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10 Ways to Control Stress and Even Make It Work for You

A girl behing a laptop, thinking

Stress has all but become a shady badge of honor,  like multitasking and only needing five hours of sleep. Who among us hasn't heard (or uttered) "I am sooo stressed!" It's typically said in such a way that the speaker sounds like one of the cool kids while the rest of us feel like losers for being on the brink of collapsing under that burden. But let's be honest. Studies show the only thing multitasking does is keep us from doing well any of the things we think we can do all at once. And less than six hours or so of sleep often leads to all sorts of mental and physical health issues, to say nothing of increasing the risk you'll snooze at the wheel. As for stress, "it is an underappreciated and under-recognized problem," says Dr. Riva Rahl. As medical director of Cooper Healthy Living at the Cooper Clinic, she asks patients how they manage stress, just like she asks about their eating and exercise habits. Ian Robertson, the T. Boone Pickens Distinguished Scientist at the Center for BrainHealth, wrote a book about the benefits of stress. Moderate levels of it, he says, "inoculate us and better help us cope with pain and to be emotionally robust." He's not advocating being caught up in a continual stress circus. Instead, he advocates ways to optimize it. Facing up to stress and taking steps to fight it "means we can control it," he says. First on the agenda? "You have to have faith you can change," says Robertson, who is also co-director of the Ireland-based Global Brain Institute. Breathe that mantra in, then try out these 10 ways to control stress. Exercise. Moving your body "releases natural antidepressants," Robertson says. Dallas artist Cuyler Etheredge evokes the Latin phrase Solvitur ambulando, which means "it is solved by walking." In 42 years as a college professor and a dozen as an artist, she says, "I found walking to be a great stress reliever and a stimulus for my imagination." Sue Hersman of Little Elm opts to "Bicycle! Alone!" For Bob Kennedy of Dallas, running or biking "helps my physical stress and helps me come to grips with my emotions." "I tell myself, 'You can be as stressed as you want to be after you run really hard for 30 minutes,' " says Andy Coleman, who lives in Allen. "Never fails. I'm so thankful to get it over with that I'm far less stressed afterward." Whatever your movement of choice, we can all but guarantee you'll feel better. Question validity. When something is stressing out Debbie Reinhardt-Young of Richardson, she asks herself, "Will this matter in six months or even one month?" Probably not. "Life is sooo short," she says. Put your stress to good use. Martha Booe of Dallas opts for turning on her Learn Spanish in Your Car CD. "It's hard to think about anything else when you are saying those words over and over again," she says. Pet a pet. Or walk one. "I play with my dogs," says Terry Thornton of Parker. "When you are busy doing that, there is no room at the inn for any stress." Tim Hicks of McKinney marvels at his cat Liberty's ability to sense stress: "She will not leave us alone until she can sit in the affected person's lap and demand petting until we are de-stressed." Focus on the good. "I stop and think of three things I am grateful for," says Anna Gallagher Brindley of Dallas. Find what works for you. Everyone manages stress differently, Cooper Clinic's Rahl says. What works for you might not work for someone else. "We all need some tools to manage stress, and many of us need more than one." Maybe a pedicure, hot bath or massage works one time; conversations with friends another. Lori L. Barber of Dallas opts for "a really hard workout and a really hot bubble bath." Keep it positive.  Avoid dealing with stress in "ways that are not so good, such as escapism through alcohol, drugs or physical violence," Rahl says. Do something for someone else. "Altruism makes people feel better," says Robertson of the Center for BrainHealth. "If your attention is outside yourself, that's emotional protection, so doing stuff for others is a great way of lifting your mood." Garden. It works for Rachael Lieck Bryce of Dallas, who counts on Pilates and "digging in the dirt." Pray or meditate. That's what Lori Bittenbender of Frisco opts for during stressful times. Herb Booth of Grand Prairie reads his Bible.

4 questions (and answers!) about stress

What's so bad about stress?

"Stress affects sleep, blood pressure, energy, mood," says Dr. Riva Rahl, medical director of Cooper Healthy Living at the Cooper Clinic. "It's a key component of many chronic illnesses, but stress management can have a favorable impact on many health issues."

When should we be concerned?

When it impacts your health to the point of interfering with everything you are trying to do for your health, Rahl says. For example, if you're not sleeping well, not able to exercise, not able to eat well due to abdominal issues — all related to stress — then you need to do something, she says.  "Managing stress is far better than worrying about stress," she says.

Are we more stressed out these days?

"People's expectation of how they should feel has risen," says author and researcher Ian Robertson. Think, for instance, of all the posts on Facebook that feature food you've never eaten, travel to places you've never been, pictures of happy frolicking beyond your wildest imagination. Who wouldn't be stressed by thinking everyone else has a better life? "Because expectations are high, it's much easier to feel we're not meeting them, and that's the sense of being overwhelmed and having the emotions of anxiety and depression," Robertson says.

What can we do?

"I always ask my patients how they manage stress, not if they have it," Rahl says. "We explore together what might work best for them. Some people use apps to meditate or be mindful. It doesn't matter how they manage stress, but that they manage it."

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Ian Robertson, PhD

T. Boone Pickens Distinguished Chair Co-Leader, The BrainHealth Project