MY STORY: Thanks for Nothing
Last year, while suffering from midwinter malaise, I did something rash: I signed up for a happiness course in Berkeley, California, called "Awakening Joy." It was founded in Buddhism but also incorporated elements of the emerging field of positive psychology. Some parts, like a 200-person sing-along to "Amazing Grace," were brutal. But I did find a surprisingly effective way to reduce stress: gratitude exercises. University of California Davis professor of psychology Robert Emmons, author of the book Thanks (2007), hypothesizes that expressing gratitude causes us to release pleasure-inducing hormones, like dopamine. But I wasn't concerned with the biochemical rationale. Once a week, I wrote a list of things that made me grateful. It sounds cheesy, but it worked. Put the name of a good friend on paper and all of a sudden life doesn't seem so daunting.
Here's the ironic thing about stress: The human body has evolved to cope with it too effectively. When you suffer under a crappy boss—a stressful situation, sure, but hardly life-threatening—your body responds as if you're being chased by a predator. Stress hormones like cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine spike, causing your attention to narrow and your body's inflammatory reactions to kick into high gear. This would help you avoid infection if, say, your boss bit you, but when continuously activated, inflammatory reactions can wreak havoc on your health, leading to increased risk of heart disease, stroke, depression, and diabetes. Chronic stress can even shrink your hippocampus, a part of the brain that supports learning and memory. In short: You need to calm down. Here are six easy ways to do so.
Rage Against the Machine
Yoga has its time and place, but if you're feeling overwhelmed, consider something more actively cathartic, like boxing. New research shows that heart-rate-elevating exercise promotes neurogenesis—the growth of new nerve cells—creating an effect similar to that of antidepressant drugs. While the verdict is still out on how high-intensity and low-intensity exercises differ regarding neuro-genesis, your goal should be to significantly elevate your heart rate. Studies suggest that if you box, sprint, or play soccer, you'll promote mood-improving brain-cell growth. Ditto if you go for a long run (that might get you high, too—see page 51). "Everyone knows how important exercise is to your heart," says Ronald Duman, a professor of psychiatry at Yale University. "What's becoming more clear is that it's just as important for your brain."
Laugh Out Loud
One of the myriad effects of chronic stress is that it lowers the potency of your body's virus- and cancer-fighting cells. But in 1997, Mary Bennett, director of the School of Nursing at Western Kentucky University and a researcher of humor's impact on immune function, found an easy way to mitigate these effects: Laugh. When Bennett drew blood from a group of volunteers before and after they watched a stand-up-comedy video, she discovered that natural killer cells functioned better in the people who'd laughed aloud. And a recent study at California's Loma Linda University showed that merely anticipating a humorous experience led to dramatic decreases in cortisol and epinephrine. So next time you're tearing out your hair in front of the computer late at night, do yourself a favor and spend 20 minutes on funnyordie.com.
Dare to Downshift
Want to enjoy the relaxing benefits of meditation without joining a monastery? No problem. A 2007 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that giving students just five days of instruction in something called integrative body-mind training (IBMT) lowered their levels of anxiety and stress-related cortisol. IBMT is similar to many traditional meditation practices in that it focuses on relaxation, but it doesn't emphasize controlling your thoughts—the hard part. Here's the point: Meditation calms you down, even in small doses. The easiest way to start is to sign up for a course at a center such as Marin County, California-based Spirit Rock (spiritrock.org). Don't have that much free time? Download a Jack Kornfield meditation podcast for beginners (soundstrue.com).
Take a Hike
A little stress in the airport security line is worth it: Science shows that active travel is one of the best ways to hit your body's natural refresh button. Whenever you expose yourself to a new experience, your brain releases noradrenaline and dopamine, which make you feel alert and enjoy the moment at hand. (Acute stress, meanwhile, narrows your focus so that you can barely enjoy a slice of pizza at lunch.) By "active travel," however, we don't mean actively sitting on a beach—trying to force yourself to relax can have the exact opposite effect. "In that situation, we remove all stimulation and try to empty our mind," says University of Colorado psychology professor Leaf Van Boven. Like intense meditation, this takes a lot of work. Going to the Bahamas? Then explore them. Go fishing. Get off your beach blanket and visit a new town. Take surfing lessons. When you return, you'll be renewed and able to fend off stress with the memory of that shoulder-high wave you rode all the way into shore.
Use Your Hands
We're a nation of depressives. According to Randolph-Macon College behavioral neuroscientist Kelly Lambert, author of Lifting Depression (2008), we're ten times more likely than our grandparents to suffer from the blues. The clinical blues, that is—not the my-girlfriend-dumped-me sort. Why? We've abandoned physical interactions with our environment. "A lot of our mental illnesses are about the perception that we have no control," says Lambert. She proposes that, thanks to our affinity for computers and drive-throughs, we don't engage the brain's "effort-driven rewards circuit" enough. Our ancestors made plans—"build shelter; plant potato; kill elk"—and executed them with well-evolved hands. It's called controlling your environment. When we do this, our brains reward us with dopamine. But these days we've stopped using our hands for much beyond punching buttons. So curing your mood may mean putting down your BlackBerry and pulling on some work gloves. A few suggestions: Grow a tomato plant. Be your own bike mechanic. Catch a fish. Clean it and eat it. Learn guitar. Call next in pickup basketball. Just don't lose—if you don't execute your plan correctly, well, you don't get the dopamine.