Best and Worst Ways to Cope With Stress
From natural disasters to overly demanding bosses, our world is filled with stressors. While some research has shown that short bursts of stress can be good for you, a new study out of Ohio State University and published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that dealing with persistent, long-term stress (like that from a toxic boss or from caring for an elderly parent) can actually change your genes, leading to an increase in inflammation that can bring on a variety of health issues.
Learning how to cope properly can go a long way for your everyday health. Here, the best and worst ways to de-stress right now.
Best: Get some fresh air
Research indicates that the vitamin D boost from sunlight may elevate your levels of feel-good serotonin. And, taking in the sights, sounds, and smells around you redirects your focus from your worries, says Kathleen Hall, a health educator and the founder and CEO of the Stress Institute, an Atlanta-based facility that offers programs on stress management and work-life balance. Can't get outside? A Washington State University study published in the Journal of Environmental Horticulture found that when plants were added to the workspace, subjects exhibited a lower systolic blood pressure. Translation: they were less stressed!
Best: Rely on rituals
Whether it's taking a bath before bed, listening to your favorite playlist on the commute to work, or walking the dog to the park down the street every morning, in times of stress it helps to turn to a comforting routine. (A consistent routine also helps you sleep.) "Our bodies naturally crave routine, and by focusing on these consistent rituals you increase your body's ability to deal with the physical aspects of stress," says Christy Matta, a dialectical behavior therapist and the author of The Stress Response. When stressful situations leave you feeling powerless, following a routine allows you to take back control over part of your day and can help alleviate some of the anxiety and tension.
Best: Get out of your head
Do you ever get that never-ending loop of negative thoughts and what-ifs playing in your head? That's because stress likes to mess with your mind. A surefire and fun way to get out of your head is to engage in activities that put the focus on your hands or body (think kneading bread, sketching a picture, knitting a scarf, or climbing a rock wall), says Hall. As your hands and fingers begin to fall into those familiar rhythmic moves, it sends a signal to your brain that immediately relaxes you and makes you feel grounded. So immerse yourself in a creative, engaging activity and get ready to press the mute button.
Best: Connect to your spiritual side
For centuries, religious groups and native tribes worldwide have used prayer beads to guide their spiritual practice, and research shows that spirituality might boost happiness in times of stress. Buy a set of prayer beads or make your own, suggests Hall, and then create a positive affirmation or mantra that resonates with you. (No need to be religious—you could even use one of these inspirational quotes.) Then, next time stress hits, repeat your affirmation as you work your way around and touch each bead. "The more you go around, the more you'll experience a sense of power and detachment from the source of anxiety as your brain switches into a meditative cadence," explains Hall.
Best: Visualize calm
Find a quiet space, close your eyes, focus your breathing, and transport yourself to your happy place for a few minutes each day. Research from the University of California, Los Angeles shows your body actually produces less of the stress hormone cortisol when engaging in guided imagery. There are plenty of books and articles written on the subject if you need help getting started, but the most important thing is to find a comforting and calming image that works for you (a beautiful blue ocean might be totally relaxing to one person, but a nightmare for someone who's afraid of water).
Best: Take a bath
Water has an innate soothing effect on the mind and body since it connects us back to our time in the womb, says Hall. Schedule a regular time to soak in the tub. Further your bliss by pairing your bath with aromatherapy candles or bath beads. Pick a scent that smells best to you or go for lavender or jasmine, both of which possess stress-reducing properties.
Best: Express your gratitude
Several studies have revealed the positive effects of expressing gratitude. While studying brain activity, National Institutes of Health researchers found subjects who showed more gratitude had higher levels of activity in the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that has a huge influence on our stress levels. Plus, gratefulness also activated the regions associated with dopamine, one of those feel-good neurotransmitters. To reap these stress-reducing benefits, write down your feelings of gratitude daily in a journal, or by sending little notes to friends or family letting them know how much you appreciate them.
Exercise may be the healthiest stress-buster: it revs your body's production of feel-good endorphins, can help regulate your sleep, lowers the symptoms associated with mild depression, boosts your energy, and helps you remain calmer and more focused, all of which can go a long way toward stress management. While it's easy to let a daily exercise routine slide when you're overwhelmed, take steps to incorporate it into your day—pick an activity you love and will look forward to, enlist a buddy to motivate you, or schedule it into your calendar like any other task—and you'll soon understand why it's a critical part of any stress-management plan.
Worst: Drinking, smoking, and other vices
Drowning your stress in a bottle of wine or a pack of cigarettes might bring a release in the moment, but turning to unhealthy vices like drinking, drugs, smoking, or too much caffeine only sets you up to stress out more once the high wears off, cautions Hall. Since these habits tend to increase the negative impacts stress is already having on your body (raising your blood pressure, making you jittery, keeping you awake at night to name just a few), you enter into a vicious cycle of feeling more stressed out and then returning to the vice over and over.
The thought of hiding away under the covers sounds pretty great when there's so much to deal with beyond your bedroom door, but sleeping too much isn't the answer. Research shows that the more you sleep, the more tired you actually feel. Increased lethargy is only going to make it that much harder for you to focus, says Hall, and much less likely to deal with the stressors at hand. Plus, studies that have shown an association between chronic oversleeping and diabetes, heart disease, weight gain, and even higher rates of death (though it's unclear if too much sleep causes these problems). Adding health problems to your already heavy load is only going to exacerbate your stress levels.
Worst: Ignore the problem
While it's normal to take a mental time out once in a while to watch a funny movie or meet a friend for lunch, consistently avoiding the stress in your life is counterproductive. "When you evade your problems, you don't allow yourself to process or understand what you're dealing with," says Matta. The more you ignore something—whether it's a concrete problem like paying off bills or an emotional one like the fear of losing a job—the greater it's going to get. Your best bet is to reach out for help and make a plan of action that will eventually diminish your problems and alleviate your stress.
Worst: Dwell on the negative
If you make a mistake at work, do you assume you're going to get fired? Have a fight with your spouse and worry the relationship may be over? It's not uncommon to jump to worst-case scenarios when dealing with an upsetting issue, but blowing things out of proportion only intensifies your stress. "When we're feeling stressed it's very easy to view ourselves in a negative light," says Matta. To soften your inner chatter, she suggests looking at things from a different perspective. Talk to yourself as if you were offering advice to your best friend and odds are you'll have much more compassionate and positive things to say.
Worst: Eat your feelings
Like alcohol or drugs, food often becomes a crutch when coping with difficult times. Soothing your pain with high-calorie, high-sugar, or high-fat comfort foods feels good at first, but it can quickly spiral out of control when your mind and body begin to associate negative emotions with eating. At the first sign of stress, anger, or sadness you'll instinctively reach for food rather than dealing with the feelings at hand. Overeating can cause weight gain and make you feel worse about yourself, as well as exacerbate the GI issues (bloating, reflux, constipation) that often accompany stress, says Hall.