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Fight Stress With the Pastimes That Soothe You

Learn how to coddle your comfort zone

If you live long enough, you will get to see a recurring theme in your life. In my case, it has been laughter.

I'm the daughter of a comedian and, as family lore has it, my first complete sentence was a joke. Catholic school didn't do a whole lot to tame my comic impulses. One day in fifth grade I fell out of a third-story window — literally — while horsing around in front of my friends. The consequences could have been deadly if I hadn't been laughing on the way down. I think all that giggling cushioned the impact.

Marlo Thomas at dinner with her father Danny (Courtesy Marlo Thomas)

Marlo Thomas

Marlo Thomas with her father, Danny, who always had jokes to lift her spirits.

Humor has always been an oasis for me, a safe and warm place that I return to time and again — whether I'm watching a funny TV show or dashing off to a comedy club.

Laughter is wonderful medicine

In addition to providing actual health benefits (experts say that laughing reduces stress hormones and amps up infection-fighting antibodies), humor has often taken me to a happier place when I've needed it most.

I remember that first awful week after my father, Danny Thomas, died. I told my friend Julian, "What I'll miss so much is Dad calling me almost every day, just to tell me a new joke." (Sometimes Dad wouldn't even bother with "Hello" — he'd just say, "You're gonna love this one. …") Julian, bless his heart, listened to me and immediately said, "That's a job I'll be glad to take on." And he has to this day: Once or twice a week — for the past 22 years — Julian has been calling me up with a new joke. What a dear and beautiful friend.

What comforts you?

But laughter, of course, isn't the only passport to serenity. Comfort zones are as personal as fingerprints, and the folks I know relax or escape through a wide array of activities — whether it's cooking or painting, jogging or dancing, going to church or going to the movies. And they do it consciously, pointedly carving out the time for that mental getaway.

When the going gets rough for my friend Alene — a social worker, wife and busy mother of two girls — she finds solace by diving into a book, usually an action novel. "It's the one place I can go where someone isn't asking something from me," she told me with a laugh. "I can get completely caught up in someone else's life, which is always a nice break."

My old pal Barry couldn't be more different — no curling up with a good book for him. Barry's a type A businessman who spends most of his days in board meetings or on the telephone, so when he's looking to chill out, he heads straight for the fast lane. And the faster the better — whether it's tearing down a ski slope or soaring across the landscape on his mountain bike. Barry sprints his way to relaxation.

A person's sweet spot isn't always dictated by what he or she grew up with. My husband, Phil Donahue, was a kid from the west side of Cleveland, a neighborhood boy who loved nothing more than playing stickball in the streets or sitting on the curb to watch the St. Patrick's Day parade.

So where does he find true solace today? 

Phil insists nature reenergizes him. Among his favorite places to be (besides with me, of course!) are fishing with his buddies, standing behind the steering wheel of a boat as it cuts across the bay, or peering through his binoculars at the purple martins that flutter in and out of the birdhouses he built in our backyard.

Yet for most of us, our comfort zones were carved out at the very start. I'll never forget the time I got in trouble in ninth grade (yes, this is a recurring theme for me) and the head nun summoned my father to her office to announce to him that I was not cut out for her school.

"She doesn't have the proper discipline or poise," the nun admonished.

My father stood up from his chair. "I agree with you entirely, Reverend Mother," he said. "That's why I've handed her over to you!"

The woman was obviously cornered and quickly called an end to the meeting. On the ride home — seeking that place of comfort again — I commented to Daddy how hilarious his comeback had been. But Dad was angry, and he sternly reprimanded me for misbehaving in school.

But then I saw the tiniest curl of a smile begin to form on his mouth, and that familiar, impish twinkle return to his eyes.

"I was pretty funny, wasn't I?" he said.

Yes, you were, Daddy. Yes, you were.

Actress, author and activist Marlo Thomas blogs at