02/06/2015 02:39 pm ET Updated Apr 07, 2015

Increasing Our Ability to Cope With Stress Can Make Us Healthier, Part 2: Stress-Buffering Behaviors

This is blog two of the series I began to help you increase your ability to cope with stress and increase the quality of your mental and physical health. Please refer to the first blog for background information about stress and the brain.

This blog will describe a series of behaviors that, when utilized, reduce the response of the brain to stress. Remember, stress is not going to go away. To reduce the adverse effect of stress on your health you have to decrease the way your brain responds to stress. If your brain is less responsive, the quality of your health will be enhanced.

The advice I will be providing has been developed through years of research and teaching people how to increase their ability to cope with stress .

To remember the behaviors that I will describe and that are important to reduce the response of your brain to stress, think of the word RELAX:

Reflection: Enjoying participation in spiritual or religious activities, or taking time to reflect on things that add meaning, and joy to your life helps to reduce the negative influence of stress on health.

Expectations: Being high in optimism, seeing the glass as half-full rather than half-empty helps to reduce the negative influence of stress on health.

Laughter: Having a sense of humor and being able to laugh at some of the things you encounter helps to reduce the negative influence of stress on health.

Acquaintances: Being socially active and spending time with people you enjoy being with helps to reduce the negative influence of stress on health.

Xercise: Being physically active helps to reduce the negative influence of stress on health.

Let's take a closer look at each of these stress-buffering behaviors and how to incorporate these behaviors more in your daily life.

Reflection Increasing your participation in religious activities or activities that you find spiritual because they are calming and relaxing.

• Religiosity -- If you consider yourself a religious person, enjoying prayer and attendance at religious services is associated with an enhanced quality of health. If you find comfort in prayer, make an effort to pray each day either at home on your own or in a house of prayer.

Spirituality -- Your own way to RELAX
We consider spirituality to be what an individual finds calming and relaxing. It may be listening to pleasing music, playing an instrument, reading a book you enjoy, going for a walk, spending time with friends, meditating, or seeing beautiful objects in nature. Reflect on your own spirituality and what you enjoy doing to relax and calm yourself. Try to increase the amount of time you spend in spiritual activities.

Expectations: increasing your feelings of optimism
  • Being optimistic is associated with less illness, including heart disease and depression, and more rapid recovery from disease.
  • To increase your optimism when things do not seem to be going well:
  • Remember all of the good things that you do and that you are a good person. At the end of each day, think about the good things you did and the people you have enjoyed being with.
  • Accept that sometimes you make mistakes. It is OK to make mistakes. Focus on all the good things you do.
Laughter: enhance and utilize your sense of humor
  • Having a sense of humor and being able to laugh helps to keep stress hormone levels low when experiencing stress.
  • Of course, when you are under stress it is difficult to think of something funny, so it is a good idea to have something ready. To do this, find some calm time and think of some things that make you laugh. It may be an episode of a TV show, a movie, or things you have experienced. Select something that makes you laugh and store it away in an imaginary box in your mind. Then when something is upsetting you and causing stress, go to that box and think about one of the funny things you put into that box and lighten up as you chuckle to yourself.
Acquaintances: Increase your participation in social interactions • Individuals who enjoy interacting with others have less stress hormone elevation when they experience stress than individuals who are lonely. Of course, there are individuals who are content without a social support system. This does not apply to them. Having social support and interactions may contribute to one's sense of well-being by adding "meaning" to life by being wanted and appreciated by others. • Individuals who engage in social interactions through marriage, close friends, religious beliefs, mutual interests and group participation tend to stay healthier as they age than do individuals without such interactions.
  • To increase your social interactions:
  • Participate in a volunteer program and do something to help others
  • Join a local club or group that engages in activities you are interested in.

Xercise: increase the frequency of physical activities you engage in as many aspects of mental and physical health are enhanced when you are physically active. In addition to the benefits of physical activity for weight management and heart health, the number of cells in the brain are increased and the length of telomeres on the ends of our chromosomes are lengthened (more on this in a subsequent blog).
• If you are currently inactive, a great way to start is to take a walk. Go for a walk whenever you can. As a general rule, if you are walking and can whistle while you are doing it, we would encourage you to try to walk a bit more vigorously. If you already exercise, ask a friend to be your workout partner to keep you on a regular routine.

The RELAX behaviors we just learned will help you keep your stress hormone levels low and increase your mental and physical health.

At the end of my first blog I asked you to do this. I am now asking again:
Put a big smile on your face, a big, big smile
Hold it there
Now think of something sad while you have that big smile on your face

Was it easy to think of something sad while you had the big smile on your face?

Was a lesson learned just now? Keep that smile on your face as you go throughout your day and see how you feel.

In the next blog I will focus on how to manage acute stress which is unanticipated, comes on suddenly, and is of short duration.