This post is from staff writer April Dykman.

I’ve started to notice something about my spending habits, and maybe you can relate. When I’m sad, stressed, or emotional, I often justify expenses by telling myself “I deserve it.”

Before I wised up financially, my self-rewards were expensive. Spa services, new clothes, beauty products I didn’t want or need. I’d wander into a store, or maybe online, and buy something to cheer myself up. Although the gifts to myself have become more reasonable — a magazine, a smoothie, a bar of gourmet dark chocolate — the habit stuck.

I don’t think the small purchases are a problem. I’m living within my means, I’m saving money, and a $8 smoothie isn’t concerning. Maybe if I bought one every day it’d make a dent, but this is an every-once-in-awhile purchase we’re talking about.

What does bother me, however, is that “cheering myself up” tends to mean buying something.

Buying relaxation
Fortunately I don’t have much stress in my life right now, but last week was different. After one particularly stressful morning I found myself wandering around Whole Foods and feeling this intense need to buy something comforting. A bar of soap that smelled like pumpkin spice or a snack or a cooking magazine — I didn’t know what I wanted, I just wanted something. I felt overwhelmed and left the store. Once I was in the parking lot, I remembered that a few years ago one of my friends was in the same kind of situation I was dealing with. I sent her a message telling her about my day.

Instead of replying with a message, she picked up the phone, and her call picked me up off the floor. Nothing I could buy at Whole Foods would have reduced my stress as much that one phone call. (Before we hung up, she told me to treat myself to something nice. Do we think alike or what?)

As I drove away, I started to think about the relationship between spending money and de-stressing. There are numerous studies that show how stress can lead to serious problems like heart attacks, strokes, depression, sleeplessness, decreased immunity, and substance abuse. It’s important that we find a way to relax, but it doesn’t have to involve buying something. In my experience, that only gives a temporary high — eventually you’re back at square one, plus you’ve spent money on something you might not have really wanted.

De-stress for free
Obviously there are better ways to relax when life gets stressful, but unless you have a general idea of how you’ll handle stress before it hits, you’ll probably fall back on old habits. (In my case, I knew why I was feeling the compulsion to buy, but I didn’t know what to do instead. Treating myself is my coping mechanism, even though it’s not very effective.)

The subject of de-stressing also is particularly relevant during the holiday season, a time when many people find themselves extra-frazzled by gift shopping, juggling family plans, meeting work commitments, and fruitcake (What? Don’t dreadful baked goods stress out everyone?). The next time you need to relax, consider the following ways to lower your stress level, free of charge:

  1. Practice makes perfect. Psychologist and author Daniel Goleman did research at Harvard on relaxation methods to reduce stress and found that people who practice a relaxation method for 15 to 20 minutes reacted better to stress and recovered more quickly. The more months and years of daily practice, the quicker the stress recovery. According to recent findings, regular relaxation practice “tones” the vagal nerve, which regulates our reactions to stress.
  2. Take six seconds to slow down. Psychologist Robin S. Rosenberg suggests the following six-step, six-second relaxation method to lower stress:
    1. Recognize that you’re stressed. Rosenberg writes, “…like a fish who doesn’t realize that it’s in water, if your feeling of being stressed lasts for more than a couple of minutes (particularly if you feel swamped), after a while you may stop being aware that you are stressed.”
    2. Find some humor. Think about something funny that happened recently (or take more than six seconds and search YouTube for funny animal videos — those never get old).
    3. Take a deep breath, inhaling through the nose.
    4. Breathe out slowly through the mouth.
    5. Say a word out loud that’s relaxing, such as “calm” or “peaceful.”
    6. Shake out any muscles that feel tense. Usually you know where your body gets tense — my right shoulder and neck are still talking to me.
  3. Walk it off! Even 20 minutes of walking can reduce stress and improve your mood. Hit the gym, go for a hike, or play with the kids — find a form of physical activity that you enjoy and get moving.
  4. Find your flow. Do you have a hobby that helps you relax? What about listening to music, reading, or writing? Identify the activities that you often lose yourself in and try doing them the next time you need to de-stress.
  5. Cultivate your real-life social network. Online friends are great, but real-life friends are the ones that meet you for coffee, go for a run with you when you need to blow off steam, and call you in the middle of the day because they know you need to talk. Whether you’re the type of person who has few close friends or the type that volunteers and is a member of several organizations, support from other people is priceless.

In addition to curbing impulse buying, de-stressing in these positive ways can reduce stress-related health problems. Give one or more of these a try the next time your stress hormones are on the rise.

Do you have any bad habits when it comes to coping with stress? What are some other positive ways to relax?

GRS is committed to helping our readers save and achieve their financial goals. Savings interest rates may be low, but that is all the more reason to shop for the best rate. Find the highest savings interest rates and CD rates from Synchrony Bank, Ally Bank, GE Capital Bank, and more.