When we’re upset or overwhelmed, we may inadvertently turn to activities or habits that can spike our stress, not soothe it.
Below, two experts reveal what doesn’t reduce stress and why — and what really does.
“Many of us — myself included — tend to unwind after a long or stressful day by spacing out in front of the TV,” said Carla Naumburg, Ph.D, LICSW, a clinical social worker and writer who pens the Psych Central blog “Mindful Parenting.”
However, what we typically watch — the evening news, suspenseful dramas — can boost our body’s levels of stress hormones, “even if we’re not aware of it.”
Heidi Hanna, PhD, author of the book Stressaholic: 5 Steps to Transform Your Relationship with Stress, agreed. “The problem is, your brain is always scanning your environment to see what might be potentially threatening, and will turn on the stress response just in anticipation of something dangerous.”
And even though we might be watching a fictional crime show, it still amplifies our senses, which can be stressful, she said.
Also, TV-watching takes time away from truly nourishing activities. According to Naumburg, these activities may include cooking, crafting, meditating, reading, journaling and spending time with loved ones.
Plus, the bright screen and rapid-fire images can make it harder to fall asleep, she said. “Sleep deprivation is a major source of increased stress in our lives.”
Even if you’re used to falling asleep to the TV, your “brain is not able to get quality rest,” Hanna said.
High Intensity Exercise
Engaging in physical activities is a great way to relieve stress. However, “if you’re physically exhausted, your brain and body are in a deprived state, and the extra energy required to work out may end up pushing you over the top,” leading to “overtraining,” said Hanna, a fellow with the American Institute of Stress.
This may “potentially weaken your immune system, increase inflammation, and even cause hormone imbalances that lead to more long-term issues.”
Instead, practicing gentle movement, such as yoga and walking, helps to relieve stress, she said.
Thinking Your Way Out
“It may sound pretty obvious, but most of us move through life lost in a storm of thoughts without even realizing that we are soaking wet,” said Naumburg, author of the forthcoming book Parenting in the Present Moment: How to Stay Connected, Sane, and Focused on What Really Matters.
Reflecting on our thoughts and reactions to a certain situation can help us gain clarity, she said.
However, “that’s quite different from the endless mental spinnings that so many of us engage in when we’re faced with a confusing or challenging situation.”
Instead, we may ruminate about the past, berate ourselves or others for different actions and mull over every potential result or scenario. This just adds another unnecessary level of stress and anxiety, she said.
The key is to observe your thoughts. Helpful thoughts propel us toward clarity or the next steps in solving the problem, Naumburg said. Unhelpful thoughts only push you further into feeling anxious, angry, frustrated or sad.
Social connections are key for our health. But being constantly connected can be exhausting, especially if you’re surrounded by people who tend to deplete you.
“Because the brain is so sensitive to stressful cues in the environment, being around people who are stuck in a stress response [such as] talking quickly, running from one place to the next [and] complaining can quickly shift your own body into fight or flight,” Hanna said.
That’s why it’s important to spend time with individuals who “nourish your energy, not add more to your already full plate.”
If you feel disconnected, being alone also can boost your stress, Hanna said. And when you’re alone you might turn to social media and the Internet for a sense of connection. These “are often full of negative, stressful news that puts us in a fear state and triggers the stress response.”
According to Naumburg, choosing not to think about a problem isn’t the same as ignoring it. It’s healthy to observe our thoughts, consider them, and then decide whether we’d like to engage with those thoughts, she said.
Ignoring thoughts, on the other hand, is sprinting at the “slightest reminder of the stressful situation.” This also may include distracting ourselves by watching TV, shopping compulsively or drinking alcohol, she said.
But ignoring stress is ineffective because it never really goes away. Naumburg cited Carl Jung: “that which we resist, persists.”
“[Stress] may pop up in an angry outburst, an aching back, sleepless nights, or any other number of unhelpful outcomes that will only serve to increase our stress — the exact opposite of what we were hoping to achieve.”
Confronting the sources of stress may be intimidating, but it’s likelier to be less stressful in the long run, she said. You can confront stress by engaging in healthy strategies such as journaling, talking to trusted loved ones, meditating and working with a therapist, she said.