April 11, 2012 at 8:55 AM ET
By Paige Greenfield
You know you should take a few deep breaths when you feel stressed. Instead you inhale a doughnut (or five). Strange? Not at all. Your strained brain craves instant gratification, often in the form of a quick fix like food or alcohol, says James Herman, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at the University of Cincinnati. "These things activate reward pathways while quieting the amygdala, the emotional, overwrought area of your brain."
The trouble with the Krispy Kreme cure, besides the inevitable risk of obesity and the powdered sugar on your neckties, is that it's really just a stress Band-Aid. In the long term you may feel more mentally steamrolled than ever. And when your psyche suffers, so does your body. In fact, in a new Oregon State University study, researchers found that chronically stressed middle-aged men were almost 50 percent more likely to die during an 18-year period than those who experienced fewer stressful events. Which of these guys do you want to be?
Good choice. Now follow this plan for replacing your current so-called coping strategies with techniques that'll feel like a shiatsu massage for your mind.
How you cope: Down a dessert
There's a reason you equate sugar with serenity. When you consume the sweet stuff, your prefrontal cortex, a part of your brain that helps control emotions, is activated, says Herman. The danger of a sugar binge: Men with higher anxiety are also more likely to have elevated glucose levels, according to scientists in Japan. In fact, the American Diabetes Association warns that long-term stress may push your blood-sugar levels into the diabetic range if they're already higher than normal.
Do this instead: Savor a small portion of ice cream
The stress-busting benefits of dessert are due more to the flavor than the fat and calories, says Herman. "High-calorie foods often taste better, but calories aren't necessary for food's effects on stress." Buy a single-serve treat and take half an hour to eat it; savoring the flavor can extend the calming effect.
How you cope: Pour a drink
After a few shots of Jack, the office jackass is the last person on your mind. When alcohol enters your bloodstream, it seems to activate reward pathways for temporary relief. Ultimately, though, it may intensify your depression, says William Pollack, Ph.D., a Men's Health mental health advisor. In a University of Chicago study, stressed-out men injected with alcohol felt anxious longer than guys in a placebo group. Booze may disrupt your body's calming process, prolonging the mental misery.
Do this instead: Self-medicate with music
A study in Nature Neuroscience found that listening to favorite tunes or anticipating a certain point in a song can cause a pleasurable flood of dopamine. Listen to a few songs in a row several times a day. "These doses of dopamine can lower your stress, removing the trigger that causes you to seek alcohol," says Edward Roth, M.T.-B.C., a professor of music therapy at Western Michigan University.
How you cope: Play Call of Duty all night
The lure of a record-breaking kill/death ratio isn't the only thing keeping you up till 3 a.m. Stanford researchers found that playing video games stimulates the brain's mesocorticolimbic system, a key reward region. And the more you win, the more the area lights up. The downside: Most video games are sedentary and mimic the competitiveness of a stressful job, which may negate any brain benefits, says Michael Addis, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Clark University.
Do this instead: Build a fence
Learn to braise meat. Practice the ukulele. Activities that give you a sense of mastery can also activate the mesocorticolimbic system, deploying a rush of dopamine. Plus, as you practice your new skill, you enter a healthy psychological state known as flow. "You lose track of time and are completely immersed in what you're doing," says Addis. "It's incredibly relaxing to the mind."
How you cope: Drive too fast
Why do guys love Vegas? Or consider cliff jumping a worthy pastime? The same reason they speed: Risk taking produces a surge of endorphins, which numb pain, says Cleveland Clinic psychologist Michael McKee, Ph.D. But if you chase those thrills while you're stressed, they could kill you. Your judgment tends to become clouded, so it's harder to take calculated risks, explains Addis. "You're more likely to put yourself in unnecessary danger."
Do this instead: Hightail it to the gym
But don't default to your regular workout. If you're bored with your routine, you may not experience the normal post-gym endorphin rush, making exercise less effective as a stress fighter than it could be, says Addis. So try something new: Sign up for a martial arts class, check out an indoor rock-climbing center, or go mountain biking. These activities combine physical exertion with a bit of benign risk taking.
How you cope: Bury yourself in work
It's tempting to battle the stress of a massive workload by immersing yourself until it's done. Don't do it. "Concentration and productivity suffer when your brain doesn't have a chance to unwind, relax, and reset," says McKee. And your work performance may not be the only thing to suffer. In a new British study, people who worked 11 or more hours a day were nearly 70 percent more likely to develop heart disease over a 12-year period than those who worked 7-to 8-hour days.
Do this instead: Take a 60-second vacation
Each hour, spend a minute perusing a funny blog. (We like passiveaggressive notes.com.) Periodic breaks help you process and absorb new information, increasing your efficiency, says McKee. During your hiatus, take 10-second breaths, inhale 4 seconds, exhale 6, to bolster your heart's ability to recover from stress.
How you cope: Hibernate in your cave
If stress makes you want to retreat and hole up at home, here's why: Research shows that men generally favor the fight-or-flight stress response, whereas women are more likely to "tend and befriend" when they feel stressed. Which way is better? A 2009 British study linked social isolation with a more prolonged spike in heart-straining systolic blood pressure after a stressful event, and higher stress-hormone output throughout the day.
Do this instead: Watch the game with your buddies
And don't spend halftime bitching about your boss. Venting can actually be counterproductive; with men, it often turns into a stress-inducing "who has it worse" showdown, says Addis. Besides, the social aspect alone is enough to activate your brain's GABA receptors, which control fear and anxiety, in turn triggering feelings of calm and satisfaction, says Pollack.