By Jena Pincott
When life comes at you fast and furious, the last thing you want to do is make things even harder on yourself. Need some stress relief? Start by avoiding these eight traps:
Mistake #1: Skipping Your Morning Joe
Too many cups of coffee make you feel as restless as a puppet and as highly strung. So the smart thing to do when you're stressed is to avoid the stuff completely, right? Not necessarily, finds a study at the U.K.’s University of Bristol... so long as you’re female. When women collaborated with other women under nerve-racking conditions (as with most stress studies, public speaking was involved), they performed better when they drank about three cups of caffeinated coffee (compared to decaf). They trusted their colleagues more, had more confidence in their performance and coped better overall. Meanwhile, coffee-drinking male groups performed worse under pressure. Stressed women often “tend and befriend,” the researchers contend, while their male counterparts resort to “fight or flight.” Caffeine appears to augment these behaviors -- and, at least for women, that’s a real perk.
Mistake #2: Doing The Seemingly Right (But Absolutely Not Right) Thing
The more important something is, the more most of us want to control every single aspect -- every word, thought and action -- for a flawless presentation. But the worst thing you can do in any high-pressure, high-stakes situation is think too much about what you’re doing, found Sian Beilock, a cognitive scientist at the University of Chicago. If you’re at a job interview and you’re thinking about how to sound confident, squeeze in a mention of your volunteer work, pronounce the head honcho’s last name and avoid displaying your sweat-stained armpit, you’re probably going to screw up. We fall apart when we overtax our working memory, writes Beilock in her book, Choke. We just don’t have the processing power to carefully check our progress in the midst of a performance. To prevent overthinking (and over-worrying), try practicing under stress; for instance, by asking your tough-as-nails friend to fire interview questions at you.
Mistake #3: Talking Out The Problem With Your Best Friend
Chatting with the person who cares about you most in life is supposed to be one of the all-time-best stress reducers. So why do studies find that when female friends discuss problems together, their stress hormones soar? The answer: co-ruminating -- the technical term for talking excessively about problems. You’re dwelling on and overanalyzing every slight, every nasty look, every perceived injustice, essentially experiencing them over and over again. And in the rehash, you and your friend are getting fried. Spare the both of you by talking about a situation only once, with a focus on solutions.
Mistake #4: Going For A Walk In The Park
Communing with redwoods, smelling the zinnias, inhaling negative ions after a rainstorm -- all undeniably restorative. Except if your stressed-out self has a history of allergies. When researchers at Ohio State University gave the “skin prick” test to a group of seasonal-allergy sufferers, stress made all the difference in the severity of the reaction. When people were strung out after, say, delivering a speech, the wheals on their arms were twice as big as they were when they were not stressed. (Even slight stress worsened an allergic reaction.) The more nervous a sufferer, the worse the wheals the following day -- a delayed reaction that is often unresponsive to antihistamines. When strung out, it helps to stop and smell the roses -- but not always literally.
Mistake #5: Ordering The Perfect Margarita
You knew this one, but science confirms: You can’t drown your sorrows -- or your stresses. When study volunteers at the University of Chicago were given the equivalent of two shots right after a stressful public-speaking task, they felt more frazzled for longer (more than an hour) than their equally stressed but non-inebriated peers. While alcohol blocks production of cortisol, the body’s stress response, it prolongs anxiety by suspending the body’s natural coping mechanisms. Another downer: Alcohol hinders absorption of B-complex vitamins and zinc, which help us feel calmer and more balanced. And need we mention that a hangover doesn’t help?
Mistake #6: Feeding The Feeling
Stress eating is (obviously) no good, but here’s a surprising reason why: French fries, cream donuts and triple-decker bacon burgers with cheddar -- all the junk foods you crave when you’re flipping out -- are even worse for your body now than they are usually. Under stress, our bodies take much longer than usual to clear saturated fats from the bloodstream, finds a study by Janice Kiecolt-Glaser at Ohio State University, and these are the very fats associated with inflammation, type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease. Stress also slows down the rate at which food moves through your intestines and colon, leading to weight gain and more inflammation. We admit that the healthy alternative -- fish and walnuts -- is not exactly what we crave when we’re strung out. But the healthy fats (omega-3s) in these foods may reduce stress-related inflammation and -- a bonus -- help to reduce anxiety.
Mistake #7: Looking For The Upside
We all know not to make life-changing choices under extreme stress. Now’s not the moment for surgical enhancements (F-cups have a downside; you just don’t see it). But we were surprised by the reason: Under stress, decision makers see the pros more than cons. When volunteers in a study from the University of South California were stressed -- as usual, an impromptu speech was part of the experiment -- and then had to make a decision, they focused only on positive information. The lesson: Under stress we have a harder time controlling our urges, so if something is potentially rewarding we’ll see only its upside. This Pollyannaish impulse can lead to addictions (“What’s so wrong with smoking?”) and an inability to learn from bad choices (“Do plastic surgeons make G-cups?”).
Mistake #8: Doing Exactly What You’ve Been Doing
A funny thing happens to stressed-out rats: They fall into a rut. They can learn to press a bar for food, but -- unlike their unpressured peers -- they don’t know to stop when full or adapt to changes in the environment. Under stress, behaviors become habits more easily, finds a study from the University of Minho in Portugal. Habit-forming regions of the brain expand; goal-directed ones shrink. Is this why we find our burned-out selves stuck in a rat-race job? Or trapped in a dead-end relationship? The more stress, the less change. Scrape together what’s left of your volition and shake yourself up -- with meditation, extreme travel, glow-in-the-dark bowling... (you know what it takes). Four weeks -- that’s how long it took rats to get out of their ruts completely (and regenerate neurons in brain regions related to goal- and decision-making) once stressors were removed.
Correction: A previous version of this post stated that Janice Kiecolt-Glaser is at the University of Ohio. She is at Ohio State University.