Stress SOS

Feeling frazzled? 4 stress-busting strategies that work.

A project deadline. Kids arguing about chores. An epic traffic jam. An unexpected car repair. A sick dog. Your list of stressors is endless—and seems to be getting longer. You have company: In 2011, 44 percent of Americans surveyed said their stress level was higher than it was five years ago.

While some stressors are fleeting—like the butterflies you feel before a nurse draws blood—a constant barrage of them can cause serious health issues. Stress has been linked to headaches, fatigue, depression and heart disease, lead- ing the American Psychological Association to declare that the nation is on the verge of a stress-induced public health crisis.

“To ease stress, we need to take a break and make time for things that relax us,” explains Mary Ann  Bauman, MD, a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association. “If we keep exposing ourselves to stress without taking time to recharge, we end up getting sick.”

The possible health implications of stress have led to countless newspaper headlines, best-selling books, TV shows and radio segments urging you to calm down. The avalanche of advice can actually add to your stress level.

When you feel the familiar symptoms of stress—chest pain, insomnia, upset stomach, sweating, a lack of concentration—should you veg in front of your favorite sitcom? Tuck into a child’s pose? Make an appointment for a neck massage? Go for a brisk walk?

It depends.

“There is no one-size-fits-all solution for stress relief,” Bauman says.

The techniques that are effective for combating stress depend on the situation. Do you want to know which proven stress-busting strategies work in different situations? Keep reading—and try to relax.

Stress Buster: Massage

How It Works: You already know that massage eases tense muscles, relieves headaches and reduces joint pain. But it has also proved effective for combating stress by increasing the feel-good hormones serotonin and dopamine. In one study, heart rate slowed and the relaxation response kicked in after five minutes of massage. “Giving yourself permission to take an hour to wind down is relaxing in and of itself,” says Daniel Kirsch, the president of the American Institute of Stress.

You don’t have to spend big bucks at a spa to get the stress-busting benefits of massage. Ask a friend to rub your shoulders or give yourself a foot or hand massage to ease stress.

When to Use It: When you can take a short timeout.

Massage proves that you don’t have to work hard to relieve stress. Once the appointment is made, all you have to do is choose a scented oil, listen to the nature soundtrack and enjoy the feeling of a skilled therapist working out the kinks. If you’re uncomfortable with a stranger seeing you unclothed (for some, it adds stress), try Thai massage. You’ll wear loose-fitting clothing while the therapist presses rhythmically and moves your body into positions that ease tension.

Stress Buster: Deep Breathing

How It Works: During stressful times, your breathing becomes shallow, making you feel short of breath. You can combat the stress response and feel more relaxed by taking several deep breaths. Deep breathing expands the diaphragm, lowers cortisol and blood pressure levels, and slows the heartbeat. 

For the best results, Kirsch suggests inhaling deeply through your nose, exhaling slowly through your mouth and repeating the sequence at least six times. "It's a natural way to control the stress response," he says.

When to Use It: Anytime, anyplace.

The best thing about deep breathing exercises—aside from their effectiveness—is that it's possible to use them in a range of situations. Stuck in traffic? Turn off the radio and tune in to your breathing. Pressured at work? You can take deep breaths while prepping a client report or taking notes in a morning meeting. 

Stress Buster: Watching TV

How It Works: Your favorite shows can reduce the physical effects of stress, including fatigue. But skip the true crime dramas and opt for sitcoms instead.

"The big belly laugh that comes from watching something funny increases your intake of oxygen and reduces your blood pressure," Bauman says. Watching a rerun may be particularly helpful in recovering from a stressful experience, according to a new study. Researchers believe that knowing the outcome of a previously viewed TV show alleviates any pressure to pay close attention to the plot. Just the anticipation of laughing at the characters can release endorphins and reduce stress.

When to Use It: When you don't have the energy to engage in active stress relief. 

Stress can sap your energy. Zoning out in front of the television might be the perfect antidote to a stressful day at work. While it's OK to watch an hour or two of television in an evening, avoid too much screen time, which can lead to weight gain, increasing—you guessed it—stress.

Stress Buster: Exercise

How It Works: Physical exercise produces mood- elevating endorphins and reduces stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Focusing on a yoga pose or your pace on the treadmill helps take your mind off stressful situations.

Getting your heart pumping doesn’t just release stress in the moment. Research shows that the beneficial effects continue after your workout ends, helping you feel calm when faced with future stressors.

“People who exercise regularly release fewer stress hormones when they’re stressed than peo- ple who don’t exercise,” Bauman explains.

When to Use It: Anytime you can get physically active, for 15 minutes to an hour.

Lacing up your sneakers for a long run is just as effective as taking a deep-stretch class. And a brisk walk around the block has the same stress-busting effect as a 60-minute spin class.

“You don’t have to do a hard workout to get the benefits,” Bauman says.

The BENEFITS of Stress

Feeling a little frazzled can be a good thing. In addition to protecting against danger, the “fight or flight” response can enhance learning, stimulate immune cells and boost performance. “Stress is not a problem; too much stress is a problem,” says Daniel Kirsch, PhD, the president of the American Institute of Stress. “The biggest problem is that most people don’t know how to cope with the amount of stress in their lives.”

Don’t stress about feeling stressed out. Just be sure to use effective strategies to keep minor stressors from becoming overwhelming.