What's Your Stress Reflex?
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What's Your Stress Reflex?

When under pressure, do you fly into rages, eat yourself sick, or fall to pieces? If your signature response only makes things worse, learn how to get healthier relief.

What Are Stress Reflexes?

Linda Spangle knew what was causing the major stress in her life and she knew that eating wouldn't solve it, but she ate anyway. "I used to have 20 to 30 pounds that I gained and lost over and over. Food wasn't what I wanted," says Spangle, a nurse in Denver, Colorado. What she wanted was to have a baby, but couldn't because of infertility problems. So she ate. She ate to fill an emptiness she mistook for hunger; she ate for the fleeting comfort that food provided. "Mother's Day was the most stressful -- I ate all day long," Spangle recalls.

All of us have characteristic ways we respond to stress -- a familiar pattern of emotional and behavioral responses we fall into when we are facing something stressful in our lives. It's our own personal stress reflex.

Stress reflexes, unlike physical ones, are not involuntary but are often automatic. Someone cuts you off while driving or your kids leave their dirty clothes all over the house again and boom, you're mad as hell, feeling the sting of tears forming or so anxious you can't catch your breath. The problem is that these typical reflexes don't always help and in the long run they may make matters worse. "Sometimes the way we cope with stress is worse than the condition causing it," says Kenneth R. Pelletier, PhD, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine and author of 12 books including Stress Free for Good: 10 Scientifically Proven Life Skills for Health and Happiness (with coauthor Dr. Fred Luskin).

We have gathered stress researchers' top picks for solutions tailored to each reflex. Don't worry, you don't have to change who you are. For those aspects of your stress reflex that are useful, we offer keep-but-tweak fixes that allow you to simply modify your impulses to make the best of them. And for those other reactions that are doing you more harm than good, you'll find new stress relievers that will replace those impulses with healthier, more productive coping strategies.

Stress Reflex #1: "I Blow My Top"

When under stress do you...

__ Snap at others easily?

__ Feel impatient, interrupting other people while they are speaking?

__ Become belligerent and agitated?

If you said yes to any of the above, you may be the classic hard-charging, driven, type A personality stress researchers have identified as highly vulnerable to the ill effects of stress, such as high blood pressure. Although this stress reflex may be more common among men, researchers agree that plenty of women are type A, too. And women can suffer from the same ill effects of premature heart disease as men do. Anger is not necessarily bad -- it has its place in your arsenal of coping tools -- but if you explode every time your computer acts up or you get stuck in traffic, it's time to tame your angry stress reflex.

Stress Solutions

Keep but tweak: Channel your aggression
Because releasing aggressive energy helps soothe you, it's important to find a healthy and constructive way to blow off steam. Dr. Pelletier recommends taking up a martial art. Kickboxing and fast-paced competitive sports, such as tennis, are also a good fit because they allow you to physically release rage while focusing your mind on the activity itself and away from your stress.

Instead try: Getting a pet
Decades of research have shown that keeping a pet around defuses anger and stress. Merely petting your dog or cat, talking to a bird, or watching fish swim in a tank can reduce stress and anxiety levels, lower blood pressure, reduce the incidence of heart attacks, and help heart-attack patients live longer. If you can't get a fish or a bird or handle the burden of caring for a dog or cat, consider volunteering at your local humane society or offer to care for a neighbor's pet while she's on vacation.


Stress Reflex #2: "I Can't Stop Eating"

When under stress do you...

__ Overdose on bread and pasta?

__ Crave potato chips and chocolate?

__ Realize you've polished off a box of cookies and barely remember eating it?

You're not alone. One in three American women agree with the statement "when I am feeling down or facing a problem, I turn to food to feel better," according to a recent American Psychological Association survey on stress. "Eating carbs during times of stress increases levels of the stress-reducing chemical serotonin," says Judith Wurtman, PhD, coauthor of The Serotonin Power Diet. "As long as we eat small amounts of low- or zero-fat carbs, we will feel better -- and not gain weight." But if we eat too much we may pack on pounds and then feel worse.

Stress Solutions

Keep but tweak: Choose smarter sweets and carbs
You don't have to deny yourself food indulgences because they do help regulate stress hormones; instead of refined carbs, however, opt for whole grains. And whatever you're eating, eat it slowly. You'll ingest fewer calories and feel fuller if you let your brain register satiety. Dr. Wurtman says that eating carbs on their own, without protein or fat, will allow the body to get tryptophan, the precursor to serotonin, to the brain more quickly. That means you will get more mood-boosting benefits from eating a baked potato than from eating french fries.

Instead try: Indulging your other senses
Because the parts of your brain that process taste and smell interact closely, fragrances can help to soothe your urge to eat if that urge stems from emotion and not hunger. After all, your sense of smell is reportedly 10,000 times more sensitive than your sense of taste -- and whiffing contains no calories. A scented bath combines the overall soothing effect of a warm soak with a sensory indulgence that squashes stress. "Use essential oils, not perfumes," advises Wendy Warner, MD, president of the American Board of Holistic Medicine.


Stress Reflex #3: "I Bottle It Up"

When under stress are you...

__ Cool and calm, but only on the outside?

__ Quick to deny the pressure you're under?

__ Likely to ignore physical signs of stress, such as back pain?

Dr. Warner believes that women are more prone to this stress reflex than men. "We are trained to care for everybody else before ourselves," she points out, "to push through and not complain." Most people in this category, Dr. Warner says, will tell you they are not stressed "because they don't know what it feels like to be relaxed." They think constant stress is just a fact of life -- and they adapt. "I call them 'adrenal junkies,'" Dr. Warner says. While these women tend to get a lot done and seem admirably composed, danger may be lurking below the surface. "Pretending to be above stress, or denying it, means you're not dealing with it," says Brent A. Bauer, MD, director of the Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program at the Mayo Clinic. "There can be a price to pay and it will come out somewhere, in fatigue, back pain, heart attack." Chronic ongoing low-grade stress can do more harm than a single huge event can. Taming this stress reflex requires finding ways to get back in touch with your senses and your emotions.

