Beat stress for less

@Money February 3, 2012: 4:34 PM ET
stress costs

(MONEY Magazine) -- This year the end of the holidays probably didn't 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 nonprofit 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

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.

Let your employer help, Part 2.

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

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 their 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 offer New Year's specials for converts looking to shed holiday pounds, says Debbie Stauble, spokeswoman for gym chain Healthtrax Fitness & 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.

Stop multitasking. 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.

Send The Help Desk your medical expenses questions

Breathe deeply. 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.

MONEY magazine is researching an article on ways to reduce the financial pain of college. We're looking for families that can talk about new and creative ways that they're raising cash for college and cutting costs while they're there. Sound like you? Tell us your story and you might even get your picture in the magazine! E-mail

Additional reporting by Judy Feldman contributed to this article. To top of page

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