Say No to Stress With These New Strategies

The holidays can mean financial stress – here’s how to calm your nerves

How much time per day do you devote to stress? If it’s more than an hour, it could be affecting you physically and mentally. “The brain is not built to solve financial problems — it’s built to solve saber-tooth cat problems,” says John J. Medina, developmental molecular biologist and affiliate professor of bio-engineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine. For millions of years, our stress responses were forged to combat short-term problems related to survival. Even today, long-term problems — like months of stress related to credit card debt — can be especially taxing.

There are some scenarios where the tried and true responses to stress — fight, flight or freeze — work. Financial problems aren’t among them. Try these strategies to calm your nerves instead.

Change your perspective.

Any time you come into contact with a stressor — whether it’s in front of you, inside your head or on your bank statement — you make a mental assessment: Do I have what it takes to handle this situation or not? If you believe the answer is no, you’ll have a physiological stress response (like an increased heart rate), says Sarah Newcomb, behavioral economist at Morningstar. But if you believe you do have what it takes, you won’t have that response. “Stress is a response to the belief that you do not have what it takes to meet the needs of a situation… that you don’t measure up to the task,” says Newcomb. How should you cope? Try asking yourself if you’re “catastrophizing,” or making the issue seem worse than it is. Tell yourself you’re capable of handling whatever life throws at you — and use examples of past times you’ve done just that to remind yourself of other difficult situations that you handled successfully.

Get moving.

When you’re stressed, your levels of cortisol, known as the “stress hormone,” go up. When those levels get high enough, they can slip past something called the “blood-brain barrier” and attack specific cells in the brain, says Medina. And the more out-of-control you feel with stress, the higher those levels rise in your blood. Here’s the good news: Your brain knows that it’s vulnerable, so it has a hero to combat this — a protein called BDNF. If you have enough BDNF in your system, you can handle stress pretty well. However, no matter how many “hero proteins” you’ve got, they can’t fight off that stress for more than an hour, says Medina — and brain functions like problem-solving, memory and processing speed could be affected. That’s why chronic stress (read: anything longer than an hour) is so bad for you.

Here’s the good news: There is one way to increase the amount of hero proteins you’ve got, according to research by Dr. John Ratey of Harvard Medical School. The answer? Aerobic exercise — specifically, 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity in a week-long period. This should mean less long-term damage from stress and a better ability to handle it, and it works out to thirty minutes of aerobic exercise five days a week. If that sounds overwhelming, start with one or two days a week, then work up to it.

Practice mind over matter.

Mindfulness is a form of stress control where you focus on the present and — instead of clearing your mind like in meditation — focus in on something. One example? Focus on a specific item — like a raisin — for five minutes. After about 15 seconds, the mind tends to wander and start worrying about deadlines or other stressors, says Medina, but if you gently nudge yourself back to your focus until five minutes is up, you should feel much calmer. Apps like Headspace ($12.99 for a monthly subscription) can help here, but Medina recommends “The Mindful Way Workbook,” a book with an eight-week mindfulness training course. “Meditation works for some people, but mindfulness works for everyone who’s been tested,” says Medina. “I make my living poking holes in data, but I can’t do that here. This works.”

With Hayden Field

Jean Chatzky

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