6 Surprising Stress Fixes
By Catherine Guthrie
Simple, field-tested strategies you can use right now
You know what stress looks like: The sun rises; so do you. Your child
suddenly remembers that he needs cupcakes for the school party. The dog's
gotten sick in the living room. Your spouse leaves for work in a huff after a
pre-breakfast tiff over finances. You leave for work without a report that's
due today. You double back, grab it from the kitchen counter, trip over an
Everest of laundry — must we go on?
You know what stress feels like: Your pulse quickens, your lungs squeeze
shut, your ears ring, and you wonder if this is the time your head actually
explodes. Sensing anxiety overload, your brain orders up a chemical surge that
makes your blood vessels narrow, heart race, blood pressure rise, and muscles
tighten. Your body is mobilizing to deal with threat.
Good plan, nature! But you weren't meant to stay on red alert forever.
Prolonged stress leads to health problems. High levels of the stress hormone
cortisol are associated with heart disease and cancer; stress has also been
linked to gastrointestinal problems, eczema, asthma, and depression.
And you probably already know what's involved in long-term, big-commitment
stress reduction: physical changes (exercising, eating right, getting plenty of
sleep); organizational changes (planning ahead, divvying up chores equitably);
attitude changes (letting go of what you can't control, for starters); and
relationship changes (finding ways to talk through, directly and respectfully,
the problems that are the sources of anxiety). All of these transformations are
definitely worth the effort.
But here's what you may not know: Recent studies have suggested six new
stress reducers — research-tested, rather surprising, and relatively simple.
You can ease these strategies into your life right now.
Strategy 1: Smooch spontaneously
"When I come home from a hard day at work and kiss my husband, the bad
stuff doesn't seem to matter anymore," says Cheryl Kennedy Henderson, 47,
an accountant in Knoxville, TN. Science says she's on to something. A recent
study of 2,000 couples showed that those who kiss only during lovemaking are
eight times more likely to report suffering from stress and depression than
those who frequently kiss on the spur of the moment. Study leader Laura Berman,
Ph.D., an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry and ob-gyn at Northwestern
University's Feinberg School of Medicine, explains why: "Kissing relieves
stress by creating a sense of connectedness, which releases endorphins, the
chemicals that counteract stress and depression."
Strategy 2: Take the cuddle cure
More good news from the annals of affection: Researchers at the University
of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recently found that holding hands and hugging
can measurably reduce stress. Fifty couples were asked to hold hands for 10
minutes, then hug for 20 seconds. A second group of 85 people rested quietly,
not touching their significant others. Researchers then asked people in both
groups to talk about a past event that left them angry or anxious. Those who
hadn't cuddled before revisiting the past exhibited signs of elevated heart
rate and blood pressure. But couples who had hugged and held hands weren't
nearly as ruffled. "The gentle pressure of a hug can stimulate nerve
endings under the skin that send calming messages to the brain and slow the
release of cortisol," explains Tiffany Field, Ph.D., director of the
University of Miami Medical School's Touch Research Institute. And if your
honey isn't on hand? Field says other studies have found that a hug from a
friend or a professional massage can also help banish tension.