Research has shown that daily stress and anxiety can trigger headaches, tense muscles, and even raise your blood pressure. Stress also suppresses the immune system, making you more vulnerable to illness. Here are some easy-to-implement lifestyle changes that can help bring stress down a notch.
Exercise clears your mind and returns the body to a more healthful state. But you don't need to spend hours at a gym to gain the benefits of exercise; even a 10-minute walk can decrease anxiety.
When you exercise, beta-endorphins (the body's natural relaxants) are released. Endorphins counteract the stress hormones raging through your body. "That's why we get a really mellow feeling at the end of exercising," says JoAnne Herman, PhD, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina College of Nursing. When stress overloads your system, the body converts to the "fight or flight" response.
Powered by a surge of adrenaline secreted, your heart beats faster, pupils dilate, blood vessels constrict, and muscles contract -- all physiological responses preparing you to defend yourself.
Besides being a break in your daily routine, exercise gets blood circulating, boosts your mood, and eases tension. "Exercise rids the body of excess energy it really can't do anything about," says Dr. Tara Cortes, clinical director of primary care at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. Studies also show that active people have a decreased risk of coronary heart disease, the number-one cause of death in the United States.
Call a Friend
Have you ever wondered why things always seem better after you talk to a good friend? Well, it turns out that friendship is as good for your health as it is for your spirit. Researchers have found that having good friends helps lower blood pressure, relieve anxiety, and may even help you live longer.
In a recent study of AIDS patients, Jane Leserman, PhD, of the University of North Carolina, found that men who were supported by good friends were better able to fight the progression of AIDS. While Leserman was not sure how a support network protected the patients' immune systems, she credits friendship with helping them decrease the stress of their illness.
Many experts list friendship as the key factor in getting through stressful times. "If you can learn to control the stress and speak to others about it, you become able to deal with a lot more," says Dr. Edward Callahan, a psychologist at the University of California at Davis. One venting session with a good friend might be all that's needed to make you feel better. But if you're going through an especially rough time, a good friend will also be there for continual reassurance. "Unfortunately, people under stress may be more likely to isolate themselves," says Martha Craft-Rosenberg, PhD, professor and chair of parent, child, and family studies at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.
When reaching out to a silent stressed-out friend, keep things simple. Show your support through a smile, a hug, or a note expressing how much you care. You don't have to press them for a long talk if that's not what they need right now.
Divide Household Chores
A century ago, it was the woman's duty to take care of house and home. Thankfully, times have changed, or have they? A study at Johns Hopkins University found that working women who take on extra responsibilities at home and receive no thanks for it are more likely to drive aggressively, a behavior commonly referred to as "road rage." The study, conducted by Dr. Barbara Curbow and Dr. Joan Griffin, found that 56 percent of the women surveyed admitted to driving aggressively during their commutes; 41 percent yelled or gestured at other drivers; and 25 percent said they took their frustrations out behind the wheel. Interestingly, the study found less evidence of road rage among women who received emotional rewards at home for their hard work.
Because you may not always get that needed pat on the back, other tactics can help. One way to get more help is to divvy up the chores. Dividing chores gets the whole family involved in running the household, says Craft-Rosenberg, the family studies professor from Iowa. "The resilience of a family is related to how well they can work together," she says. Even small children benefit because contributing makes them feel needed. And when others share the workload, there's less pressure to get everything done at once. "It helps me remember that I do not have to be the 'Supermom' I fantasize about," says Marti Rickel, a clinical instructor at the University of Arkansas College of Nursing and mother of a 3-year-old son. "I can be a good mother and a good nurse and a good wife, but on some days I cannot be good at all of them at the same time."
Reduce Caffeine Intake
Drinking four or five cups of coffee every morning does more than open your eyes. The caffeine raises your blood pressure and increases secretion of adrenaline, a stress hormone. In fact, the caffeine in your coffee cup imitates and even exaggerates the body's response to stress, according to James D. Lane, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
While your brain is pumping out more adrenaline, Lane says, your heart is also working harder, causing a three-point increase in blood pressure. A five-point increase in blood pressure has been associated with a 21 percent increased risk of heart disease and a 34 percent increased risk of stroke. Although Lane is reluctant to link caffeine intake and disease, he says that the mechanisms are there.
When all is working as it should, our nervous systems have mechanisms that keep us from overreacting to stress. But caffeine, which Lane calls the the most widely used drug in the world, seems to inhibit that natural function and leave the body in an agitated state for longer than normal. And because the effects of caffeine last for hours after intake -- it takes 4 to 5 hours to eliminate half the caffeine present -- the body never really gets a chance to function without caffeine.
