According to the American Psychological Association’s annual report on stress, 30 percent of Americans have reported increased stress in the past year—and a whopping one in five suffer from so-called “extreme stress.” (An 8, 9, 0r 10 on a self-reported survey regarding anxiety, depression, or a general sense of feeling overwhelmed.) The election may have had something to do with these increased stress levels, the APA is sure to note, but everything from personal safety to financial burdens to the ever-foreboding “future” seems to play a role. In short, we’re more stressed out than we’ve ever been.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. Yes, even in the face of extreme figures like the APA’s, you can curb your stress, because—we’re sorry to report—it turns out your allotment of go-to stress-busters may actually exacerbate the issue. So read on to learn why happy hour with your friends won’t make you happy, or why comfort eating provides very little in the way of comfort. And for more great ways to conquer your mental wellbeing, learn the 17 Lifestyle Habits That Are Ruining Your Brain.
Hitting the heavy bag.
You may think that “letting off steam”—by, say, punching a heavy bag—is a cathartic and effective way of releasing stress. But, per a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, folks who release their stress via fists end up, contrarily, no less stressed than they were before. Plus, those folks typically finished a punching session with higher levels of agitation and aggression.
If you’re a man, there’s even more evidence you shouldn’t lay your frustrations on a bag. According to anger management guru Mitch Abrams, Psy.D., you’re only reinforcing violence by turning to violence in times of stress. “Let’s say that whenever I’m angry, I go hit the heavy bag,” he told Men’s Fitness. “I’m going to feel better, sure. But if that’s the go-to when I’m angry, what’s happens the next time, when I have not my punching bag but my wife in front of me?”
That’s why he—and we—recommend relaxation exercises in times of extreme stress, as well as any of these 10 Best Non-Exercise Stress-Busters.
Shooting off texts or emails.
“When we’re stressed, we tend to react quickly, based on the anxiety, fear, and frustration we’re feeling,” says Jim Curtis, president of Remedy Health Media and the author of The Stimulati Experience: 9 Skills for Getting Past Pain, Setbacks, and Trauma to Ignite Health and Happiness. When you’re stressed, you’re more prone to send curt or unkind messages, says Curtis. “Instead of doing damage control later, take a few breaths now and don’t send that email.” For tips on drafting the perfect email, no matter what’s going on, read up on the 15 Cold Open Business Emails That Will Set You Apart.
Playing drill sergeant.
“If you’re a leader at work,” says Curtis, “you will undoubtably feel the stress.” This stress can then manifest itself in how you order around your staff—less patience, more barking orders. Curtis recommends taking a step back, putting on a friendlier tone, and adding a few more syllables to your marching orders. “The hallmark of good leaders is how they handle stress.”
Ignoring your mom.
Your mom has a point: You really don’t call enough. According to a study in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, when a woman hears her mother’s voice, her oxytocin—a hormone that helps reduce stress—receptors fire away. So when you’re feeling stressed, ringing home ranks among the best things you can do. And for great ways to conquer stress before it begins, read up on the 30 Easiest Ways to Avoid Getting Stressed Out.
Turning to the bottle.
The trope of grabbing a cocktail or a glass of wine after a stressful day is well-worn and well-earned: Alcohol, a sedative, provides initial feelings of calming and relaxation. But, according to a study in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, drinking while you’re stressed will increase your cravings for alcohol—and, in a lose-lose, it’ll reduce the intoxicating benefits of the stuff, as well. “The problems are still there and may actually be worse,” says Ramani Duravasula, PhD, the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship with a Narcissist.
Working to exhaustion.
“I get it. When work gets busy, the last thing you want to do is take a break,” says Curtis. But Project Time Off, a Washington–based think tank, says that being a so-called “work martyr” (essentially, the office workhorse) is actually detrimental to your productivity—and your wellbeing. In other words, working your tail off isn’t helping you or your employer. “If you’re stressed and you have a desk job, be sure to get up and get the blood flowing once every hour [or so],” says Curtis. A little break goes a long way.
Working out to exhaustion.
Everyone knows that a little bit of exercise is a surefire way to burn off some steam. But, according to a study in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, it turns out that muscle recovery for stressed individuals takes roughly twice as long as it does for non-stressed people. So if you’re feeling the pressure, sure, hit the gym—just don’t hit it too hard.
If you’re a woman, that is. According to a study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, when stressed-out women drink caffeine, they end up becoming better work partners, quickly forming “social alliances,” and efficiently tackling group tasks. For men, on the other hand, performance was impaired across the board—tasks weren’t completed as efficiently, and teammates ended up, in other words, getting in each other’s way. (Sorry, fellas.) Ingesting caffeine did nothing to mitigate stress, but—for women, at least—it’s one way to make the most out of a bad situation.
When you’re stressed out, hopping into bed may be the last thing on your to-do list. But as it turns out, sex should be near the top of your de-stressing checklist. Research in PLoS ONE stipulates that sex on the regular bolsters cell growth in the hippocampus—the part of the brain responsible for dampening feelings of stress. (Research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and Biological Psychology corroborated these findings.) So, next time you’re feeling stressed, don’t ignore nature’s call—hop between the sheets. And for really spicing things up, try out some of the 30 Best Sex Toys For Enhancing Your Love Life.
