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Spring Break Makeover for the Mind

With the new season comes new opportunity to do some mental spring cleaning
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WebMD Weight Loss Clinic-Feature

What good is spring fever if you are too hassled to even notice the fragrant air or heed the call of the outdoors? With the new season comes new opportunity to do some mental spring cleaning.

The de-stressing habits you learn this spring will be with you the rest of your life -- and it may be a markedly longer one thanks to your new spring mindset. Stress can be life threatening.

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Michael Irwin, MD, director of the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology of the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, tells WebMD that scientists now know that being wound too tight can lead to behaviors such as eating too much, losing sleep, and drinking to excess. If left untreated these stressors can cause depression.

"Depression mainly affects the immune system and how our brains work," explains Irwin. "Five years ago, we would not even have seen cardiovascular disease as related to the immune system, but we know now that strokes and heart attacks can result from inflammation. People who are depressed have two-thirds more chance of having a heart attack or stroke.

"And it doesn't end there," he continues. "Stress affects such diseases as rheumatoid arthritis, too. Depression is a common pathway to a number of diseases."

"I think we are in an epidemic of exhaustion and stress," Judith Orloff, MD, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at UCLA, tells WebMD. "This leads to a joyless, tense life."

Some people, Irwin notes, do fine with stress. "They learn how to cool down and not let it lead to depression."

But how?

You may think that jumping a foot in the air when the phone rings or yelling at the kids is normal behavior, but these reactions are the result of chemicals coursing through our systems.

The key is to recognize this and try to build new patterns. Let spring be the starting point -- a new beginning, nice weather, a chance to exercise and contemplate life.

But where to start? Inside your own head! Negative thoughts, Orloff says, are a major stressor, and we (not the kids, boss, bank balance, or the nightly news) are stressing ourselves.

Identify negative thoughts and don't let them ambush you, Orloff advises. "Don't beat yourself up for being stressed, but bring your fears into the open on paper. Make a list of your seven worst fears."

Then, she says, make a second list of the things you are grateful for.

Irwin says he did much the same with a family member who was getting down and negative. Parents need to teach children to make a list of positives, too.

Writing the negatives bleeds them of power. They become words on paper.

Second Tip: Protect Yourself From 'Energy Vampires'

People can be very unrelaxing, to say the least. In her book, Positive Energy: 10 Extraordinary Prescriptions for Transforming Fatigue, Stress & Fear into Vibrance, Strength & Love, Orloff catalogues some types that can derail your best efforts to handle stress.

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