Reality: Stress is
often associated with bad experiences, so you might think it would bias your
thinking in a negative direction. However, a recent article in Current Directions in Psychological Science concluded that the opposite is true: When people are put under stress in
studies—for example, by being asked to hold their hand in ice water or give a
speech—they begin paying more attention to positive information.
According to the article’s authors at the University of
Southern California, this finding has important implications for decision-making
in everyday life. For example, let’s say you’re trying to lose weight and deciding
whether to have chocolate cake for dessert. After a stressful day, you
may be more likely to focus on how good the cake will taste and to discount the
unwanted calories it contains. If you're not aware of this tendency and don't compensate for it, you might make some decisions you later regret.
Myth: Chronic stress is
linked to heart disease, not brain disease.
relationship between stress and heart disease still isn’t fully understood. But
it’s known that chronic stress causes an increase in heart rate and blood
pressure that might damage artery walls over time. The risks don’t stop there,
however. Stress affects your whole body, including your brain.
One recent line of research suggests that frequent stress may even
boost the risk for Alzheimer’s disease. A new study headed by scientists
at the University of California at San Diego showed that repeated stress
triggered brain changes in mice that were similar to the abnormal clumps of
protein seen in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. The changes were most
pronounced in the hippocampus. In humans, this part of the brain plays a key
role in memory and is hard hit by Alzheimer’s disease.
management is about controlling difficult situations.
situations that give rise to stress are under your control, but many are not.
You can’t control bad weather, traffic jams, your boss’s crankiness, a stranger’s
rudeness, or an infinitely long list of other situations and events. But that’s
okay, because you can manage your
reaction to these things, and that’s what many stress management strategies are
designed to do.
One way to stop stress is by reappraising a difficult
situation as a challenge rather than a threat. For example, when you're given a tough new
assignment at work, you can make a conscious choice to think about it as an
opportunity to grow in your job—not a chance to fall flat on your face. A new study showed that
this may come more easily if you’re naturally open to new experiences and less
easily if you’re prone to anxiety. But it’s a habit of mind that anyone can cultivate
Myth: A couple of
drinks will help you de-stress.
Reality: A study in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental
Research showed why alcohol doesn’t work very well as a stress relief
strategy. In the study, University of Chicago researchers first put men under
stress with a public speaking task. Then they gave the men either the
equivalent of two drinks of alcohol or a placebo by IV and measured the
results. Although alcohol dampened the men's hormonal responses to stress, it
actually prolonged their subjective feelings of tension.
To make matters worse, the same study showed that stress could
reduce the pleasant effects of alcohol or increase the craving for more of it. In the real world, this might encourage drinking too much—and that can lead to a whole host of bad
choices that only multiply stress.
Myth: Everyone needs
to meditate (or do yoga or take long walks).
way to counter stress is by learning effective ways to relax your body and calm
your mind. For example, you might take several deep breaths, go for a walk or
bike ride, practice mindfulness or meditation, do yoga or tai chi, call a
supportive friend, or spend time in nature. But it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.
The key is finding strategies that suit your personality and lifestyle.
There are a few
universal guidelines, however. For optimal stress relief, it’s essential to get
regular physical activity and adequate sleep. Recent research suggests
that REM sleep—the stage during which dreaming occurs—may be particularly
important. In the REM state, emotional memories are reprocessed, but stress hormones
are suppressed. This may take some of the edge off painful memories, making it
easier to cope the next day.
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