32 Secrets of a Stress-Proof Life
How to keep your cool—all the time.
Ah, a completely stress-free life. No more rushing to work, fretting over bills, or fabricating excuses for why you're home an hour past curfew (that goes for both Sorry, Mom, and Sorry, Honey). Doesn't that sound nice? Of course it does. We're sure it also sounds impossible. But get this: That elusive bliss in a bottle has been in front of you the entire time. Just cop these 32 secrets and you'll be on a fast-track to a utopia of carefree living in no time. And for more sterling stress relief advice, be sure to check out the 30 Ways to De-Stress In 30 Seconds Or Less.
Swear like a sailor.
Researchers at England's University of East Anglia Norwich looked into leadership styles and found that using swear words can reduce stress and boost camaraderie among co-workers. So curse away!
Take a Youtube timeout.
Just the anticipation of laughing decreases the stress hormones dopac, cortisol, and epinephrine by 38, 39, and 70 percent, respectively, according to researchers at Loma Linda University in California. And when researchers at the University of Maryland showed short movie clips to study participants, those who watched funny films experienced a 22 percent increase in blood flow to their hearts. And for more great advice on stress relief, learn the 20 Regular Mistakes That Only Compound Your Stress.
For lovebirds: Learn "we."
"We" can save your marriage. University of Pennsylvania researchers say the pronouns couples use when arguing influence the resolution of their fights. They asked couples to discuss heated issues facing their relationships and coded each word used as positive, negative, or neutral. The arguments in which spouses used more second-person pronouns, such as "you" and "me," tended to be negative, while those that included first-person pronouns "we," "us,' and "our" tended to result in positive outcomes.
For the parents: Ease up.
Being too strict could put kids at risk for obesity. A study of 872 children in the journal Pediatrics found that kids with parents who were disciplinarians were 5 times more likely to be overweight at age 7 than those with more permissive parents. Why? Kids overeat in response to stress, say researchers—and a gluttonous kid will result in a stressed out parent. And to truly conquer your stress once and for all, learn the 30 Easiest Ways to Fight Stress—For Good.
Eat more garlic.
Researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham believe they've figured out why garlic is good for heart health, and their finding implies it's a powerful stress buster too. When you digest garlic's main ingredient, organosulfur allicin, your body produces hydrogen sulfide, which relaxes blood vessels and increases blood flow. So shed any vampiric tendencies and start chopping garlic.
Cut back on carbs.
Stress causes your adrenal glands to excrete cortisol, an energy-boosting hormone that makes you crave high-fat and sugary foods. But eating refined starchy foods such as pretzels, and waiting more than five hours between meals, can also cause this hormone to spike. To keep cortisol in check, eat high-fiber foods combined with a protein source, such as yogurt and muesli, which will produce a gradual rise in blood sugar. If you absolutely must have your carb fix, though, spring instead for the 10 Healthiest Carbs At the Supermarket.
Eat dark chocolate.
A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that the flavonoids in cocoa relax your body's blood vessels. Look for low-fat dark chocolate, which has more stress-busting flavonoids than milk chocolate.
Hop to it.
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 Toys For Enhancing Your Love Life.
Pop fish oil.
According to research from the University of Pittsburgh, people with the highest blood levels of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids are happier, less impulsive, and more agreeable. Try a daily supplement of 400 milligrams each of EPA and DHA fish oils.
Target your hoku.
Acupressure is a quick tension releaser, according to researchers at Hong Kong Polytechnic University who found it can reduce stress by up to 39 percent. For fast relief, massage your hoku (the fleshy part between the thumb and index finger) for 20 to 30 seconds. "This is the universal pressure point for easing upper-body tension," says Patrice Winter, a professor at George Mason University in the Department of Global and Community Health.
Brush up on your Greek classics.
Reciting hexameter verse for 10 minutes will slow your breathing and steady your heart rate, according to a study in the American Journal of Physiology. You may already be familiar with a few tales set in hexameter: the Iliad, the Odyssey, Metamorphoses, and the Aeneid are all prime examples.
Take a breather.
Sitting quietly and focusing on your breathing for 10 minutes a day can reduce stress by up to 44 percent, say researchers at West Virginia University.
Swap your coffee for tea.
In a study at University College in London, 75 men were given tea before completing two stressful tasks. Afterward, their cortisol levels dropped an average of 47 percent, compared with 27 percent for men who weren't given tea.
Minimize minimal distractions.
A wobbly chair, a flickering light, the ping of your e-mail, and other random interruptions can disrupt your focus at work, leading to physical ailments such as headaches and also aggravation. To enhance your work space, replace fluorescent bulbs with more direct incandescent task lights, repair small but annoying problems, and minimize wasted time.
Become a planning pro.
"Planning is the most important thing a [you] can do to avoid stress," says Michael Kahn, PhD, a psychologist. Plan by the day, week, month, and year—and habitualize each planning session. For, example, check your daily schedule every morning before reading your e-mail; preview your week on Sunday nights; and preview the upcoming month every 27th. To gain a sense of control, prioritize tasks using the old A-B-C theory: A's need to be done, B's ought to be done, and C's can wait until later.
Contingency, contingency, contingency.
Kahn says that efficient execs tend to be very sensitive to the feeling of becoming overwhelmed. Like canaries in a coal mine, they recognize when the air is getting bad, and they know how to react before stress paralyzes them. Kahn recommends this stress-management ritual:
- Recognize your mind-body signals of distress, such as muscle tension, rapid pulse, sweaty palms, or irritability.
