keep an apartment or deck forest alive, even if you don’t exactly have a green thumb. You get a new plant (plus accessories) each month, and if you choose a “New to planting” option, they’ll send hard-to-kill varietals. SNAKE PLANTS FOR THE WIN.
Cortisol Crusher: Quiet Reading
Dogs are humankind’s best friend because they’re just so smushy and because petting them brings calm. But if a new pug isn’t in your future, one study analysis found that quiet reading was just as stress reducing, according to measures of blood pressure, heart rate, and anxiety. Plus, quiet reading and dog-petting equally reduced cortisol. Hooray!
Mental Likes: Mean Baby by Selma Blair, $15.99
Here’s what our review says: “I’m usually not a big memoir person. I prefer fiction so I can escape. But the right memoir can help you feel seen, which is important. I loved how Selma connected the dots between her multiple sclerosis and her depression, as well as with her abuse of alcohol. I still don’t think a lot of people make that correlation between the physical and the mental—which came first? Chicken or egg?—and Selma really exposes that. I was able to shake out the same connection when I started becoming dependent on alcohol with when I developed corneal disease. And I didn’t realize it until I read Mean Baby. I had a lot of moments of clarity while reading the book.”
Mental Likes: The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix, $14.39
If you’re more of a horror fan, this riveting book, which is currently being made into a TV series, focuses on a support group for the survivors of slashers, a la Texas Chainsaw or Sleepaway Camp. Plus, watching scary movies or reading scary books can actually soothe anxiety. We tell no lies: Science says so!
Cortisol Crusher: Copaiba Oil Body Massage
In a very awesome, very calming this + that, let us introduce you to body massage with copaiba oil. In a review of studies published in the International Journal of Neuroscience, massage therapy decreased people’s cortisol levels an average 31 percent. That’s big! When you do it with copaiba—an anti-inflammatory oil used for hundreds years in Brazil to treat scars and stretch marks—you can one-two punch anxiety. A 2022 study in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that inhaling copaiba oil significantly decreased heart rate and cortisol.
Mental Likes: Halo 42 Oil Over Me Body Elixir, $96
Created by Tim Quinn (a former celebrity makeup artist for Armani Beauty, who himself beat cancer) and Mark Turnipseed (an Ironman, trainer, and author who overcame a drug and alcohol addiction), this oil is the real deal. It’s unbelievably moisturizing, thanks to jojoba and rosehip oils and vitamin E, and its frankincense and copaiba oils gives it an earthy, grounding scent. Quinn recommends rubbing it into your palms, holding them up to your face, and breathing it in before rubbing the oil over arms and legs.
Cortisol Crusher: P.M. Aromatherapy Shower
The nose knows. You’ve heard about the calming powers of lavender ad nauseum, but do you know why it works? It seems to regulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls physical processes linked with anxiety, such as a fast heart rate and clipped breathing. Plus, research show that evening showers help people fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly. We’ll take it!
Mental Likes: BodyRestore Calm Bedtime Shower Steamers, $29.99 for 15
If your 82,000 unopened emails keep you up at night, consider taking a pre-bed shower with one of these tablets. As they dissolve under running water, they lavender-ize your bathroom for an immersive spa moment.
Cortisol Crusher: Art Therapy
Even if you’re at stick-figure level, practicing art has been correlated with a dip in cortisol—possibly, theories go, because it’s an outlet for self-expression and puts you in a “flow state.” Otherwise known as THE ZONE.
Mental Likes: Uncommon Goods Paint by Shadows Kit, $45–50
Oh hi there, fancy adult version of a coloring book. This watercolor set has a grayscale pattern that acts like a guide, simplifying things just enough for the art-challenged to pull off a painting you might actually display.
Cortisol Crusher: The Scent of Bergamot
The size of an orange and color of a lime, bergamot is a citrus fruit native to Italy—with a proven ability to help you go ahhhh. (Said proof: In a study published in Complementary Medicine Research, inhaling bergamot oil for 15 minutes reduced cortisol levels.) To really get the effect, diffuse a 100% bergamot essential oil throughout a room.
Denim is stylish right now—and we don’t just mean jeans (when aren’t jeans stylish?). In makeup shades, home goods, pretty much anything, which is why we’re loving this textured, jean-inspired diffuser. It’s USB-powered (lasts four to eight hours), doesn’t heat up, doesn’t sound like snoring (promise, it’s quiet!), and looks like art. Pair it with Saje’s bergamot oil and turn your living room into a den of cool and calm.
Additional research by Amy Keller Laird