Coping With Stress

5 Stress-Induced Habits You'll Regret
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Stressors are everywhere: needy kids, needy aging parents, work, financial worries, relationship bumps, too much traffic, not enough time -- and sometimes, all of the above at once.

We all have our favorite coping mechanisms. That's good, because chronic stress is associated with heart disease, stroke, and premature mortality. The trouble, however, is that some stress-coping strategies may get you through the moment but ultimately harm your health. And putting your long-term survival at risk is a high price to pay for a little short-term stress relief.

Risky Habit #1: Grabbing an Energy Drink for a Quick Boost

Energy drinks may give a lift, but at a price. A 2011 University of Wisconsin-La Crosse study of college students found that the more stressed the subjects said they were, the more energy drinks they consumed -- and the worse their academic performance was. Energy drinks can contain three times as much caffeine as coffee, leading to rapid heartbeat and sleep disturbances. And whatever you do, don't drink alcohol and swill energy drinks; people who do are four times as likely to drive drunk.

Better: Try a glass of red wine.

Drinking lightly or moderately has been shown to be effective in reducing stress by increasing pleasant emotions and decreasing tension. (Government guidelines define "moderate" drinking as up to one drink a day for women, or no more than seven drinks a week, and double this amount for men -- for wine, a 5-ounce pour.) Red wine contains heart-protective antioxidants, too -- as a rule of thumb, the darker the wine, the better it is for you.

Or try this: Experts don't recommend that nondrinkers start tippling. But consider nonalcoholic red wine. A small study in Circulation Research finds that the polyphenols (a type of protective antioxidant) in red wine might be even more protective against high blood pressure when there's no alcohol to interfere with them.

Risky Habit #2: Unwinding in Front of the TV for the Evening

The sofa is so soft and tempting, and the TV offers hundreds of distracting channels. But after more than a program or two, your stress release works against you. Two hours of TV a day is linked to a 20 percent increased risk of type 2 diabetes, a 2011 Harvard School of Public Health review showed. Some 58 percent of obese adults and 43 percent of caregivers report managing stress by watching TV for more than two hours a day, according to the American Psychological Association's 2011 "Stress in America" report, compared to 33 percent of the general population.

Better: Try walking around the block.

Moving is often the last thing a stressed person thinks of doing -- but exercising helps the brain cope better with stress, possibly by increasing the chemical norepinephrine in parts of the brain that respond to stress. A workout also forces your brain, muscles, heart, and nervous system to communicate closely. Researchers think this helps prime your body to respond better to stress, too.

Or try this: Dance around the house, ride a stationary cycle, take up yoga -- any movement helps. Inactivity is as bad for you as smoking, says new research from 33 countries, reported in Lancet. It blames a couch-potato lifestyle for one in ten deaths worldwide. Just 30 minutes of brisk walking five days a week (or similar exercise) counters the effect.

Risky Habit #3: Staying up Late to Enjoy a House That's Finally Quiet

Stressed people often multitask to get things done -- including rising early and staying up late. Unfortunately, when people who are under stress get too little sleep, their bodies lose the ability to respond well to cortisol, the hormone that helps regulate the immune system, say Carnegie-Mellon researchers. That's on top of the known hazards of too little sleep for anyone, including an elevated risk of stroke for those who get just six hours of sleep a night.

Better: Take a nap.

Ideally, aim for seven to eight hours of zz's a night, and supplement with naps. The most energizing nap length is ten minutes, according to the journal Sleep. Doze off for 20 to 30 minutes and you'll time your sleep cycle wrong, and wake up in sleep inertia -- a cotton-mouthed grogginess that may leave you feeling more frustrated than rested.

Or try this: One creative way to nap when you're short on time is the "caffeine nap" -- drink a cup of caffeinated coffee right before a 15-minute nap and wake up both refreshed and extra-energized. Sleep researchers call it one of the most effective types of naps.

Risky Habit #4: Sneaking Your "Just-One-a-Day" Cigarette

Smokers swear by a soothing drag. But even those who know all the terrible health dangers of smoking (which we'll spare repeating here) and cut back to just one or two stress-releasing smokes a day are vulnerable to many of those same risks.

Better: Sip some tea, preferably green.

Green or chamomile tea contains high concentrations of L-theanine, the amino acid that's linked with promoting a sense of calm. Effects can last for up to eight hours after sipping.

Or try this: Because coffee is a trigger for smoking for many people, try giving up both habits together. Or order your coffee (or better yet, tea) in a place that doesn't permit smoking. You can also try to find a substitute thing to do when you're stressed, such as stretching exercises, yoga, deep breathing, or going online to connect with friends.

Risky Habit #5: Indulging in Classic Comfort Food

Chocolate, chips, and ice cream are among the most craved foods during stress. That's because they contain fat, salt, and sugar, foods that light up the brain's reward and pleasure centers. Fats, in particular, were shown to lessen a sad mood in subjects who received MRIs, according to Belgian researchers in 2011. Too bad a diet rich in these same foods are linked to weight gain, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular problems.

Better: Listen to comforting music.

Slow classical music can decrease levels of stress hormones, lower blood pressure, and slow the heart rate, research shows. Playing music when doing something stressful can reduce anxiety levels, too -- calorie-free.

Or try this: Playing a musical instrument has been shown to be another way to reduce stress. One study showed it reduced burnout in long-term care workers and nurses. You don't have to be a virtuoso -- or even any good. Drumming pots or playing "Chopsticks" on the piano can do the trick.


Paula Spencer Scott

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers and much of the Alzheimer's and caregiving content on Caring. See full bio