Allow us a few moments of philosophical waxing. Say that you're afraid of public speaking. You tense up and sweat, and your stomach turns into a butterfly museum. But the truth is that when you're that tense, the task becomes more painful and difficult to accomplish. Anticipating the horror of the talk is much worse than the actual reality. So if you retrain your mind to relax, as difficult as it is, by using some of our techniques, and tell yourself that the universe will run its course in the right way, you'll have mastered the first step of decreasing stress.
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Excerpted from "YOU: Staying Young" by Michael F. Roizen, M.D. and Mehmet C. Oz, M.D. Copyright © 2007 by Michael F. Roizen, M.D., and Oz Works LLC, f/s/o Mehmet C. Oz, M.D. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a Division of Simon and Schuster, Inc.
Breathe in. Hold it. Hold it. Hold it. Now release slooooooooowly. Feel better? Good. But that's not the only anti-stress solution you should have. See more tips on the next page.
2: Create Your Backup Plan
As we said, stress isn't all bad. It's what gives you the concentration and ability to finish a project or meet a deadline. But stress can linger around like week-old leftovers and create its own kind of stink. So in periods of high stress, you need to have a plan that works for you. Such things as exercise and meditation work for some people, and both of them will help you manage chronic stress through the release of such feel-good substances as nitric oxide and brain chemicals called endorphins. But in the heat of the moment, at peak periods of high intensity, you should be able to pull a quick stress-busting behavior out of your biological bag of tricks. Our suggestions:
Scrunch your face tightly for fifteen seconds, then release. Repeat several times. This repetitive contraction and relaxation helps release tension you're holding above the neck.
Breathe in, lick your lips, then blow out slowly. The cool air helps you refocus and slow down.
Cork it. Hold a wine cork vertically between your teeth. Putting a gentle bite on the cork forces your jaws — a major holder of tension—to relax. (Don't fight stress by emptying the bottle of wine into your body first.)
3: Lean on Him, Her or Whomever
Friends aren't just good for borrowing sugar from or for telling you that you have wing sauce on your cheek. Friends are the ultimate de-stressor. Friends can remove over 90 percent of the aging penalty you face after a major life event accelerates your aging.
Research shows that one of the most vital elements in reducing the negative health effects of stress is to have strong social networks. So gossiping, playing poker, having girlfriend spa days, playing golf, and going to happy hour aren't all just fun and games. They're mental medicine. So are religious and church groups. We recommend that you talk to friends or extended family daily as a way to strengthen those networks. Of course, your posse isn't just good for managing chronic stress. In periods of major stress, they can be the anchor you need when you're rocking in stormy seas.
4: Chop Big Pieces into Small Ones
You know how mountain climbers get up Everest or marathoners get through Boston? One step at a time. They don't think about the big picture, they think about making it through the next stride or step. When you're facing a seemingly insurmountable task, do the same thing. Instead of thinking about your stressor as one insurmountable hurdle, break that unmanageable task into smaller, more manageable ones. Those are the ones you can accomplish. Before you know it, you'll have reached 29,035 feet.
5: Work, Work, Work
The theory goes like this. At the end of a long career awaits the ultimate stress reduction plan: retirement. Sure, there's some appeal to sleeping in, taking aquatic therapy classes, and becoming the over-sixty-five county shuffleboard champion. But retirement may not be the mental hammock that everyone expects it to be.
Take three parts of the world where people have a greater chance of living to 100: Sardinia, Okinawa, and Costa Rica. In each of those areas, people have found ways to cope with stress. The communities have strong traditions of walking, building family strength, playing with kids, and being active. Plus, there's no such thing as retirement.
Now, we're not recommending that you subject yourself to the same corporate punishment that's graying your hair and beating you down. But we are recommending that even in retirement, you find a way to continue working — either as a volunteer or for pay—at something you enjoy. It'll help you stay active physically and mentally, give you a life-enhancing sense of purpose, and help you maintain the strong social ties that are so necessary for stress management.
6: Be Money Smart
One of the biggest drivers of stress is financial woes. Not coincidentally, health problems are the major driver of bankruptcy, and then bankruptcy cycles back to be a major driver of more stress-related health problems. That's why it's important to create some kind of emotional comfort zone with money — that is, just the feeling that you have some sort of nest egg can ease your stress. And that's why socking away 10 percent of your income every month (or at least $100 every month) can start the process of giving you a backup plan. And, of course, with credit card debt exceeding the national debt, having a good frame of mind about your plastic is important. Use your cards for the convenience of paying your bills, not to avoid paying them.
7: Make Additions
Two de-stressors to add to your home: pets and plants. Plants have been shown to decrease infection rates in nursing homes and lower blood pressure, while people who get a pet after having a heart attack are less likely to have another heart attack, especially if they walk that pet. In fact, just imagining that you have a pet and walking it can reduce your stress.
8: Act Out
People who experience high levels of chronic stress typically fall into a very common cycle of destruction. We're stressed, so we eat onion rings. We're stressed, so we don't have to time to exercise. We eat terribly and don't get up from our desk, so we're stressed. It's a cycle that makes us fat, lazy, and depressed—and depressed that we're fat and lazy. While we know we need to change, many of us just can't seem to get motivated. But here's how you can. Instead of waiting for motivation to change your actions, do something to stimulate motivation (like taking a ten-minute walk or doing stretches at your desk). You may find that when you act out something healthy, the willingness then follows.
9: Get a Day Planner or Use That PDA
Part of what makes life so stressful is uncertainty. It's why heavy traffic, computer crashes, and customer-service reps who could care less about customers are so #@&!-ing frustrating. Because so much of life is unpredictable, it helps to maintain a regular schedule and track all your responsibilities that lie ahead. Better to clutter a piece of paper with a to-do list than to clutter your brain with how-will-I-do-it-all worries. While you're at it, the other thing you can do with your pen is a nightly gratitude journal. Write down one or more things every day that you appreciate. The action helps puts your stressors in perspective.
10: Enlist the Pros
Some things are easy to do alone (we'll let your imagination figure that one out). But dealing with life's major stressors isn't one of them. In the face of trauma, depression, or grief, many of us retreat into our own thoughts and lives and become more inaccessible than a bank vault. But that's the time when you most need therapists and support groups. Treat depression like it's a broken leg, because it's every bit as much of a physical problem as any other health issue.