The long-lasting effects of caffeine are even greater for women taking birth control pills because both estrogen and caffeine are broken down by the liver. "It may take 10 to 12 hours for women on birth control pills to lower their caffeine levels by half," Lane says. "So by the time yesterday's caffeine is gone, they have already started with this morning's coffee."
Slowly taper off caffeine by drinking a cup of decaf or herbal tea to substitute for your caffeinated cup. Or, try mixing regular with decaf beans at the grocery store. If you take it slowly, your body will hardly notice the difference.
Whether you're an executive, an at-home mom, or a cardiac surgeon, giving yourself time to unwind is vital for de-stressing your life.
"Taking 10 minutes for yourself won't solve all of life's problems, but it gives you a chance to feel calmer and find clarity," says Jill Strawn, PhD, an assistant professor at the College of New Rochelle School of Nursing in New York. Whether you need a nap, a bath, or a quiet place to read a book, make sure the time is spent doing exactly what you want to do.
For parents with young children, Strawn suggests having the little ones join in. Kids love to do what their parents do, she says. Listen to a relaxation tape with your child, or lie on the grass together and watch clouds go by. By including your children, you teach them the importance of slowing down and enjoying life.
"We're so busy running that we don't enjoy the journey along the way," says Glenda Walker, director of nursing at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. "We're waiting for the reward (of working hard) and when it finally comes, we're too exhausted to enjoy it." By spending time relaxing and realizing your strengths and joys, you learn to appreciate yourself.
Share a Laugh
Whether it's a tiny giggle or an all-out belly-busting whoop, laughter makes life a lot easier to deal with.
By looking at the humorous side of life, you shift your thinking away from a situation, clearing the way for stress relief. Laughter initiates the release of beta-endorphins, those same natural relaxants that are released during exercise. Endorphins make you feel good and protect the immune system by decreasing cortisol, an immune system suppressor.
Dr. Edward Callahan, a psychologist at the University of California-Davis, describes laughter as the perfect antidote to tension. "Laughter helps you move away from anger and toward a positive closeness to other people, and positive social contact with others is essential for stress management."
If you tend to take yourself too seriously, recruit help. Call a friend who makes you laugh or rent a comedy at the video store.
Get a Massage
Massage therapy has gone from a luxury to something that almost anyone who needs a little TLC can get. The number of licensed massage therapists enrolled in the American Message Therapy Association has grown from 1,200 in 1983 to more than 38,000 today.
When you are stressed out, your shoulder and neck muscles are among the first to get tight. When muscles are tense for too long, their blood flow is reduced and they can't "breathe," which makes them sore. That's why massage is so helpful; it works the tension out of your muscles, increases range of motion, and allows for blood to circulate more easily. In addition, massage releases beta-endorphins, those neurochemicals that make you feel relaxed.
"My clients often say that their massage is like a mental vacation," says Elliot Greene, former president of the American Massage Therapy Association. "Massage helps you leave your thoughts for a while."
Licensed massage therapists who are members of the American Massage Therapy Association must take at least 500 hours of in-class training, pass a certification exam, and comply with an enforceable code of ethics.
Know Your Limits
Sometimes a reality check can show you whether you're causing yourself unnecessary stress, either through unrealistic expectations or feeling like everything is out of your control. Consider printing these lists and posting them on your dashboard, the refrigerator, or anywhere you can read them over for a quick "reset."
Things You Can't Control
- the age or stage of development your children are in
- the way you were raised
- whether the stoplight turns red or green
- how fast other cars are driving
- the number of hours in a day
- other people
- the timing of your teenager's mood swings or your toddler's temper tantrums
- your age
- when work or a project takes much longer than expected
- waiting for your doctor 30 minutes after your scheduled appointment
- a death, illness, or accident in the family
- the calendar (helpful to remember when holidays are approaching)
- being laid off from a job
- messes made right after you have cleaned the house
Things You Can Control
- your reaction to others
- your to-do list (and the number of items on it)
- how your day is spent
- your goals
- how much time you're willing to spend on a particular project
- your self-esteem and self-worth
- how you treat others
- your exercise and eating habits
- the communication of your needs to others
- telling people when you're stressed out and need time alone or help with projects
- whether or how much you smoke or drink alcohol
- how old you act
- the way you raise your children