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Do you have a go-to stress reliever? That one thing you know will mellow you out when you're frazzled, fried, or just plain overwhelmed? Some of us find comfort in a bowl of chocolate ice cream, others in a leisurely walk or brisk run. No matter what your favorite escape, chances are there's a way to make it even more effective. Here's how.
Stress Buster 1: "I go for a walk."
When tension strikes, you put on your sneakers and hit the pavement.
Even better: Self-talk while you walk.
You probably know that walking lowers stress levels significantly because the exercise causes our bodies to release endorphins (the brain chemicals that calm us). But researchers at the Rippe Lifestyle Institute, in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, have also found that repeating a positive phrase such as "I love my life" or "I am in control" while you're moving can help you chill out even more. Why? Reciting a mantra is a meditation technique that helps quiet the mind. Repeating the words over and over focuses you on that positive thought, and others -- like "I'm so stressed out!" -- get pushed out of your mind.
Stress Buster 2: "I watch Dancing with the Stars."
You forget your troubles by curling up on the couch to watch celebs do the tango and the cha-cha.
Even better: Take a dance class.
"Vegging out in front of a favorite TV show can distract you for a time, but this escape-from-reality approach, known as avoidance coping, offers no long-term stress reduction," says Claire Wheeler, MD, PhD, author of 10 Simple Solutions to Stress: How to Tame Tension and Start Enjoying Your Life. Dancing, like other forms of moderate exercise, will give you lasting relief. Research has shown that regular physical activity, in addition to causing the release of those feel-good endorphins, lowers anxiety by reducing the amount of stress hormones in the body. You'll miss out on both of these benefits sitting in front of the TV. One study suggests your basal metabolic rate (calories burned per minute) is even more sluggish when you're watching the tube than it is when you're just resting. Another reason to get with the beat? One study conducted at the Mount Sinai Medical Center, in Cleveland, found that exercising to music can boost your mood even more. You can reap the rewards even if you can't make it to a dance class. Just put on your stereo and move to your favorite tunes at home.
Stress Buster 3: "I spend some time alone."
Cooling off by your lonesome helps you clear your head and keeps you from lashing out at your husband or kids.
Even better: Hug your husband.
Your instinct to withdraw and hold your tongue when you're under pressure is smart, says Dr. Wheeler. That's because stress hormones target the part of the brain that controls language and speech (known as the prefrontal cortex), which lessens our ability to communicate effectively. But fuming alone isn't the best way to soothe jangled nerves. Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that even just 10 minutes of hugging or other forms of affectionate touching with your partner releases oxytocin, a hormone that reduces stress and lowers blood pressure. So the next time tension strikes, try holding your husband's hand -- and save the conversation for later.
Stress Buster 4: "I reach for ice cream."
Nothing lulls you into a state of relaxation quite like a bowl of rocky road.
Even better: Indulge in healthy fat.
There's a reason we feel an urge to reach for goodies high in fat and sugar when we're under stress: Eating these foods triggers the release of serotonin, a feel-good chemical, in the brain. The problem is that even on a good day, most of us have a hard time drawing the line at just one scoop. Add stress to the equation and portion control becomes even more challenging. Indulge your ice-cream cravings with a low-fat variety and top it off with a healthy fat, such as walnuts, which will prompt the release of stress-soothing serotonin. Plus, walnuts are loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, another known mood enhancer. Keep in mind that the recommended serving size for ice cream is half a cup (about the size of a lightbulb). Scooping it into a teacup or ramekin will make portion control easier.
Stress Buster 5: "I tidy up the house."
Your weapons of choice against stress are a vacuum and a to-do list.
Even better: Make cleaning symbolic.
Your home is often a metaphor for your life, according to Vivien D. Wolsk, PhD, a clinical psychologist in New York City who leads a workshop called Shape Up Your Psyche: Relieving Stress Through Everyday Chores. "Cleaning and putting stuff back where it belongs relieves tension by giving you a feeling of control and a sense of accomplishment," she says. Dr. Wolsk says you can maximize those positive effects -- and clarify what's causing stress -- by attaching meaning to specific chores. Doing the laundry? Tell yourself you're washing away all the negativity surrounding you. Straightening up living-room clutter? Consider it clearing out space for new experiences to enter your life.
Stress Buster 6: "I treat myself to some retail therapy."
Purchasing a pair of shoes calms every anxiety.
Even better: Splurge on something soothing.
Rewarding yourself during tense times -- even with something as small as a new lipstick -- can make you feel better, but there's a catch: "Stress-induced shopping can lead you to spend more than you can afford and acquire things you don't need," says Dr. Wheeler. "Both add stress to your life rather than reduce it." If you're going to spend some dough, put it toward something that's truly calming and beneficial to your overall health. A massage, for example, is the perfect indulgence. It relaxes muscles and lowers blood pressure and heart rate. Physical contact from the massage therapist sparks an endorphin response.
Stress Buster 7: "I confide in a friend."
When you're feeling frazzled, you pick up the phone to gripe to a girlfriend.
Even better: Write in a journal.
Relaying the details of a stressful situation to a friend can be comforting, but even when speaking with our closest pals many of us have a tendency to be cautious about what we say, possibly because we worry about embarrassing ourselves. "A friend's mood, expectations, opinions, and personal experiences all influence what we ultimately choose to disclose," says James Pennebaker, PhD, chairman of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions. Writing about what's bugging you, on the other hand, gives you the freedom to express whatever's on your mind. Plus, it provides the quiet to clear your head in a way that two-way conversations don't. The next time you're feeling overwhelmed, take 15 minutes to focus your thoughts and get them down on paper, Dr. Pennebaker suggests. Then, reflect on what you've written. He says this will allow you to get some perspective on what's causing your stress and how you might overcome it.
Journaling, as it's called, may be beneficial even on days when you're not battling stress. Research has shown that writing about your feelings can boost your overall mood. Studies also show that making note of a few things and people that you are grateful for each day can build your confidence and strengthen your resilience to future stressors. Added health bonus? According to Dr. Pennebaker, writing about your feelings can improve immune function.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, November 2008.