Daily tension builds up. Learn how to convert fretful, uneasy feelings into positive power that does your body good.
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A whopping 80 percent of people say they've recently experienced a physical or emotional symptom of stress like headaches or feeling overwhelmed or depressed, the American Psychological Association reports. And no wonder: "More than ever before, we are being bombarded by negative messages on the news, on our social media feeds, even in conversations with friends," says Michelle Gielan, the founder of the Institute for Applied Positive Research, and the author of Broadcasting Happiness.
This onslaught of negativity creates a sense of helplessness, says Julie K. Norem, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Wellesley College. "We feel we're at the mercy of outside forces and up against problems that are so big, we can't envision a solution," she says. The heightened anxiety makes us revert to fight-or-flight mode. "We may lash out at others or we try to run away, figuratively or literally," Norem says, and being in that state constantly can wear on the body and mind. (FYI, it can legitimately shorten your life span.)
But there are options. Experts say that if you think of that fear and worry as raw energy, you can learn to redirect it toward a more productive use. These solutions will help you do just that so you feel happier, calmer, and more motivated.
1. Take a workout "vitamin."
Building short bursts of exercise into your day could protect you from the mental and physical effects of stress, says Emily Bernstein, a Harvard University psychology Ph.D. candidate. The proof: In a study she conducted, people cycled for 25 minutes, completed a stressful puzzle and a math problem, then reported how they felt. When they worked out beforehand, participants tended to feel more upbeat and bounced back from the stress faster than when they just stretched or sat quietly, even if they were worriers by nature. "Exercise seemed to have a buffering effect, similar to a vitamin, but one you can take to protect yourself from something upsetting instead of a health issue," Bernstein says. So rather than dwelling, you'll be able to move forward more quickly after hearing or seeing something upsetting, using that emotional energy as fuel.
As little as 15 minutes of cardio may trigger an increase in a substance called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which could protect your neurons from the damaging effects of the stress hormone cortisol, making you more resilient. To get the benefit, aim to raise your heart rate for at least 20 minutes a day, ideally first thing, so you'll be better prepared to fend off anxiety from morning to night. (Here's how to master the lunch-time workout so you can squeeze it in anytime.)
2. Revel in the innocence of a new day.
Stop checking your news feed when you wake up, Gielan says. "One of our recent studies found that people who were exposed to just three minutes of negative news early in the morning had a 27 percent greater likelihood of saying they'd had a bad day six to eight hours later than those who watched inspiring news," she says. Our brains are designed to help us detect danger, which is why gloomy info affects us so strongly. Instead of catching up on current events or emails first thing, Gielan suggests spending a few minutes doing something you enjoy, such as meditating, taking a walk, or just chilling out with a cup of coffee. This starts your day on a calm, positive note and helps protect your brain from the anxieties of toxic news, giving you more mental space and energy for happy thoughts.
3. Switch into go mode.
You'll move rapidly from overwhelmed to back in charge by doing something—anything—to problem-solve. "Feeling powerless exacerbates stress, while feeling effective decreases it," Norem says. "Find one or two concrete actions, even small ones, that will improve things for you, other people, or the community, and you'll be less depleted by negative events."
For instance, after watching a news broadcast about global warming, donate a few dollars to a related cause or join an environmental organization as a volunteer to help turn things around. "We find it hard to believe that we have any power over the big problems, like climate change or health care policy, but small actions multiplied by thousands of people can have real effects," Norem says. "And they also help energize and inspire us."
4. Create a sense of satisfaction.
Devote more time to artistic activities like sketching, scrapbooking, cooking, playing music, gardening, or knitting. "Creating something makes you feel useful and helpful, which reduces stress and anxiety," Norem says. In fact, these activities may protect your brain and body from the effects of stress in a similar way to meditation, research from Columbia University finds. The key is to choose projects that give you a sense of satisfaction and require total immersion, which is the best way to reap the energizing benefits.
5. Breathe, count, breathe.
Every time you catch yourself sinking into "catastrophic thinking," when it seems like everything—your training routine for an upcoming 10K, your job, the economy—is faltering, count down from 10 while breathing deeply through your nose. This simple stress-reducing ritual helps give you a sense of control, reducing anxiety and improving performance, says Alison Wood Brooks, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Harvard Business School who has researched the phenomenon. (These breathing exercises better any situation.) And the more often you do it, she adds, the more effectively it will calm your anxiety and bolster your confidence and energy.