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In psychoanalysis, there's a concept known as "repetition compulsion" wherein patients unconsciously attempt to achieve mastery over a past trauma by revisiting the original emotional scene of the crime in the hope that this time the situation will turn out differently. If you are anxious or stressed, here's a nifty way to replicate this remedy, but at a remove: Watch a scary movie. "These films allow you to tackle upsetting issues from the safe distance of allegory," says Constance Pittman Lindner, a writer and health researcher in Boston. "This permits a safe confrontation of real fears disguised in conquerable, metaphorical form.
Here's how it works, according to Charles Goodstein, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry at New York University Medical Center. "The stressful situation depicted on screen is related unconsciously in feeling and tone to your own stress, but at the same time because it is a film, you are psychologically distant from it," he explains. "You have, in small doses, a very frightening experience, yet you're in control of it, as you aren't in real life. Even if the movie ends disastrously for the characters in it, you're always aware that you will leave the theater alive and well. So this emotional journey can be a useful way to discharge stress."
It Worked for Her: When Melanie Votaw, 48, of Brooklyn, New York, was recuperating from a serious car accident, she discovered that Speed, Jurassic Park, and Jaws became her favorite movies to view again and again. "There was something cathartic about watching them, like it let me let go of the stress," she recalls. "I felt that it physically removed the trauma from my body -- I think because I was able to relive it in a make-believe setting."
In today's confessional culture, we're constantly encouraged to share our feelings. Let it out! Don't repress! Well...not always. In fact, denial can be a terrific coping strategy. If the stressor is something over which you have no control, simply pull a Scarlett O'Hara and tell yourself, "I'll think about it tomorrow."
No one, it should go without saying, is advising you to ignore serious issues that demand immediate action (a breast lump, for example, or a depressed teenager). But sometimes denial can give you a little breathing room. "Temporarily denying or avoiding unpleasant facts won't change a situation," observes J. Michael Bostwick, MD, associate professor of psychiatry at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, "but it can prevent you from being overwhelmed and give you time to get acclimated." The idea behind this strategy is to suppress whatever is stressing you out until you're able to deal with it in a more appropriate manner. Moreover, every once in a while, if you ignore it, it actually will go away.
It Worked for Her: Pushing life's mute button is easier said than done, of course, but here is a method that really does work. When Martha Kaminsky, 55, of Ithaca, New York, feels overwhelmed, she writes down all her worries on a piece of paper, hides it away, then tells herself, "It's out of my hands." A few months later, she'll revisit the list and, nine times out of 10, the majority of those once-critical concerns have resolved themselves while she was officially in denial. The concerns that are still valid, in turn, become easier to deal with because by then Kaminsky has cooled off and is able to approach the problems in a more rational, objective way.
Health experts routinely recommend 30 minutes of moderate exercise daily to relieve stress. In a recent study at the University of Missouri-Columbia, moderate-intensity exercise was shown to have that effect, but high-intensity workouts packed a much bigger and better antistress wallop. Different women were monitored for half an hour doing no exercise, moderate exercise, or high-intensity exercise. While the groups who exercised showed a decline in anxiety (as measured by a standard test called "state anxiety inventory"), the sharpest decline was among the women in the high-intensity group. Additionally, that group's anxiety continued to drop significantly at 30-, 60- and 90-minute marks, while the other groups' levels remained stable.
There are several possible explanations for this result. Intense aerobic exercise strengthens the heart and lungs, and these two vital organs (especially the heart) bear the brunt of the body's physiological stress response. It follows, then, that the more you exercise, the better these organs will respond under stress within reason, says Richard Cox, PhD, one of the study's authors. Another hypothesis is that high-intensity exercise requires all of your concentration, limiting your ability to ponder weightier matters, the way you can when you go for a bike ride or take a brisk walk. Finally, there is the belief that high-intensity exercise ups the release of endorphins, the feel-good hormones. The harder you exercise, the bigger the release.
