Fresh ways to stress less

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De-stressing

Managing your stress in some unhealthy ways? We've got 20 new stress busters that really work.

I have close, meaningful relationships with espresso brownies, cold beer, and reruns of The West Wing. Until recently, it hadn't occurred to me that these paramours are, in fact, three of the major players in my stress-management strategy. Hey, I wasn't even aware I had a stress-management strategy. And this, according to the American Psychological Association (APA), is exactly the problem.

"We do things to manage stress all the time," says Russ Newman, PhD, APA executive director for professional practice. He's not talking about those folks who eat fruits and veggies, exercise regularly, and log 8 hours of sleep nightly. No. He's talking about the 45 percent of Americans who, according to an APA survey, deal with stress by retiring to the couch with a glass of wine, a sack of chips, and a pack of ciggies.

Newman would like us to snap out of it. Stress is leaving us exhausted, tearful, and nervous. It also makes us more likely to struggle with high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, and overeating.

So what to do? We've got a slew of strategies that'll help you get your stress in check without doing you in.

Wash it away: A warm bubble bath or a brisk walk can calm your nerves beautifully.

Old stress buster: After a harried day at work, you come home and start in on the French bread until you are in a carb-induced coma. "People tend to go after carbohydrate-rich food because it kicks up the neurotransmitter serotonin, which has a relaxing effect on the body," says Lisa Dorfman, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and author of The Anti-Stress Diet.

New solutions: Instead of stuffing yourself with that loaf of bread, take a hot bath or shower to relax your muscles and mind. Or lie down and breathe quietly. If you do decide to eat, make that decision consciously. Ask yourself: What are the consequences? The benefits? After answering these questions, "eight out of 10 times you'll skip the Oreos," says University of Alabama psychology professor Beverly Thorn, PhD.

Old stress buster: After a fight with your husband, you turn on the tube and zone out. That relaxes you, all right. "It puts you in a stupor," says Robert Kesten, executive director of the Center for Screen-Time Awareness, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit. That TV trance is caused in part by your falling metabolism, Kesten says, citing studies that find watching television lowers your metabolism more than sleeping does.

New solutions: To release the emotional stress of a fight, talk to a friend, write in a journal, take a brisk walk, or get some other kind of exercise. If a mental vacation is what you're after, pick up a book to escape. Once you've regrouped, then talk to your husband.

Old stress buster: You freak out over your shrinking bank balance and (since you're already in debt) decide to go shopping. Compulsive shopping regulates your mood, says James A. Roberts, PhD, a consumer-spending researcher at Baylor University. And when you're focused on shopping, you're avoiding feelings of low self-worth or inadequacy.

New solutions: If you're shopping to make yourself feel better, avoid situations that require you to make buying decisions. Get a different rush: Take a hike, ride your bike, or go for a run to get the adrenaline flowing. A mental-health pro can help you deal with your behavior, too. And a credit counselor or financial advisor can help you get control of your funds.

Old stress buster: Since you've started caring for your elderly mom, you find yourself reaching for the menthols. "Nicotine briefly releases feel-good chemicals in the brain, including beta endorphins and dopamine," says Thomas J. Glynn, PhD, director of cancer science and trends for the American Cancer Society.

New solutions: Taking a brisk walk or running for at least 20 minutes can also trigger the release of those feel-good endorphins. And immersing yourself in meditation, prayer, yoga, deep breathing, and even reading can keep you calm. Instead of trying to puff away your feelings, talk to a friend or a counselor. And see Health.com for help on quitting.

Author Jane Meredith Adams finds it very relaxing to go for a long walk and listen to her iPod.

Your brain on stress
Mild to moderate stress can make you feel clear-headed and alert, but chronic or severe stress has the opposite effect. It weakens your memory and ability to focus, and "can cause you to panic and make short-term decisions based on feeling the need for survival versus decisions that would better serve you in the long term," says Louann Brizendine, MD, author of The Female Brain. To see stress in action on your body, check out the American Psychological Association's Web site; go to Health.com/ links for a direct link.

The top sources of stress for both women and men:
• Money
• Work
• Family or personal health problems
• State of the world
• Raising kids
Source: American Psychological Association survey conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner

Drop the Oreo: Read, write in your journal, or meditate to reduce your stress level.

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By Jane Meredith Adams

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