Stress Solutions

Keep but tweak: Celebrate your fortitude
Being strong under pressure and handling the needs of your family and friends are admirable traits. Recognize your strength later on -- and reward yourself. Schedule a massage or a facial so someone else can take care of you for a change. "As soon as these women see what it feels like to be relaxed and cared for, they go, 'oh my god, this is wonderful,'" says Dr. Warner. You aren't simply indulging yourself, you're restoring your strength so you can handle the next stressful event.

Instead try: Letting it all hang out -- privately
Even if you don't like showing that you're under the gun, you may be healthier if you write about it. Several studies show that both men and women reap calming health benefits and can soothe many symptoms of stress-related disorders by writing about what is causing them stress in their lives.

You don't have to write a novel to feel better. Participants in one study showed improvement in just two weeks of writing for 45 minutes, five days a week. So buy yourself a notebook, pick up a pen, find a quiet corner, and pour your heart out -- you'll feel stress recede as the ink dries.


Stress Reflex #4: "I Become a Nervous Wreck"

When under stress do you...

__ Find yourself chewing your cuticles or fidgeting?

__ Spend sleepless nights ticking off in your mind all the bad things that might happen?

__ Feel jittery and close to tears?

Anxiety stems from a fear of losing control and a sense that you are not fully in command of circumstances and outcomes, Dr. Pelletier explains. The problem with this stress reflex is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more anxious you feel, the less able you are to make wise decisions that enable you to guide events in the direction you'd most like. To keep anxiety from getting in your way, Dr. Pelletier advises women to "let go of the idea that you can always be in control." Engage in quiet activities that will allow you to feel calm and to focus your energy on the moment and not on the big event causing the anxiety and stress.

Stress Solutions

Keep but tweak: Focus on the positive
Agitation and nervous energy are still energy -- vital resources that can be productive. Once you've finished ticking off the bad things that could happen, start listing their opposites -- all the good things that could happen, too. Then pick just one item on the good-outcomes list and set yourself the goal of taking one small step to make it happen. Even before you take action you'll feel yourself regaining a sense of control and calm.

Instead try: Increasing your melatonin intake to stop tossing and turning
Melatonin, a chemical present in some of the foods we eat, "is an antistress agent and a good sleep promoter," says Russel J. Reiter, PhD, a professor of neuroendocrinology at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio who has done dozens of studies on melatonin. Its sedative effect helps relieve stress, Dr. Reiter says, without making you groggy. Two excellent food sources of melatonin are tart cherries, particularly dried varieties, and walnuts. You might also consider taking a melatonin supplement of 1 to 3 mg 20 to 30 minutes before going to bed. This should help you get to sleep, and taking it is perfectly safe, Dr. Reiter claims.


Stress Reflex #5: "I Take Risks"

When under stress do you...

__ Smoke or drink more?

__ Get bored easily and seek constant change in jobs, clothes, and friends?

__ Act impulsively and regret your decisions later?

There is something about risky, possibly addictive behavior like smoking and drinking -- even excessive shopping -- that's effective or you wouldn't be doing it. "The thrill seeker or risk taker is trying to distract herself from something painful or stressful," explains Dr. Pelletier. Risky behavior may indeed work in the short term. But these distracting, unhealthy behaviors won't sustain you for long and can often boomerang, making matters worse. Nicotine in cigarettes, for example, is a stimulant that can provide an immediate, pleasurable jolt but over time it simply adds to your stress levels, especially if you worry about your heart and lung health. With this reflex, the trick is to redirect your desire for change and find a healthier way to distract yourself.

Keep but tweak: Create a diversion
If getting a rush or feeling excitement takes your mind off stress, find something else that will be stimulating but in a different way. Engage your mind by signing up for a class to learn a new language. Or take up an adventurous sport, such as skiing or mountain biking, that will get those same nerve endings firing.

Instead try: Having a good laugh
There is no faster way to feel good and be distracted from your troubles than to laugh. And its health benefits go far beyond improving your mood. Laughter reduces the levels of agitating stress hormones and boosts the immune system by increasing antibodies and infection-fighting T cells.

Even better, laughter doesn't have to be genuine to work. "The brain and the body can't tell whether the laughter is real or not," says Francine Shore, who leads two weekly laughter therapy groups in New York City; there are 5,000 such clubs that meet regularly around the world. Laughter clubs gather people together to make the sounds of laughter (ha ha ha, ho ho ho) and the gestures (slapping thighs and acting silly) to reap the medical benefits. "Just smiling releases endorphins," Shore advises. "Try frowning and then smiling -- you'll see which feels better." So go to a funny movie or a comedy club and laugh out loud.

10-Second Pause Button: Interrupt your stress reflex
Ever wish you could just hit a pause button to keep from blowing up or eating that whole pint of ice cream? You can. "The key to changing your unhealthy response to stress is to interrupt it," says Russ Newman, PhD, executive director for professional practice at the American Psychological Association. Here's how: The instant you sense you're entering stressful territory, count to 10, breathing in through your nose to the count of five and exhaling slowly through your mouth to the count of five, focusing only on the sound of your breath. Just 10 seconds (no one will even notice this pause) can be enough time to get you past that feeling of losing control.


Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, October 2007.