Wedding plans. Lengthy to-do lists. Work presentations. Let's face it: A certain level of stress is unavoidable and actually not that harmful. "The right amount of pressure can even push us to excel," says Katherine Nordal, Ph.D., executive director of the American Psychological Association (APA)."It's what gets us up and going in the morning." But add gloomy economic news to everyday worries, and your stress level can quickly go into overdrive, putting your health at risk.
"Excessive anxiety leads to hikes in blood pressure and heart rate, dips in immune system function, plus fatigue, insomnia and muscle tension," says Nordal. "The constant strain also makes us crabby and hyper-sensitive, which is damaging to our relationships."
Experts say that the recent economic problems have made many more people vulnerable to worry overload. In a recent APA survey, 80 percent of respondents name the economy as a significant source of stress, while 47 percent report an increase in stress in the past year. And most people aren't coping with it in a productive way: Nearly half of those polled report overeating or eating unhealthy foods, and 39 percent report skipping meals. While you can't eliminate tension from your life, you can learn how to tame it. Start by mastering Nordal's three stress-busting strategies. In this worry-free zone, though, no meltdowns allowed.
1) Stash Energy-Boosting Snacks
"A surge in stress hormones leaves us susceptible to cravings for sugary, fatty comfort foods that, if you let them, can sabotage weight-loss plans," says Nordal. When tensions rise, combat the urge to scarf down a bag of potato chips by keeping healthy snacks in your purse, in your desk drawer, even in your coat pocket.
Tip: Try munching on these stress-fighting foods: almonds (packed with heart-healthy vitamin E and immune-system-building zinc); leafy greens and whole grains (full of energy-producing magnesium); blueberries, kiwis, melons and red peppers (rich in immune-system-boosting vitamin C).
2) Start a Relaxing Ritual
Make a commitment to taking care of yourself by scheduling 30 minutes of downtime a day. Relaxation techniques (for instance, deep breathing or meditation) can reduce the concentration of stress hormones in your body, slow your heart rate and quiet your mind. Watch a slideshow of photos from your last family vacation on your laptop; call a faraway friend; light a lavender-scented candle, put on soothing music and take a warm bath; or slot some cuddle-time with your guy. "Whatever activity you choose, what's key is consistency. That way you know you have something you enjoy to look forward to," says Nordal.
Tip: Learn a few relaxation exercises and listen to soothing music tracks at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Relaxation Center.
3) Stay Connected
When you're feeling cranky and frazzled, resist the urge to start bagging dinner-party and movie invitations. "Brooding exacerbates stress levels, so try not to get caught up in gloom-and-doom hype," says Nordal. "If you're feeling the money squeeze, reach out and invite friends to the park or on a bike ride or scan events listings for free concerts or exhibits."
Tip: Set up a weekly chic-flick night with your girlfriends or go to a comedy club with your guy. Laughter expands blood vessels (which increases blood flow and reduces the physical symptoms of stress) and triggers the release of feel-good endorphins in your brain. What's more, research from Loma Linda University finds that just anticipating laughter reduces the stress-hormone biggies cortisol (by 39 percent), adrenaline (by 70 percent) and dopamine (by 38 percent).