Spring Break Makeover for the Mind

With the new season comes new opportunity to do some mental spring cleaning

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on April 22, 2005
4 min read

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.

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.

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.

The Drama Queen can wear you out, she says, with the daily performances. The Sob Sister is constantly airing grievances. The Constant Talker requires your constant listening. And The Blamer is always criticizing you or the people around you.

"You need to learn to set boundaries," Orloff says. "Listen for awhile, then break off the interchange. People are so afraid to do this. They don't want to seem impolite. You need to be firm, though kind."

The same goes for technology, which can be an overwhelming stressor. "People go into despair when their computer breaks (or they forget their cell phone for a day).

"Don't let your computer hypnotize you. Get outside, at least look outside!"

Orloff does three-minute meditations throughout the day. "I have a busy life, but I like to have a busy life coming from a centered place," she says. For three minutes, close your door, turn off the phone, close your eyes, then:

  • Take deep breaths, focusing on your breath as it goes in and out.
  • If thoughts come, watch them waft across your mind like clouds in the sky.
  • Bring yourself back to your breathing.
  • Then think about a beautiful image, a flower, a child's face; look at every detail.
  • Then, gradually, breathe faster and open your eyes.

Irwin also recommends meditation as well as laughter, tai chi, and yoga.

A lunch time walk, more frequent trips to the gym -- those are good, too. You can even program a break into your schedule.

But all of these take more than three minutes, so close your eyes.

"Distraction is like mental calisthenics," Manning Rubin, author of 60 Ways to Relieve Stress in 60 Seconds and Keep your Brain Alive, tells WebMD. "You do anything you can to stop and do something different for 60 seconds."

Before Post-Its were invented, Rubin says, he had notes around that said "STOP."

So STOP and pick one:

  • Get up and walk to the window, count 10 things you see outside.
  • Close eyes and let a wave of relaxation crawl from head to foot.
  • Take 30 sips of water, no more, no less.
  • Picture your living room and write down the contents.
  • Balance a book on your head and walk around for one minute.

The key, Rubin says, is to stop the stress from taking over. Oh, and to relax!