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Sheryl Kraft

Sheryl Kraft, a freelance writer and breast cancer survivor, was born in Long Beach, New York. She currently lives in Connecticut with her husband Alan and dog Chloe, where her nest is empty of her two sons Jonathan. Sheryl writes articles and essays on breast cancer and contributes to a variety of publications and websites where she writes on general health and wellness issues. She earned her MFA in writing from Sarah Lawrence College in 2005.

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How to Stop Stress in its Tracks

Self-Care & Mental Health

Maybe it's that time of year. Another cloudy day…another snowstorm heading this way. Somehow the weather outside influences the way we feel inside. At least that's what it does to me. My stress levels are rising but my coping mechanisms? They're plummeting right along with the thermometer.

Even where it's idyllically warm and sunny (like in Arizona), sadness and stress have just about obliterated the sun with the recent events of the horrendous shooting at Tucson's Safeway (ironic that a supermarket - a place you'd never think of as unsafe - has the word “safe" right in its name).

Seems like there's really no place in the U.S. devoid of stress-inducing stuff: reported at the beginning of this month that the only state in the U.S. that was not covered with snow was Florida.

Weather aside, I don't have to tell you that stress is bad for your health. You probably already know how it hurts things like your immune system, your cardiovascular system, your sleep, insulin levels and even your weight.

But stress also is aging. Yes, that gray hair and haggard, wrinkled look…it can come from too much stress. How? When scientists at the D.C. San Francisco Medical Center studied the effects of stress on a cellular level, they found that stress grinds down the chromosome endings, which are telltale signs of aging. Just the perception of stress is enough to contribute to aging at a more accelerated rated, they found.

I say it's time to figure out how to stress less. I mean, who couldn't use this reminder? Some suggestions.

Breathe. Okay, it's an automatic reflex, so why do you have to learn to do it “right?" Because under times of stress, it's common for your breathing to become shallow or uneven, limiting the amount of air you get into your lungs. (A surprising fact: most of us “shallow breathe" – and use only 20 percent of our lung capacity.)

Try something called diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing. By sticking out your belly – rather than your chest - when you inhale, your parasympathetic sympathetic nervous system is activated, leading to a more relaxed you.

Exercise. Maybe you're getting tired of reading about how important exercise is – but truth be told, it's one of the most effective stress-relievers out there. Some call it “meditation in motion," and rightly so. It decreases stress hormones like cortisol (which is also responsible for weight gain) and increases those feel-good chemicals that your body produces, known as endorphins.

Take out a pen. And write down all your worries. Psychologist James Pennebaker, a pioneer in the research of words, has found that writing about meaningful or traumatic events can have a profound impact on a person's health, immune function, hormonal activity and other markers of stress or disease. More than simply venting your emotions, writing can help you reframe your reality and often lead to new understandings and insights into your situation.

Sniff some lavender (or your scent of choice). Dr. Alan R. Hirsch is a psychiatrist and neurologist who founded The Smell & Taste Research Foundation in Chicago. He says that certain smells can activate certain memories. So, pick a scent reminiscent of good times, and keep it close to your nose. For me, it's the smell of roses, which used to grow outside the windows of my grandmother's house where I spent so many happy times. Other scents that are associated with relaxation: ginger, vanilla, lemon, chamomile, bergamot and ylang ylang.

Talk to yourself. Instead of telling yourself “I'm so stressed," which only serves to make the stress mount, try a positive affirmation, a strong positive statement that something is already so. It may feel a bit like trickery, but stick with it. It works. Some tips I've picked up: once you know what you want to say, try to put it as simply as possible. Always use the present tense (say “I feel relaxed and stress free" rather than “I want to feel relaxed and stress free"). Say what you want – not what you don't want (rather than saying “I don't want to feel any more stress say “I'm feeling relaxed and in control"). And, since it's too easy to forget your intentions during a busy day, write them on post-its and stick them anywhere your eyes will catch a glimpse of them.

This Matters> The good news? There are so many ways to stop stress. Yours may be yoga, meditation, listening to music, cooking, or something else.

But the key is to remember to use them.

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