Smarter Stress Strategies

man laying in bed, awake and irriatatedIf deep breathing, weekly kickboxing classes, and venting to all your friends aren’t helping you to relieve your stress, you’re not alone. New studies show that many of today’s more popular relaxation strategies  are becoming less and less effective.

So, what’s old news when it comes to really helping to manage stress–and what’s new?

Old: Never Go To Bed Angry
New: Just Go To Bed

When you’re in a heated argument, the last thing you feel like doing is curling up in bed beside your partner. But deep down, many of us worry that going to bed angry just tempts fate. So we bargain, cajole, and then fight some more in an effort to resolve the dispute, thinking all will be well by the morning if the two of you can just reach a resolution.

The fact is, forcing a discussion just because it’s bedtime can actually make things worse, says Andrea K. Wittenborn, PhD, an assistant professor in the marriage and family therapy program at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. When you’re upset, a part of the brain called the amygdala cues the fight-or-flight response, limiting your ability to have a calm, rational discussion. So it’s actually a better idea to hold off until you calm down.

“Taking a time-out or even a night off is critical, because once you’ve activated the fight-or-flight system, you can’t simply tell it to turn off,” says Ronald Potter-Efron, PhD, author of Rage: A Step-by-Step Guide to Overcoming Explosive Anger. “If you’re already angry or frustrated, you become emotionally flooded and unable to think clearly.” Plus, sleep is a powerful antidote to stress, says Russell Rosenberg, PhD, director of the Atlanta Sleep Medicine Clinic and vice chairman of the National Sleep Foundation.

Instead of trying to keep talking, agree to call a truce until morning, and make sure to actually talk things out the next day.”Completely dropping issues that really bug you can be damaging to your relationship and contribute to increased stress,” warns Dr. Wittenborn.

Old: Control Your Temper
New: Throw a Tantrum (occasionally)

From the time we’re little, we’re taught to control our tempers, and as adults–especially women–we still believe that venting anger is unhealthy (not to mention childish). In fact, the opposite now appears to be true. According to a study published in Biological Psychiatry that looked at the effect of facial expressions of emotions, such as fear and indignation, on our stress responses, displaying your anger may actually cause your brain to release less cortisol, the stress hormone associated with obesity, bone loss, and heart disease.

And while experts know that chronic anger contributes to hypertension and coronary disease, they’ve also found that expressing irritation in response to a short-term and unfair frustration, such as being cut off in traffic, can actually dampen the nasty effects of stress. That’s because anger confers feelings of control, counteracting the helplessness and frustration we often feel in response to perceived insults and injustices, says lead study author Jennifer Lerner, PhD.

Old: Turn To Family And Friends For Comfort
New: Don’t Forget To Cuddle With Your Pet

Hanging out with loved ones has long been touted as an instant mood-booster, but according to new scientific evidence, when it comes to managing stress, the calming effects of spending time with a furry friend trump those obtained by hanging out with friends and family. “Having your pet, whether a cat or a dog, with you during a stressful event turns out to be more soothing than a best friend or a spouse,” says James J. Blascovich, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Dr. Blascovich and colleagues asked volunteers to perform difficult math problems while in the company of their spouse, a friend, or their pet. Using heart rate and blood pressure as measures of stress, the researchers found that people strained the least and performed the best when in the company of their cat or dog.

Of course, spending time with a friend or spouse is still a great way to relax. Just don’t forget your pet!

Old: Express Your Feelings
New: Keep It To Yourself (eventually)

In our tell-all, Oprah-fied culture, we’ve come to believe that sharing our feelings is the only way to deal with life’s struggles. But just the opposite is often true. “We’ve long thought that talking about problems is always better, but there’s also evidence suggesting that this coping style doesn’t work for everybody,” explains Karin Coifman, PhD, an assistant professor of clinical psychology at Kent State University.

Dr. Coifman and colleagues looked at how people whose spouse or child had just died coped with their loss. They learned that many of the subjects who avoided thinking or talking about their sadness–a style psychologists call repressive coping–had fewer short-term health problems, such as sore throats, diarrhea, and shortness of breath, as well as a lower incidence of long-term psychological problems. What’s more, they returned to their everyday lives more quickly than those who dwelled upon their grief.

“There’s a lot to be said for getting on with the business of living,” says Dr. Coifman. “People who talk endlessly about their problems are actually the ones at greater risk of depression.” In fact, researchers at the University of Missouri, Columbia, found that participants who repeatedly expressed their sadness or disappointment were more likely to develop depression and anxiety.

That doesn’t mean you should just suck it up when something bad happens. While you shouldn’t deny yourself natural grieving moments, learning to direct your attention away from the stressor is a powerful coping mechanism. So after experiencing that initial burst of tears, turn to something more positive. It’s an important skill to look beyond the bad–we wouldn’t survive as a species otherwise, Dr. Coifman adds.

Old: Don’t Comfort Yourself With Food
New: Treat Yourself With Some Chocolate

Yes, yes, we know. Eating an entire package of cookies, or most of the vat of ice cream, is not a great way to ease stress – it can actually cause even more anxiety. But here’s a sweet exception to the rule: Indulging in a little chocolate can actually help. According to new findings published in the Journal of Proteome Research, eating a few pieces of dark chocolate when you’re feeling on edge can help calm your nerves. (Unfortunately for you milk chocolate lovers, the researchers believe the flavonoids in dark chocolate are responsible for this soothing effect.) In the study, stressed-out participants who ate 1½ ounces of dark chocolate a day for 2 weeks had reduced levels of stress hormones. We can’t think of a better stress prescription than that!