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This month, make a pact with yourself to take the following actions:
Move your body. Even moderate amounts of exercise can reduce the detrimental effects of chronic stress. In addition to producing the mood-elevating chemicals dopamine and serotonin, workouts can also keep cortisol levels in check. "There's emerging evidence that exercise can protect the brain from the effects of chronic periods of stress," explains Brenda Anderson, PhD, associate professor of biopsychology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Downsize the sweets. Do you reach for rich, fatty foods when you're stressed out? Try tricking your body into feeling sated with less. "If you're using sweets as pharmaceuticals, eat the smallest amount that does the job, and that's going to make you feel a little better," says Louis Aronne, MD, director of the Comprehensive Weight Control Program at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, in New York City. Instead of eating a whole bar of chocolate, for instance, start with a few small pieces and see if that has a calming effect. The types of carbohydrates you eat also make a difference. "The critical factor is the rate at which they're absorbed," says Dr. Aronne. He recommends whole grains instead of foods made with refined white flour because "the body has to break down the outer kernel to get to the carbohydrate inside," he says, which reduces the rate at which it's converted to sugar. "Consuming foods with fewer calories per ounce first will also help you feel full and make you eat less overall," he says. For example, start a meal with soup, then have a salad, and eat the protein and starch last. "It can really make a big difference in how much you eat during the day." Find your inner peacemaker. Meditation decreases the levels of stress hormones in the bloodstream, but you don't have to sit around chanting "om" for hours to get those results. Devoting as little as 20 minutes a day to calming the body and mind can activate "the parts of the brain associated with states of happiness and peace, and enhance immune function," says Diane Reibel, PhD, director of the Stress Reduction Program at the Center for Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, in Philadelphia. You don't have to sit cross-legged on the floor, either. You can relax in a chair at your desk, in the bathtub or on your bed, or walking on the beach. The simplest way to get started is to find a tranquil spot and pay attention to your breath as it passes through your nostrils. Notice the rise and fall of your chest and abdomen. Whenever a thought intrudes -- and more than one will -- "label it a thought and come back to the sensation of your breath," says Dr. Reibel. "It doesn't matter how many thoughts you have or how many times you notice you're off your breath." If you stick with it, over time you should find that you're better able to cope with stress.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, April 2004.