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Ways To Relieve Stress

Go for a Walk

Research has shown that daily stress and anxiety can trigger headaches, tense muscles, and even raise your blood pressure. Stress also suppresses the immune system, making you more vulnerable to illness. Here are some easy-to-implement lifestyle changes that can help bring stress down a notch. Exercise clears your mind and returns the body to a more healthful state. But you don't need to spend hours at a gym to gain the benefits of exercise; even a 10-minute walk can decrease anxiety.

When you exercise, beta-endorphins (the body's natural relaxants) are released. Endorphins counteract the stress hormones raging through your body. "That's why we get a really mellow feeling at the end of exercising," says JoAnne Herman, PhD, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina College of Nursing. When stress overloads your system, the body converts to the "fight or flight" response.

Powered by a surge of adrenaline secreted, your heart beats faster, pupils dilate, blood vessels constrict, and muscles contract -- all physiological responses preparing you to defend yourself.

Besides being a break in your daily routine, exercise gets blood circulating, boosts your mood, and eases tension. "Exercise rids the body of excess energy it really can't do anything about," says Dr. Tara Cortes, clinical director of primary care at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. Studies also show that active people have a decreased risk of coronary heart disease, the number-one cause of death in the United States.

Call a Friend

Have you ever wondered why things always seem better after you talk to a good friend? Well, it turns out that friendship is as good for your health as it is for your spirit. Researchers have found that having good friends helps lower blood pressure, relieve anxiety, and may even help you live longer.

In a recent study of AIDS patients, Jane Leserman, PhD, of the University of North Carolina, found that men who were supported by good friends were better able to fight the progression of AIDS. While Leserman was not sure how a support network protected the patients' immune systems, she credits friendship with helping them decrease the stress of their illness.

Many experts list friendship as the key factor in getting through stressful times. "If you can learn to control the stress and speak to others about it, you become able to deal with a lot more," says Dr. Edward Callahan, a psychologist at the University of California at Davis. One venting session with a good friend might be all that's needed to make you feel better. But if you're going through an especially rough time, a good friend will also be there for continual reassurance. "Unfortunately, people under stress may be more likely to isolate themselves," says Martha Craft-Rosenberg, PhD, professor and chair of parent, child, and family studies at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

When reaching out to a silent stressed-out friend, keep things simple. Show your support through a smile, a hug, or a note expressing how much you care. You don't have to press them for a long talk if that's not what they need right now.

Divide Household Chores

A century ago, it was the woman's duty to take care of house and home. Thankfully, times have changed, or have they? A study at Johns Hopkins University found that working women who take on extra responsibilities at home and receive no thanks for it are more likely to drive aggressively, a behavior commonly referred to as "road rage." The study, conducted by Dr. Barbara Curbow and Dr. Joan Griffin, found that 56 percent of the women surveyed admitted to driving aggressively during their commutes; 41 percent yelled or gestured at other drivers; and 25 percent said they took their frustrations out behind the wheel. Interestingly, the study found less evidence of road rage among women who received emotional rewards at home for their hard work.

Because you may not always get that needed pat on the back, other tactics can help. One way to get more help is to divvy up the chores. Dividing chores gets the whole family involved in running the household, says Craft-Rosenberg, the family studies professor from Iowa. "The resilience of a family is related to how well they can work together," she says. Even small children benefit because contributing makes them feel needed. And when others share the workload, there's less pressure to get everything done at once. "It helps me remember that I do not have to be the 'Supermom' I fantasize about," says Marti Rickel, a clinical instructor at the University of Arkansas College of Nursing and mother of a 3-year-old son. "I can be a good mother and a good nurse and a good wife, but o n some days I cannot be good at all of them at the same time."

Reduce Caffeine Intake

Drinking four or five cups of coffee every morning does more than open your eyes. The caffeine raises your blood pressure and increases secretion of adrenaline, a stress hormone. In fact, the caffeine in your coffee cup imitates and even exaggerates the body's response to stress, according to James D. Lane, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

While your brain is pumping out more adrenaline, Lane says, your heart is also working harder, causing a three-point increase in blood pressure. A five-point increase in blood pressure has been associated with a 21 percent increased risk of heart disease and a 34 percent increased risk of stroke. Although Lane is reluctant to link caffeine intake and disease, he says that the mechanisms are there.

When all is working as it should, our nervous systems have mechanisms that keep us from overreacting to stress. But caffeine, which Lane calls the the most widely used drug in the world, seems to inhibit that natural function and leave the body in an agitated state for longer than normal. And because the effects of caffeine last for hours after intake -- it takes 4 to 5 hours to eliminate half the caffeine present -- the body never really gets a chance to function without caffeine.

The long-lasting effects of caffeine are even greater for women taking birth control pills because both estrogen and caffeine are broken down by the liver. "It may take 10 to 12 hours for women on birth control pills to lower their caffeine levels by half," Lane says. "So by the time yesterday's caffeine is gone, they have already started with this morning's coffee."

Slowly taper off caffeine by drinking a cup of decaf or herbal tea to substitute for your caffeinated cup. Or, try mixing regular with decaf beans at the grocery store. If you take it slowly, your body will hardly notice the difference.

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