Find Your Stress Sweet Spot

Feeling stressed? Consider yourself blessed. Stress is essential to a happy, healthy life. Really! Recent research has shown that there’s an “anxiety sweet spot,” in which short bursts of stress are actually good for us. “The adrenaline our bodies produce when we feel threatened makes our brain function better, sharpening our focus, improving our mental and physical performance, and making us feel ready for anything,” says Bruce McEwen, PhD, a neuroendocrinologist at Rockefeller University. Bonus: Your immune system also gets a boost, which can make you healthier too. So stop fretting and read on to learn how to stay perfectly on point.

Stressful situation: Driving in traffic
You are three times more likely to have a heart attack if you’ve recently been in traffic than if you haven’t been, German researchers found. “With traffic, the tension builds and builds, so by the time you get to where you’re going, you’re so irritated that the stress seeps through your entire day,? McKee says. Hit the brakes on your angry state while you’re still bumper-to-bumper and use the time to learn something new. “Keep your iPod stocked with audio books, podcasts, or foreign-language lessons,” he says. “Instead of focusing on how late you are, you’ll channel your energy into something more productive.” Making progress in any way — even if it’s just prepping for an imaginary trip to Positano — will help you feel less anxious about being stalled. “Shifting your focus also limits how much time you spend fretting about the traffic, so you experience a more minor stress response than you otherwise would,” McKee adds.

Stressful situation: Waiting in line for your lunch
Rocking out a few sun salutations while waiting for your Cobb salad isn’t exactly an option, but you can focus on your breathing — the one part of your body’s stress response that you can easily control. Try inhaling for five counts and exhaling for five counts for a total of six breaths a minute, McKee suggests. “This pattern matches your breathing rate when your body is at rest,” he says. “It creates a feedback loop where your slowed breathing sends the all-clear signal to your brain, which stops the stress response.” Be sure to breathe abdominally to maximize the benefit. “When you’re tense, your breathing gets constricted and shallow,” McKee adds. Counting your inhales and exhales and concentrating on feeling your stomach rise and fall will also distract you from the woman in line in front of you who’s ordering panini for the entire office.

Stressful situation: Buried under a pile of work
“You’d think the people at the top of the corporate food chain would be the most stressed because they have the most responsibility, but that’s not the case,” Pressman says. In fact, a recent Harvard study showed that executive-level leaders reported less anxiety and boasted lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than did those in nonsupervisory roles. The reason: Their jobs allow them to have plenty of control. Fortunately you don’t have to wait for a promotion to watch your tension levels subside. “Research shows that simply feeling as if you have more control at work and at home can lower stress and improve health,” Pressman explains. To keep crazy-busy times from commandeering your mood, make a list of all the things you need to get done during the day — even chores like walking the dog, going to the gym, and cooking dinner. “It makes your tasks feel more manageable than when they’re swirling around in your head,” she says. “And as you cross off item after item, you experience a greater sense of accomplishment than when you focus on only what still needs to be done. You also gain more control over your to-dos, so you won’t feel as anxious.”

Seven Signs You’re Too Stressed
•You feel that you need a drink at the end of the day.
•You’re irritable and short-tempered; you snap at people.
•You overeat or lose your appetite.
•You make more mistakes than usual.
•You have trouble paying attention.
•Your sleep habits change, especially if you repeatedly wake up very early in the morning, worrying about the same thing (such as credit card bills).
•You turn down social invitations because seeing friends and fam seems like too much effort.

If you exhibit any one of these signs, chronic stress may be putting you on the road to depression. Take five to 10 minutes twice a day for deep, abdominal breathing (five seconds in, five seconds out) and do a daily workout of at least 30 minutes. Also consider asking your doc to refer you to a therapist for a stress assessment and treatment options.

Sources: Marianne Legato, PhD, the founder and director of the Foundation for Gender-Specific Medicine at Columbia University; and Michael McKee, PhD, a clinical health psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic.

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, February 2013.

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