Originally found on http://www.consumerreports.org/mental-health/ways-to-manage-stress/
Last summer an American Psychological Association survey found that our overall stress levels were going down—part of an encouraging nationwide trend.
But a follow-up survey in early January showed a troubling change, according to psychologist Vaile Wright, Ph.D., director of research and special projects at the APA. “We saw the first statistically significant spike in stress in 10 years,” she says.
Whether acute or chronic, stress can affect you physically, changing your hormone levels and activating your body’s inflammatory response.
“There’s evidence that people under chronic stress are more susceptible to the common cold and flu, and are at greater risk of developing depression and coronary heart disease,” says Sheldon Cohen, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “Under long-term stress, many of your body’s physical systems do not respond normally.”
And though older adults usually report less stress than younger ones—thanks to years of experience in developing coping strategies—age may make us more susceptible to the negative health effects of chronic stress.
Fortunately, evidence-backed strategies can help manage stress. Whether you’re planning a budget or dealing with a sick relative, here’s how to turn down the volume on tension the healthy way:
Learn to Relax
1. Focus on the now. Research has found that practicing mindfulness—being focused on the present moment without judgment—can reduce stress. When your mind wanders, gently bring it back.
In a recent study published in the journal Psychiatry Research, people who had generalized anxiety disorder either took a lecture-type class on healthy lifestyle habits or participated in mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), an eight-week course that teaches mindfulness via meditation, breathing, and yoga. When challenged with a stressful task, those who took the MBSR program showed reduced levels of stress-related hormones and inflammatory compounds, suggesting that their bodies had become physically better at handling stress.
For guidance on how to get started, check your local community college for a mindfulness meditation class. The UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center also offers free guided meditations online (marc.ucla.edu/mindful-meditations).
2. Spend time with family and friends. When stress hits, its physical symptoms could be reduced by strong interpersonal connections, a 2015 study found. Knowing that people are there for you can help—even when they don’t do anything especially helpful.
“We know that people with strong social support networks do better under stress,” Cohen says. “They protect you from the adverse effects of stressors.” Family and friends can also help you reinterpret and cope with stressful challenges.
3. Connect with nature. Exercise has been shown to relieve stress, and being out in nature while you do it could help as well.
A small study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that urban residents who walked for 90 minutes in nature had lower self-reported scores on rumination—overthinking or hyperfocusing on a negative situation—than those who walked in a city.
Even a short stroll in the woods is beneficial. A study in the journal Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine found that people who sat and looked at a forest for 15 minutes, then spent 15 minutes walking in it showed lower levels of salivary cortisol, a lower heart rate, and lower blood pressure—all physical indications of reduced stress—than people who did the same in an urban environment.
4. Get more (and better) sleep. “When you’re stressed you often have trouble sleeping, and when you don’t have a good night’s sleep, it’s harder to cope with daily stresses,” says Judith Turner, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. “It’s a vicious cycle.”
Chronic sleep deprivation is also associated with an increased risk of a variety of illnesses and acute infections, such as colds, Cohen says. The sweet spot for sleep seems to be between 7 and 8 hours per night. (Too little or too much can increase your risk of certain illnesses.)
If you’re having trouble nodding off or staying asleep, keep potential distractions out of the bedroom (pets, snoring, glowing screens, bright lights, an uncomfortable temperature) and make time before bed to practice deep relaxation or mindfulness to help calm your brain.
5. Breathe slowly. When you’re stressed or anxious, your breathing can become fast and shallow. This stimulates the sympathetic (“fight or flight”) nervous system, which in turn can trigger more stress. Studies have shown that controlled breathing—the kind you might do in a yoga class—can help turn on the more soothing parasympathetic system.
“The way people ordinarily breathe when stressed enhances the stress they feel,” says Richard P. Brown, M.D., associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, who has studied the impact of breathing techniques on those with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The average adult takes about 12 to 20 breaths per minute. He suggests slowing down your respiration for up to 20 minutes per day, with the goal of getting to five or six breaths per minute during that time. “With this kind of slow, rhythmic breathing, your heart and lungs work better and deliver more oxygen to your system,” Brown says. “This can decrease blood pressure, improve sleep, and give you both energy and relaxation.”
Deal With Bad Habits
6. Make smart choices. Coping with stress by turning to alcohol, drugs, overeating, or other tempting comforts might make you feel better temporarily. But in the long run, these can have negative health consequences, potentially leading to addiction, weight gain, and other problems.
“When we’re stressed we tend to smoke and drink more, exercise less, get poorer sleep, and eat poor diets,” Cohen says. “All of those can potentially impact disease processes—and make stress worse.” Instead, try meditating, exercising, or taking a walk outside.
7. Take technology breaks. Computer use can be a double-edged sword. Although it can help keep you engaged and connected, too much screen time can disrupt sleep and increase stress.
A report from the Pew Research Center found that women who used social media to tweet, message, or share photos reported less stress than those who didn’t use social media at all. But that connecting had a negative impact by making the women more aware of—and stressed out by—other peoples’ life challenges.
Pew calls that “the cost of caring,” and notes that such stress is normal—in moderation.
Written by Janet Lee