Retrain Your Brain
When we’re stressed, the amygdala — the part of our brain that registers emotions like fear — lights up like the night sky on the Fourth of July. In response, the hypothalamus — the brain region that regulates body rhythms — initiates a cascade of stress hormones designed to trigger the fight-or-flight response. That reaction serves us well when we need a shot of adrenaline to get us to safety. But because it occurs anytime we feel tense, our stress levels tend to jump as much when we’re stuck in traffic as they would if we were confronted by a stranger during a late-night run. No wonder the American Psychological Association reported that 77 percent of us regularly suffer physical symptoms like stress-induced fatigue and headaches.
Do it. Stick to your sweat sessions. Regular exercise not only provides an instant release but also actually rewires your brain. Princeton University scientists found that stress-related activation of neurons in the hippocampus of mice disappeared after the animals ran when they wanted for six weeks. The brain-boosting benefits aren’t limited to running. “Research shows that any form of physical activity will do the trick,” says Jessica Matthews, an assistant professor of exercise science at San Diego Miramar College. Learning moves that challenge your agility, coordination, and balance, in particular, may be ideal, a study in Brain Research suggests. Try a boot camp class that includes drills, or a sport like tennis.
Zumba or Spinning? Break up or stay together? We face tens of thousands of choices each day, and every single one of them presents an opportunity to screw up — or at least that’s how the indecisive see the endless choices. No wonder resolute people, those cool cukes, have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than poor decision makers, research shows. “Indecisive people tend to lack confidence, which makes them anxious because they’re afraid they’ll make bad decisions,” says sports psychologist Jim Taylor, PhD, the author of Prime Sport: Triumph of the Athlete Mind. Worse, all that anxiety gets in their way of choosing wisely.
Do it. Simplify decisions with facts — they help take your emotions out of the equation, which makes it easier to understand what’s really at stake, Taylor says. Plus, the more knowledge you have, the more reasoned your judgments will be, so you can be confident about them. When possible, sleep on a decision for a night or two; research from the University of Massachusetts Amherst shows that your brain processes the information related to the decision during sleep, helping you make better choices.
Reframe Problems As Opportunities
Your BFF cancels dinner at the last minute — again — and you reassure her it’s OK, even though you’re fuming inside. After all, why risk ruining your friendship with an uncomfortable confrontation? Here’s why: Bottling up your feelings breeds anxiety. But reframing upsetting situations using a strategy called reappraisal helps you stress less, a study in Emotion found. “The goal is to emphasize the positive aspects and downplay the negatives, which leads to a more balanced state of mind,” says study author Nicole Llewellyn, a doctoral student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Do it. The next time you’re sweating something, pause to pinpoint just why you’re upset, Llewellyn suggests. Then ask yourself, What are the positives — how can I look at this as a stimulating challenge rather than a problem? Maybe calling out your friend for being flaky will allow you to clear the air, prompt her to be more considerate and ultimately bring the two of you closer. Maybe a tough work assignment will help you learn and add to your resume. Changing the way you respond can have pretty immediate effects. Choose to reappraise rather than suppress just once this week and see how much better you feel, Llewellyn says. Build from there until it becomes second nature.
See Every Glass As at Least Half Full
Nobody wants to be a Debbie Downer, but there’s more at stake than likability. “Pessimists are more apt to get illnesses like colds and the flu, and they have a longer recovery rate than optimists,” says Bob Murray, PhD, coauthor of Creating Optimism. In fact, people who rated high in pessimism, anxiety, and depression had an increased risk of death from all causes, researchers at the Mayo Clinic found. Even those who were glass-half-empty types early in life (ages 20 to 39) were at risk, according to the study.
Do it. If you hear yourself saying never or always a lot (as in, “I could never do that” or “I’m always going to fail at relationships”), then you may be a pessimist. Thirty percent of pessimists have a genetic predisposition to a negative outlook. Fortunately, even they can change their ways, because the genes in question can be modified by life experience. Simply trying to think more positively won’t do the trick, Murray says. The best strategy is to deliberately avoid other pessimists and surround yourself with the optimists in your life, whose vibes are infectious. “Studies have shown the viral nature of both pessimism and optimism,” he says. Also key to being a positive person is feeling as if you have a purpose every day — whether it’s at work, with your family and friends, or through an activity like running races to raise money for charity. Having something that you’re passionate about and achieving goals related to it will lessen pessimism and help ward off depression. Cheers to that!