by Kate Ashford
Chronic tension and anxiety can be costly, but you don’t have to shell out big bucks for a fix.
This year, the end of the holidays might not bring the usual stress relief; there are still worries about unemployment, a flailing housing market, and a volatile stock market, all of which may be taking a toll on your health. Stress increases your risk of a host of ailments, including heart disease, weight gain, gum disease, and even the common cold, says Dr. Miriam Alexander, president of the American College of Preventive Medicine. That, in turn, will hit your wallet.
Stressed-out workers spend nearly twice as much on health care as their more relaxed counterparts, reports the non-profit Health Enhancement Research Organization. While a week of sitting on the beach in the Caribbean would almost certainly take the edge off, it’ll cost a pretty penny, too. So try these more cost-effective ways to mellow out.
Let your employer help
See if your company has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP_ that offers free psychological help to workers. Your human resources department can give you the number of your firm’s EAP hotline. When you call, you’ll be referred to a counselor who will see you for a number of sessions (commonly four, over a period of a few weeks). Some EAPs also offer on-site group sessions on stress management techniques.
EAPs are also confidential, by law, and the records won’t show up in your personnel file, says Martin Rosen, executive vice president and co-founder of Health Advocate, a health care advocacy and assistance company.
Some 74% of North American employers offer wellness programs, which may include partial gym reimbursements and discounted on-site yoga classes, says a 2010 study from Buck Consultants. Call HR to see what you might qualify for.
Go for short-term therapy
The sessions with an EAP counselor may not be enough. Thanks to 2010’s Federal Mental Health Parity Act, therapy is likely to cost you less than it used to, since insurers now must cover it at the same rate as treatments for other medical maladies (previously many insurers offered limited mental health coverage).
Still, if you’re seeing a therapist weekly, the bills for co-pays or co-insurance will add up. The good news is that stress is among the disorders that can be successfully treated with cognitive behavioral therapy, according to a Swedish study. CBT, a short-duration talk therapy (patients average just 16 sessions) teaches you specific coping techniques to use when you encounter a stressful situation. It costs about the same as traditional therapy — $75 to $175 per session — and you can use your flexible spending account to pay for the co-pays or co-insurance with pretax dollars. If you’re on Medicare, you’ll pay a bit more: beneficiaries must cover 40% of tier mental health bills in 2012, decreasing to 20% by 2014.
Work up a sweat
Exercise is not only a well-known stress reliever, but it also better prepares you to handle stressors that come your way, says a recent study from Princeton University. Unfortunately, the average gym membership costs $475 a year. If your company doesn’t offer a subsidy, look for a deal on coupon sites like Groupon, and make use of trial memberships to get a free week or two at several places. And don’t be afraid to haggle; many gyms offers New Year’s specials for converts looking to shed holiday pounds, says Debbie Stauble, spokeswoman for gym chain Healthtrax Fitness and Wellness.
TRY THESE THREE FREE IDEAS
Take an e-mail break
E-mail is stressful because of the pressure to respond quickly, says David Gamow, author of Freedom from Stress. So put the smartphone out of sight for several hours a day.
Dealing with a lot of different things at the same time puts your brain in a state of stress. Make a to-do list in the morning and finish one task before moving to the next.
A Harvard Medical School study found that people who meditate daily alter their brains, increasing gray mass in areas connected to learning and memory, and shrinking it in those linked to stress and worry. Even 10 minutes a day can help, says Gamow — and won’t cost a dime.
The Price of High Tension
Need some motivation to chill out? What five common stress-related ailments might cost you each year.*
Obesity $2,600 to $4,900 a year
Back pain $1,300
Insomnia $200 to $1,200
Teeth grinding $200 to $1,100
*Sources: George Washington University School of Public Health
Medical Expenditure Panel Survey
St. Luke’s Hospital in Chesterfield, MO
American Journal of Hypertension
American Dental Association