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Your misplaced wallet. A dead car battery. Stress is a thug we encounter almost hourly. The question is, do you have what it takes to stand up to the bully? If you're like most people surveyed last year by the American Psychological Association, you may be losing the good fight: Sixty percent said stressful situations left them irritable, 53 percent felt fatigued, and 52 percent were unable to sleep at night.
Stress takes a toll on more than just your mood. All that tension puts a whammy on your waistline, thanks to the stress-related hormone cortisol, which rises during anxiety-inducing events and makes you crave fatty, sugar-packed foods. Those excess calories are more likely to be stored in the gut as visceral fat, the type that's been linked to type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and gastrointestinal cancers. Visceral fat also increases the production of cortisol, perpetuating the cycle (as if you need any further assistance).
Moreover, "chronic stress releases cytokines and C-reactive protein in your body -- dangerous molecules that cause inflammation and put you at greater risk for developing arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, and other chronic diseases," says Evangeline Lausier, MD, an assistant clinical professor of medicine at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, North Carolina.
You're probably thinking, So, what do I do now? First of all, don't wig out. Arm yourself with these natural approaches to de-stressing your mind, body, and spirit.
"Some people find riding a roller coaster to be extremely stressful; others find it thrilling. It all depends on your perspective," explains Paul J. Rosch, MD, clinical professor of medicine and psychiatry at New York Medical College. Say you're about to run your first half-marathon and your stomach is in knots. The goal is to switch your "Oh, no!" thinking to "Bring it on!" bravado. Easier said than done, for sure, but know this: Short stints of stress are actually good for you because they maximize performance. Blood pressure rises and digestion of food slows, allowing your body to summon the energy to combat the anxiety-inducing situation. If changing your mind-set isn't working, try this: Decide it's okay to feel anxious as you hover at the starting line. One recent study found that people who learned to identify and acknowledge stressful thoughts and think them through showed notable improvements in their inner calm.Find Your Zen Zone
Have a big presentation to make? Scared you'll flub your number? Try this before venturing into the conference room: "Close your eyes. In a quiet area, settle into a comfortable position. Relax every muscle, starting with your toes and moving upward," Dr. Lausier says. "Focus on your breathing. With every inhale, sink deeper into your body. As you exhale, imagine tension leaving your muscles." Feel better? Congratulations, you've just performed a body scan, a meditative exercise that helps you be hyperaware of where your body is holding stress, so you can physically let go of your worries. Additional mindfulness-based stress-reduction techniques, such as deep breathing and gentle yoga, have been shown to ease anxiety as well. Our fave yoga move: child's pose.
It's four months into the new year, and you're still carrying the 20 pounds you resolved to lose. Negative self-talk will get you nowhere. Instead, head to the nearest spa for a massage. When stressed-out ER nurses received twice-weekly chair massages, their tension levels dropped significantly, according to researchers at Griffith University in Australia. Go to massagetherapy.com to find a practitioner in your area.Move It!
The endorphins released during workouts make you feel great! The proof: Volunteers who signed up for a three-month stress-management course that included hourlong workouts of walking, jogging, and dancing not only lowered their cardiovascular-disease risk but also eased their anxiety and depression. Dodge your next stress attack by taking the dog for a run. Or crank up your Beyonce CD and shake your hips like a backup dancer.Make Time for Tea
Brits appear composed for a reason. It turns out that people who drink black tea have lower cortisol levels compared with those drinking a tea substitute. Our advice: Brew, steep, and sip up, but skip the scone.Canoodle with a Labradoodle
Researchers at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York found that pet owners have higher heart-rate variability (the greater the variability, the better the heart is able to respond to varying demands) compared with that of non-pet owners. Moreover, recent studies have found that people with pets have lower blood pressure than the rest of the population. One explanation: Pets provide constant companionship and unconditional affection.
Why is it that every time you feel stressed someone tells you to jot down your feelings? Well -- because it works! Writing about a traumatic event, and what you plan to do about it, reduces levels of anxiety, according to researchers at the University of Amsterdam.Hang with Happy People
Like your friend with an infectious laugh or your buddy who can belch the entire "Star-Spangled Banner." Our happiness is contingent on how connected we feel to a network of positive-thinking friends, finds a new study. "If someone you have direct contact with is happy, it increases the likelihood that you'll be happy by about 15 percent," says James H. Fowler, PhD, an associate professor of political science at the University of California at San Diego and principal investigator for the study.Draw, Paint, Dance
No one is saying you have to be Basquiat by day and Alvin Ailey by night -- just do your own thing. "Artistic activities may reduce stress because you're able to access the creative part of your brain to express your thoughts and feelings rather than relying on words, which most of us usually do," Dr. Lausier says.Listen to Music
Ever notice how your dentist cranks up Chopin before jackhammering your gums? Rest assured, he's only trying to help. Studies show that playing music can reduce perceived psychological stress. Now that's reason for an encore!"If U Leave" - Musiq Soulchild featuring Mary J. Blige "Don't" - Billy Currington
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, April 2009.