Not Born Yesterday

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Stressed to Excess?

Better ways of managing tension

"Some days you just can't make a nickel," my father would say in times of stress. And he never had to deal with computer glitches, airport security, gridlock in Washington, or GM recalls. Just two World Wars, the Great Depression and Prohibition. There's always something.

We're told that stress is caused by stressors (sounds logical), and we all have them. Fortunately, most of us are able to cope with the pressures of modern life without running amok. But it's a fact that some short-term fixes can be hazardous to your health in the long-term, so why trade one problem for another? I've been reading about some better ways. For example:

Energy drinks will give you a quick boost, but there is a downside. They often contain several times more caffeine than coffee and can cause rapid heartbeats and insomnia. A better way? Decreasing tension with a glass of red wine. Although white wine is just as good at reducing stress, red wine contains antioxidants, which benefit the heart. But it's wise to bear in mind the old rule: all things in moderation.

Watching TV for an evening of relaxation might bring down your stress level for a time, but even two hours a day has been shown to increase the chances of diabetes, for one, and obesity, for another. Better to go out for a walk — even around the block. It's good for the legs, but taking in extra oxygen also benefits the lungs and stimulates the brain. Fast-paced walking is beneficial to the heart as well. Or how about riding a bike? Some researchers say that inactivity is as bad as smoking. And sitting at a desk for hours at a time, as some of us do in our jobs, can be particularly detrimental. Doctors advise getting up and moving around every hour or two.

People who routinely go to bed late at night but have to get up early in the morning are often sleep-deprived, which can add to their stress level. It also increases the chance of a stroke in those who get six hours or less. What's better? The optimum is seven or eight hours a night, but if you can't manage that, you might try catnapping during the day. A 10-minute nap is more energizing than a longer one, which can leave you feeling groggy and more tired than before.

Smoking — even sneaking just one a day to ease tension — is a health risk, and can lead to resuming the old one or two packs a day habit. What's preferable, and just as effective in reducing stress? Don't laugh! A cup of tea, and preferably green or chamomile tea, a la Peter Rabbit. The calming effect from the amino acid it contains can last for hours. (So, that's how the British are able to "Keep Calm and Carry On!")  

And then there's comfort food. Craving something chocolate is common during times of stress. That's because cookies and ice cream are rich in sugar and fat. The trouble with comfort foods is that they can lead to weight gain, diabetes and heart problems. Try listening to music instead of reaching for a candy bar. (Seriously?) Well, it is calorie-free and reportedly lowers blood pressure along with the heart rate, especially if it's classical. Don't like Liszt? Can't abide Beethoven? Playing a musical instrument, even a kazoo, can be fun and soothing. I still have an old, beat-up pair of drumsticks from when I played in a band, and I walk around the house drumming on any hard surface within reach. 

Taking a pottery class, I'm told, can lower your stress level. Several of my friends have tried it and swear by its calming effect on frazzled nerves. One of them even made a second career out of it, and now shows her work in an upscale gallery. (Warning: "Your results may vary!")  

E. E. Smith is a playwright and book author. Her new series of murder mysteries debuted in 2013. The first is titled Death by Misadventure. 

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