Let's say you slam into the back of a car that cuts you off or your boss moves your deadline up a week. How do you react? Perhaps your pulse quickens as you berate yourself for not foreseeing the circumstance. Maybe your breathing shortens as you feel anger or panic—or both. Most people, though, don't notice such details; they react with an "Aargh!" and distract themselves with a run or a beer or a gallon of ice cream.
But researchers say one of the best ways of soothing stress is to be "mindful," to pause and actually tune in to what's going on at the moment. Being acutely aware of what you're experiencing—the racing heart, the tumbling thoughts—and accepting it without judgment, observing as it changes, has a strong calming effect, experts say. "You might have a thought like 'I'm a failure,' but you know that it's just a thought," explains researcher Elissa Epel, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California-San Francisco School of Medicine. That will prevent you from turning those thoughts into a self-fulfilling prophecy by, say, quitting the gym or a challenging job.
Wandering thoughts. How do you get to a mindful state in the midst of a panic? Most people need to practice a form of meditation that focuses on their breathing and sensations in each body part. If your mind wanders (and it will), you just acknowledge the errant thoughts, let them go, and bring your attention back to the breath. Check out a mindfulness tape at mindfulnesstapes.com, or take a free virtual-mindfulness class on YouTube with Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts and author of several books on mindfulness. "You are training your mind to be less reactive and more stable," he writes in Full Catastrophe Living. A 2007 study found that mindfulness classes gave students an improved sense of well-being—and that practicing the technique for about 30 minutes a day helped induce a mindful response when people would normally feel stress.
The practice may also help alleviate some of the physiological damage caused by chronic stress, like the tendency to store fat around abdominal organs. Epel and her colleagues are currently studying whether 50 overweight women who describe themselves as "stress eaters" can curb food cravings by practicing mindfulness—by noticing a raisin's color, texture, and smell, say, before eating it. If stress reduction practices lower cortisol levels, the body's storage of fat should shift from the abdomen to the hips and thighs, where it won't cause insulin resistance, Epel speculates. A bonus: It might get easier to stop at one Oreo.