Locking yourself in.
According to a study in Environmental Science & Technology, a mere five minutes outside can work wonders on lowering your stress levels. “Take a walk during your break, move your yoga session outdoors, get some work done outside, or enjoy a meal al fresco,” suggests Zakiyya Rosebelle, a life coach and the founder of lifestyle brand Sweet Little Luxuries.
Whipping up a meal.
You may think of cooking as a soothing, meditative art. (Plus, the tasty reward at the end of your efforts is, if you do it right, well worth the labor). But, according to research out of North Carolina State University, cooking is more effort than it’s worth—especially for working mothers, who worry about time management, food quality, and expenses. The researchers paid attention to 150 mothers and found that, more often than not, “[mothers] continued to make what was tried and true, even if they didn’t like the food themselves,” in efforts to make the whole household happy—even at the expense of their own stress levels. So fire up that Seamless account, instead!
Staying put in the concrete jungle.
According to a study published in Environmental Health Perspectives, when you’re stressed out, pollution has an even more adverse effect on your body than it otherwise does. In other words, all the unhealthy air particles that are so pervasive in urban locales will impair your breathing and increase inflammation—two things that will not help cool your stress levels. So when you’re feeling the pressure, it’s high time get out of Dodge.
Sating your sweet tooth.
“We’re wired to seek out comfort foods when we’re feeling especially antsy,” says Curtis. “But this is a huge mistake.” Instead of reaching for a cookie or a candy bar, which can cause quick spikes and subsequent drops in serotonin levels, consider chomping down on something with protein—like these 5 Best High Protein Snacks—instead.
Chipping away at your to-do list.
Running errands while you’re stressed can make you really, really stressed. According to a study in Experimental Gerontology, so-called “hassles,” slight impediments during day-to-day activity—like a guy cutting you off—will simply exacerbate existing levels of stress. The researchers found that, among men 65 and up, mortality rates due to this compounded stress increased an astonishing 63 percent. (Finally, an excuse to avoid going to the store.)
Putting tasks off.
Even though, as we explained, chores can literally kill you, a behemoth of a to-do list will only make you more stressed out. Duravasula advises fighting the urge to let tasks fall by the wayside: “It’ll only get worse,” she says. “The best thing to do is to break the [stress-inducing] task down into manageable chunks,” says Duravasula. Just be sure to stick to chores that are in your own home and, therefore, come with minimal outside—i.e., human—interaction.
Stuffing your face.
Overeating—or eating unhealthy, high-fat foods—while stressed can lead to weight gains of nearly 11 pounds over the course of a year. For a study in Biological Psychiatry, researchers fed a 900-calorie meal (replete with 60 grams of fat) to stressed-out women and non-stressed-out women. It took 90 minutes for the cortisol—your stress hormone, which also inhibits your body’s fat-burning functions—in stressed-out women to dip back to the levels of non-stressed-out-women. “[Overeating] just gives you one more thing to feel badly about afterwards and magnifies the stress,” says Duravasula.
Or forgoing meals altogether.
Some stressed out people can’t even stuff up on comfort food. Certain stress hormones—most notoriously, corticoliberin, or CRF—actually dampen appetite. On top of that, according to the American Psychological Association, 30 percent of adults admit to skipping meals due to stress-related time crunches. “Do not deprive yourself of a healthy meal,” says Rosebelle. “Your body deserves to be nourished.” If the thought of chewing something wholesome is entirely off-putting, spring for some liquid nourishment, like a smoothie or a protein shake.
Forgetting to breathe…breathe…breathe.
There’s a reason yogis seem to walk through the world with a preternatural calm: Yoga—and meditation—are proven stress reducers, and that’s because breathing is integral to both practices. According to the American Institute of Stress, when we’re under the gun, we tend to breathe more rapidly and irregularly—but that can be mitigated by dedicating 20 to 30 minutes each day to deep abdominal breathing.
Consistently getting less than eight hours.
Falling asleep while preoccupied with a mind run rampant with stress is nigh impossible—but it needs to happen. Per Scientific American, getting less than your recommended eight hours leads directly to increased cortisol—the stress hormone—levels. Making matters worse, a lack of sleep increases your ghrelin (this hormone makes you hungrier) levels and decreases your leptin (and this one moderates cravings) levels. Remember: cortisol inhibits your body’s fat-burning functions. In other words, you’ll want to eat more but have less ability to melt those extra calories—and you’ll be stressed out. So be sure to catch some Zs.
Getting by with a little help from your friends.
It’s more than natural to turn toward your friends when times are tough. Commiserating over a beer is one of the tried-and-true methods for venting feelings, we’re taught. (Sitcoms have corroborated this for decades.) But, according to a study in Anxiety, Stress & Coping, airing your problems with a friend is one of the least effective solutions to handling stress. Among the solutions that prove more effective: Distraction—like binge-watching a TV show—or even just straight-up denying and ignoring the problem.
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