- Disengage by taking a walk or doing a breathing exercise.
- Identify the stress source: Is it a project, a deadline, a personal interaction?
- Generate a solution that you can implement immediately. For example, you might recognize, "I'm trying to do two and a half days of work in three hours!" The solution: Delay doing one item on your list and deal with it at another time.
Stretch it out.
A study in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine found that office workers who take a 15-minute stretch break feel calmer and more productive afterward. Try these desk stretches recommended by certified strength and conditioning specialist Bill Hartman:
Thoracic extension: Put your hands behind your head and bend your upper body over your chair's back as far as possible. Draw your shoulder blades together and hold for two seconds. Release. Repeat eight times.
Hip-flexor stretch: Place one foot on a chair and lean forward while extending your arms overhead. Gently arch your back while moving your arms (keep them straight) back slightly. Hold for two seconds. Do eight reps.
Pick the low-hanging fruit.
When faced with a seemingly impossible challenge, immediately pinpoint at least one piece of the problem that you can control and then attack it. "When you shift into take-charge mode, you meet the challenge from a position of strength rather than feeling at its mercy," says Kahn. This will buck up your confidence and set you on a path of action.
Remember: You've been here before.
Sure, things look bleak out there, but hey, you've faced bleak before. "We have a much greater capacity to weather disappointment and change than we think we do," says Giovanna Zerbi, PsyD, Director, Behavioral Problems, at the University of California at San Diego. Being mindful of your feelings and remembering how you triumphed over past setbacks can give you the confidence to face whatever may be lurking around the corner.
Find yourself a spotter.
Have you ever attempted to bench-press your max without having a gym buddy at the ready in case you couldn't push the barbell off of your throat? The same goes for your life beyond the weight rack. "Successful [people] have friends they can lean on in times of need," says Robert Maurer, PhD, Director of Behavioral Sciences for the Family Practice Residency Program at Santa Monica UCLA Medical Center. "Our culture tends to value stoicism, self-reliance, and independence, but your mind naturally wants to draw strength from others."
Learn this tiny exercise.
Tilt your head back, close your eyes, and, without pushing or forcing, allow them to roll up and back in their sockets. Hold them there for 30 seconds to a minute. "That will signal your brain to relax, slowing the frequency of its electric activity," says Kenneth R. Pelletier, Ph.D., M.D., coauthor of Stress Free for Good. "Your body can go from red alert to totally relaxed in a matter of seconds."
Golf balls? Sure.
Use golf balls to bring anxiety back to par. Sit at your desk, remove your shoes, and place the arch of each foot firmly on a golf ball, then roll the balls back and forth along the soles of your feet. "Applying pressure deep into the tissue of the foot helps release the tension you carry around with you," says Bobbi Warren, a reflexology expert.
"Any competition, be it mental or physical, typically boosts good stress; it increases your heart rate and also has the potential to elevate circulating levels of cells that are important to the immune system," says Mark Larson, Ph.D., a psychologist. One-on-one basketball works, but mental games like chess will also do the trick.
Blast some (upbeat) tunes.
Cue up an MP3 mix. Italian researchers studying 24 people found that those who listened to several up-tempo songs followed by two minutes of silence experienced lower blood pressure and slower heart rates than people who listened to music nonstop or to no music. The researchers say the combo listening style reduces blood flow to the brain, which has a calming effect.
Learn stress breathing.
Sit down, close your eyes, and put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach below your navel. Breathe in for a count of 3 so your stomach presses against your hand; then breathe out for a count of 5. Repeat three times. "[This] shifts your brain from the 'stress response' into the 'relaxation response,'" says Kahn. "The more you engage the process, the more effective it will be."
Make the most of inevitable hiccups.
Sometimes things don't work out how you imagine, and it's enough to make you totally stressed out. You can let that hiccup derail your day, or you can look at something like a delayed train or canceled flight as an opportunity to check off something on your list. "We all have a list of secondarily important things to take care of," says David Allen, author of Getting Things Done. "Delays like these are a great time to make that call to your mother you've been putting off." Speaking of…
She 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.
Hit the gym first thing in the morning.
Think of a brief morning run or strength circuit as rocket fuel to power you through the day. Researchers in Denmark found that people who exercise just two hours a week—that's just 17 minutes a day—are 61 percent less likely to feel stressed out. "People who exercise prior to stressful encounters report lower spikes in blood pressure during the events because their blood vessels are relaxed," says Rod Dishman, Ph.D., a professor of exercise science at the University of Georgia. Sweating before work can mean less sweating—and less feelings of being overly stressed out—once you've clocked in.
Cut back on the booze.
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. So there you have it: Only drink when you're in the clear.
Order in—or eat out.
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!
Get your 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. And for tricks on getting those eight hours, master the 11 Doctor-Approved Secrets For Falling Asleep Faster.
Don't make us say it again: Quit. Smoking.
Quitting the butts was the number stress relief step mentioned by every doctor and researcher we spoke with. But even casual smokers need to beware: Research shows that with the first cigarette of the day, heart rate will increase by 10 to 20 beats per minute. Blood pressure will go up 5 to 10 points. So, for the millionth time, walk away from the cigarette—and don't even think about sneaking a cheat one in.
With additional reporting by Grant Stoddard and Ari Notis.
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