Five Proven Ways You Can Manage Stress: Research Provides Answers

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You can manage your stress. Image by grietgriet.

I’m just stressed out.”  Do those words sound familiar?  Maybe you’ve said them.

When people are emotionally stressed, their bodies produce the hormones adrenaline and cortisol.  Frequent stress is associated with a variety of cognitive, emotional, behavioral and physical symptoms such as memory problems, agitation, nausea and sleeping more or less than usual, according to Helpguide.org, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing information about mental health.

Dr. Bernet M. Elzinga and colleagues found that individuals suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder have been found to produce more cortisol when merely reminded of the traumatic event.

Even if you have been fortunate enough not to suffer major trauma, stressors abound in today’s fast-paced world.  Recent research in Great Britain found that conflict with spouses, periods of unemployment and demands from children all led to feeling stressed, and to a higher likelihood of early death – so it’s critical to make changes if you’re ‘stressed out.’

Risks of Long-term Use of Anti-Anxiety Drugs

While taking medication for stress and anxiety may seem like a good idea, anti-anxiety medication or anxiolytic medication, carries the risk of addiction and serious side effects.  A seven-year study published in the British Medical Journal in 2014 documented “doubling of the hazard of death” among those taking medications marketed for anxiety such as Valium and Xanax.

No matter what the source of your stress, you can learn some mechanisms to cope better. Here are five things research has proven to help reduce your stress: affirming values, exercise, meditation, massage, and cognitive behavioral therapy.

Affirm Your Values

When asked to complete a task that affirmed the person’s values versus a neutral task, researchers reported in Psychological Science that those completing the task that had meaning for them reported less stress.  People with “high self-resources” such as optimism and greater self-esteem who “had affirmed personal values reported the least stress.”  The scientists conclude, “reflecting on personal values can keep neuroendocrine and psychological responses to stress at low levels.”

In other words: Find something meaningful to do-and then give yourself a high-five for doing it.

Exercise Regularly

In 1987, in a book designed to compile research up to that date,  Drs. William P. Morgan and Stephen E. Goldston set out to summarize all that has been uncovered about the relationship between exercise and mental health in their book by the same title, Exercise and Mental Health.  Exercise benefits “anxiety, depression, and personality structure” and the research recognized it as an effective means to manage stress.

Since then, evidence continues to point to the benefits of exercise in promoting mental health.  The mechanism that affects anxiety is related to the anti-inflammatory properties of exercise, according to a review of research published  in Neuroscience and Behavioral Reviews in 2013.

Learn to Meditate

Meditation lowers stress. Image by mensatic.

One study found that people diagnosed with anxiety disorders benefited for as long as three years after taking eight weeks of mindfulness meditation training. Both depression and anxiety scales showed lasting improvements.

Research designed to compare aerobic exercise with mindfulness meditation by comparing fMRI scans of those with anxiety disorders gave the edge to the meditators.

Engage in Touch

Research reported in the International Journal of Neuroscience turned up lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in people who have had a therapeutic massage.  Even sick people, such as those who have suffered heart attacks, felt less stress following a half an hour of “tactile touch” by nursing staff in a 2013 study.

Sign Up for Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

In a study by AnnMarie Groarke and colleagues, Irish women with breast cancer reported stress reduction after just five sessions of cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT.  The researchers note that CBT has been shown to be effective in reducing anxiety for other types of cancer as well.

Those with PTSD and anxiety disorders are often encouraged to engage in CBT to learn to manage stressful thoughts.

Conquer Stress: Learn to Help Yourself

Stress need not rule your life.  While medications are available, they do not come without risk.  Affirmation, meditation, exercise, touch, and therapy are non-chemical, research-backed methods of reducing stress.

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