Beat Stress: Swap Your Stress Band-Aids
Posted by Bridget Fox on April 23, 2012 at 9:48 AM
It’s no secret that stress can really take toll on your body and mind. But is your coping mechanism helping or hurting you?
You know you should take a few deep breaths or go on a quick walk around the block when you feel stressed. Instead, you inhale a doughnut (or five) from the office breakroom. You know you shouldn’t, but you do it anyway. Think it’s strange? Nope. Not at all.
Your strained brain craves instant gratification, often in the form of a quick fix like food or alcohol, because these things activate reward pathways (aka, make you feel happy) while quieting the emotional, overwrought area of your brain.
The trouble with the Krispy Kreme cure—besides the strain on your waistband and the sugary glaze all over your fingers—is that it's really just a stress Band-Aid. You feel good short-term (minus the diet guilt), but in the long term you may feel more mentally steamrolled than ever. And when your psyche suffers, so does your body. In fact, in a new Oregon State University study, researchers found that chronically stressed middle-aged men were almost 50 percent more likely to die during an 18-year period than those who experienced fewer stressful events. Now I know that none of you are middle-aged and/or men. But still, 50% more likely to die! Do you want to be one of those guys? Or do you want to be like your yoga teacher, flitting around in a permanent state of zen?
Good choice. Now follow this plan for replacing your current so-called coping strategies with techniques that'll feel like a hot power flow class for your mind.
HOW YOU COPE: Down a dessert (my favorite option…)
There's a reason you equate sugar with serenity. When you consume the sweet stuff, the part of your brain that helps control emotions, is activated. The danger of a sugar binge: Women with higher anxiety are also more likely to have elevated glucose levels. In fact, the American Diabetes Association warns that long-term stress may push your blood-sugar levels into the diabetic range if they're already higher than normal.
DO THIS INSTEAD: Savor a small portion of ice cream
The stress-busting benefits of dessert are due more to the flavor than the fat and calories. High-calorie foods often taste better, but calories aren't necessary for food's effects on stress. Buy a single-serve treat (Ben & Jerry’s makes adorable mini cups…) and take half an hour to eat it; savoring the flavor can extend the calming effect.
HOW YOU COPE: Pour a drink
After a few glasses of wine, the office jackass is the last person on your mind. When alcohol enters your bloodstream, it seems to activate reward pathways for temporary relief. Don’t call for a toast yet. Ultimately, it may intensify your depression. Booze may disrupt your body's natural calming process, prolonging the mental misery. Not to mention, alcohol can interfere with your sleep, meaning you’ll be less prepared to deal with more stress the next day.
DO THIS INSTEAD: Self-medicate with music
A study in Nature Neuroscience found that listening to favorite tunes or anticipating a certain point in a song can cause a pleasurable flood of dopamine. Listen to a few songs in a row several times a day -- these doses of dopamine can lower your stress, removing the trigger that causes you to seek alcohol. During a particularly stressful time at work, I created a “Positive” playlist. I know it sounds cheesy, but I put all my favorite songs or songs that had a happy, positive message in it and played it when I could feel myself getting overwhelmed.
HOW YOU COPE: Stalk on Facebook and build a killer Pinterest board all night
The lure of finding exes and creating your “Dream Home” isn't the only thing keeping you up till 3 a.m. Stanford researchers found that playing into these desires stimulates the brain's key reward region. The downside: Most internet activities are sedentary and evev if we don’t realize it, the comparisons to others and feelings of disadvantage (from not having the dream home) mimic the competitiveness of a stressful job, which may negate any brain benefits.
DO THIS INSTEAD: Actually DO a DIY project from Pinterest
Learn to make the perfect lamb stew. Practice the guitar. Knit scarves for your friends. Activities that give you a sense of mastery can also activate the brain’s reward system, deploying a rush of dopamine. Plus, as you practice your new skill, you enter a healthy psychological state known as flow. You lose track of time and are completely immersed in what you're doing, which is incredibly relaxing to the mind.