It Worked for Her: When Nicole Wise, 48, of Stamford, Connecticut, was going through a painful divorce, many people advised her to do yoga. "I couldn't stand the slow pace," she says, "and it gave me way too much time inside my head -- one place I really didn't want to be." Instead, Wise, who was already a jogger, decided to train for a marathon. "The sheer physical demands of training took all of my focus and gave me a total rush. Plus, so much of my life was out of my hands that setting a nearly impossible goal, and then accomplishing it, gave me a gratifying sense of control over my own destiny."
Never mind that a veritable cottage industry has been created out of exactly the opposite advice. When you're hit with a major stressor -- a bad medical diagnosis, job loss, or a monster project at work -- looking at the big picture can immobilize you. "The entirety of a situation can be overwhelming, which may mean you won't be able to take the necessary steps to strategize your way out of it," says Dr. Bostwick. "But if you break the situation down into component parts, addressing what you can do immediately and temporarily neglecting the rest, then you can get a handle on the stress."
It Worked for Her: When Lynn Morley, 34, of Belton, Missouri, is feeling so swamped by work that she barely knows where to begin or which project to make a priority, she simply jumps in and tackles one task at a time. This method helped save her when she was involved in a budget approval process for the first time. "I had never even seen a budget before," she says. "I didn't have a clue how to begin and thinking about how to put the whole thing together was just making me more stressed. But I've learned that most projects don't have to begin at the beginning, so I did what had worked for me in the past: I focused on one particular piece of the pie that I had all the information for. I just worked around that point until it was complete, and everything else started falling into place."
Laughter is a known stress reliever, but it turns out that anticipating a laugh gets the job done, too. In a recent study from Loma Linda University, in Southern California, participants who were told they would see a funny movie within three days showed a significantly greater sense of well-being than those who received no such promise. Participants' blood was drawn right before the movie; those who'd been expecting the hilarity had 27 percent more betaendorphins in their blood. "These biochemical compounds are the body's own morphine," explains study leader Lee S. Berk, DrPH. "I call them 'happy juice.'"
While Dr. Berk has not specifically examined whether anticipating any pleasant occasion will alleviate stress, he admits that it would be logical to conclude as much. "If your biology interprets an event as pleasurable," he says, "then anticipation of it would probably have a similar calming effect." So pencil in a screening of Blazing Saddles, make a date with a funny friend, or take the latest David Sedaris book to work for lunchtime reading. Even if any or all of them end up being canceled, you'll have reaped some stress relief.
It Worked for Her: "I'm Miss Celebration," says Melany Farr, 46, of Las Vegas, Nevada. "I'll throw a party for anything, even Groundhog Day, because I like looking forward to good times. Then, if something negative happens, I tell myself, 'Oh well, I have this really fun thing coming up,' and that helps me get through it."
Think the gentle, New Age strains of Yanni will soothe the savage beast that rages inside? Only if he happens to be your favorite musician. You're better off with the Rolling Stones, Shakira, Maroon 5, a John Philip Sousa march, or the Rent original-cast album -- in short, whatever lights your fire. And blast away as loud as you like. The stress relief lies not in the nature of the music itself but in the fact that you've chosen it. In a recent experiment, Karen Allen, PhD, a research professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, found that the classical instrumental songs on a CD called Stressbusters -- which had been selected especially for their supposed stress-relieving qualities -- were less effective in reducing blood pressure and perceptions of stress in subjects asked to perform a difficult task than was music chosen by the subjects themselves. Even the ethereal "Pachelbel's Canon" was less calming than the subjects' own picks.
Two factors are most likely at work here. First, the subjects made their own choices, and second, they were hearing music that was pleasing and familiar to them. "Self-selected music may have made them feel better able to perform the stressful task because of the music's past association with positive performance," says Dr. Allen. In addition, a 2003 study at the California Institute of Technology showed that listening to favorite tunes activated areas of subjects' brains associated with rewards or pleasure. So if the Stones are what bring you satisfaction, play them long and loud to get those stress levels down.
It Worked for Her: When the going gets tough, Liz Holzemer, 40, of Highlands Ranch, Colorado, blasts Van Halen, Aerosmith, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. "To purge my stress, I want to raise my heart rate and pump my adrenaline," Holzemer says. "Hard rock lends itself to that better than anything else I know."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, September 2007.