Got stress? We all do. But while some people are good at coping with it, others make dumb mistakes that amp up its toxic effects.
If you want to feel calm and focused no matter what life sends your way, avoid these 10 stress-boosting lifestyle mistakes from anxiety expert Dr. Henry Emmons, author of "The Chemistry of Calm."
Mistake: Obsessing Over Stress
Do you keep replaying worrisome thoughts again and again? That only makes them worse. Neuroscientists say that's because it reinforces the "neural pathways" for those thoughts, so they get more and more intense.
Focusing on stressful thoughts is like rehearsing them. Everything gets better with practice - including stress.
Mistake: Not Taking Time Off
After a stressful experience, it's a good idea to take a breather to let your body and mind recover. That calms the stress response and helps you get ready for the next challenge.
Our ancient ancestors ran and then rested. Too often we just stay on life's treadmill 24/7. Remember, we are human beings - not "doing beings," says Dr. Emmons.
Mistake: Giving In to Cravings
Some people respond to stress by reaching for sweets or fatty comfort foods. Big mistake, says Dr. Emmons.
"When you give in and binge, it quickly elevates serotonin levels and you feel temporarily better," he says. "But the levels quickly fall, you feel worse and have more cravings. Moreover, this roller coaster further depletes the brain of serotonin, adding to the problem over time."
In the long run, caving in to cravings is counterproductive.
Mistake: Venting Your Emotions
Is it good to "vent" your emotions? Pop psychology says so. But for many people, sharing tales of woe with friends and relatives helps keep the negative emotions alive. Repeated venting can even make these feelings stronger.
Mistake: Skimping on Sleep
Sleeplessness is a surefire way to break down your body's defenses against stress. In fact, not getting enough sleep is an "accelerator" toward mental illness, says Dr. Emmons. Best to get seven to eight hours a night.
Mistake: Marinating in Bad News
If we are what we eat, we may also be what we consume through our eyes and ears. Watching and reading reports of violence and tragedy seem to promote anxiety and depression, according to recent research from Scandinavia.
Does that suggest we should bury our heads in the sand? No. But especially when you're experiencing hard times, make sure you pay attention to what you're watching and hearing news-wise.
Mistake: Seeking Stimulation
If stress has your mind working overtime, indulging in stimulants like caffeine and tobacco might make matters worse. Ditto for stimulating activities, like working without breaks, skipping meals, driving fast, etc. All that stimulation tends to amplify stressful feelings.
Mistake: Playing Video Games
Violent games can be fun, but they can also put you in an anxious state of mind. Such games seem to alter brain function - and the changes can last long after you've put down the controller.
On the other hand, nonviolent games can be a respite from stress. In one recent study, soldiers who played the "building block" game Tetris after witnessing violence were less likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder.
Mistake: Going It Alone
Human beings are "hard wired" to connect with one another. Yet some people respond to stress by isolating themselves from friends and family - the very people they need for support.
Connecting with others doesn't solve the problems that cause stress, but it certainly helps us endure stressful periods, says Dr. Emmons.
As the Dalai Lama has said, "We can live without religion and meditation, but we cannot survive without human affection."
Mistake: Being a Lump
When you feel anxious, stress hormones flood the body, priming it for physical action. That's the basis of the so-called "fight or flight" response. But if you spend your days sitting at a desk or on the sofa, those stress hormones have nothing to do but recirculate.
Moving your body helps you "discharge" those hormones and reset yourself to a relaxed state of mind.