stressedUnfair, but true: Numerous studies prove that experiencing stress at any time in your monthly cycle leads to a worsening of premenstrual symptoms, such as irritability, fatigue, aches and the blues–and not just in your current cycle, but the following one, too.

That’s because stress floods your system with stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline, which trigger inflammation that exacerbate pain sensations and worsen a soured mood caused by plunging estrogen.

So, what can you do when you feel stress start to rise or you have day-to-day stressors to deal with? Try these three study-proven stress-busters:

1. Make your workout funner

I start most days with an hour-long brisk walk on the treadmill. It’s part of my physical therapy for my back, however, I also stick to this regimen because regular exercise is proven to keep stress from spiking–and when you’ve got as many nonstop deadlines as I do, stress can mount pretty quickly.

The problem with exercise is that it can get pretty boring. To stay motivated to work out, I used to listen to my iPod as I walked, but I eventually got tired of my song selection. So, on a whim I decided to put my iPad on the treadmill and watch shows and movies on Netflix instead–and, wow, what a difference it’s made to my exercise routine. My workout is so much fun now that I hop out of bed earlier and try not miss a single day on the treadmill. And, I’m so energized and upbeat afterward, I actually look forward to tackling whatever my editors throw at me.

Curious, I did a little digging and found out why pairing Netflix and exercise feels so good: Research in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine explains that exercise already lifts your mood by prompting a flow of feel-good endorphins. And when you do something else that’s enjoyable at the same time, it enhances this joy-lifting effect, making you even happier.

So, to make exercise something you also look forward to doing, pair it with something that’s even more rewarding than whatever you’re using to motivate yourself now, for example, recruit a friend to join you, do it outdoors if you love nature, listen to music, try a sports-related workout (like tennis) or watch movies and shows on your iPad.

2. Breathe slow for better sleep

Here’s a frustrating vicious cycle: Folks who are stressed have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. Yet, too little sleep and restless sleep actually causes stress by impairing your brain’s ability to regulate emotions, research shows.

The easy fix: Meditation. Sitting still with your back straight and focusing solely on your breath as you slowly inhale and exhale calms your body and mind the first time you try it, helping you nod off faster and getter higher quality sleep. One study suggests it may also prompt a higher production of melatonin, which is a hormone that helps regulate your sleep cycle, so you get longer, deeper zzz’s.

Do it as your preparing for bed for at least 10 minutes and slowly work your way up to 30 minutes and numerous studies (such as this, this and this) show you’ll actually be training your brain to avoid overreacting to tense situations, so you remain calm.

3. Ease anxiety with a foot self-massage

Shortly after college, I had a roommate who’d say all the time, “All my tension goes to my feet” and she’d give herself long foot massages every single night. Whenever I think of her, her two feet instantly come to mind. As it turns out, she was onto something: New research found that folks who gave themselves 45-minute foot and leg massages three times per week using a fragrant massage oil that contained lavender, ylang-ylang, marjoram, sandalwood and chamomile essential oils experienced a significant reduction in anxiety–stress about future events–within four weeks.

As the researchers explain it, foot massages are relaxing (natch) and breathing in the scent of these particular essential oils has been shown in previous studies to reduce stress, calm the nervous system, lower your heart rate and improve sleep—and together they work better than doing either alone.

You can whip up a massage oil similar to the one used in the study by adding one to three drops of each essential oil mentioned above (found in health food stores and Amazon.com) to one-quarter cup of jojoba oil. Just be sure to wipe the oil off the bottom your feet or use slippers before standing up. Nothing like slipping and breaking your wrist (been there, done that) to instantly add stress to your day.

[Photo: Alan Cleaver]