Experts recommend strategies such as these for dealing with stress in your life:
- Take the stress assessment. This test was originally created by mental health experts to assess the sources and amount of a person's stress. Still in wide use, the test helps identify real situations, ranking them by relative levels of stress.
- Keep a stress log. For two weeks, keep records of each stressful event, with brief notes about what happened; where; how bad it was (you can, for example, use a rating system of 1 to 10); and how you reacted. Elsewhere, keep a time-chart on which you can record — for every waking hour — how happy (also use the 1-to-10 scale), how efficient and how stressed you are. Also note whether you're enjoying yourself.
- Avoid excuses or blaming others. While other people and events can't be controlled, take responsibility. Accept the causes and focus on managing stress — because it will never be completely eliminated. While time pressures may be a major source of stress, and you may be thinking, "When am I going to have time to do this?," consider the exercise an investment of time — for more time later, and your health. Take care of yourself — or you won't be able to take care of everything else.
- Breathe deeply. Simple and automatic as it sounds, breathing — when properly done — can have a dramatic effect on stress management. Yes, there's a "proper" way to breathe — from the diaphragm instead of the chest. When stressed, most people breathe shallowly, stimulating the release of more, rather than fewer, stress hormones. Deep breathing, meanwhile, slows the heart, lowers blood pressure and increases oxygen — and perhaps best of all, distracts and gives you a feeling of self-control. Sit in a chair, inhale slowly with one, long breath, push your abdomen out and breathe out through your nose — slowly. Do it the same time every day; sitting in traffic; or when stressed.
You Can Overcome the Effects of Stress (<i>cont'd</i>)
- Relax. "Sure," you're thinking. "Somebody says relax and that's going to solve everything?" Perhaps not. But, as with deep breathing, it can help. Get comfortable, close your eyes, fold your hands on your lap, take slow, deep breaths and repeat the word "relax" to yourself as you focus on different parts of your body — first the head, the neck, then move down. Don't move to the next area until you feel that part has relaxed. If you have trouble imagining the area you're focusing on, tense those muscles and then release them.
- Meditate. Don't worry — you don't have to give yourself over to some religious philosophy or New Age attitude. The point is to stop the mind from wandering to anxieties or other negative feelings. First, relax your body as described above, then start counting backward from 10. Breathe between numbers. Pick a word to say now and then — any word. Imagine yourself descending through air, or going down an escalator. Picture the number you're saying. Tell yourself when you get to the bottom — to zero — you'll be relaxed. Whenever those negative thoughts intrude, repeat the word to yourself. After 15 minutes of this, open your eyes. You'll see!
- Visualize. Imagine a scene or experience you enjoyed and found serene. It should be a relaxing place or experience. After relaxing your body as described above, picture the place — but go beyond just the way it looks. Try to smell the air or taste the food or feel the texture involved. Tell yourself how this makes you feel. While this may sound like so much bunk, medical research has shown that when people visualize they trigger nerves similar to those affected during the original experience — so your mind really is affecting your body.
- Exercise.Without wooly mammoths to chase or tigers to flee, exercise is probably the best way to use up that extra stress-related energy — the more aerobic the better. Studies are now suggesting it's even better than some pills for fighting depression. The physical benefits — stronger lungs, heart, lower fat, better blood flow — also will help you fight stress. Recommendation: At least 20 minutes of exercise four times a week — but even less is beneficial. And you don't have to join a health club — walk the dog, take the stairs, push the mower!
- Eat right. People tend to eat the wrong foods when under stress — coffee, for instance. Caffeine, a stimulant, actually helps create a stress response. Chocolate has even more caffeine, and soda may as well. Smoking, meanwhile, may feel relaxing — but the chemicals in cigarettes and marijuana also make the heart beat faster and actually stress your body. Sugar? Studies show it's a fix that too quickly replaces a rush with low energy. A better boost comes from protein in food such as peanut butter.
You Can Overcome the Effects of Stress (<i>cont'd</i>)
- Take vitamins. Women under stress often get too few of essential nutrients, such as vitamins B1, B2, B3, B6 and B12. These vitamins are found in lean meat, beans, cereals, chicken, turkey, fish and dairy products — and, of course, in vitamin supplements. Nutritional yeast, which contains B vitamins, can be sprinkled in soups or salads. Women also should boost their intake of vitamins C, A and E, and calcium.
- Take breaks. Even a short walk or 20 minutes to read a book or just have some quiet "downtime" can work wonders. But make sure it happens regularly — like every day.
- Set priorities and cut corners. Get organized. Cut back. Cut corners — not every job needs to be done, and sometimes you can do two at once. List what really has to be done and what can wait. Make an "A" list of the essentials, "B" for not-so-essential — and make sure you do the "A" list first. Then, once you've done this ... remember to just say no! Don't keep taking on responsibilities for fear of someone else's disappointment or expectations — unless those responsibilities are among your priorities.
- Insist on time for yourself If you don't take care of yourself, you won't be as capable of taking care of others. Harvard psychologist Alice Domar offers this recommendation: When the alarm clock rings in the morning, give yourself 30 seconds with your eyes closed and think of one thing you will do for yourself today — whether it's as small as buying a special piece of fruit for lunch, or calling a best friend.
- Consider alternatives. Does your job run you, or can you take charge of it? If flexible hours, telecommuting or job-sharing might help, discuss it with your supervisor. A study by University of California epidemiologist Marc Schenker found that women working longer hours as lawyers were five times as stressed and three times as likely to suffer miscarriages as those working 35 hours a week. Cindy McGovern — the woman featured in the lead article — is considering moving so that her commute will be easier.
- Write. Even if you're not a writer, Harvard psychologist Alice Domar advocates nurturing your emotions by spending 20 minutes writing nonstop about the most stressful event or ongoing problem in your daily life. Forget grammar and spelling, include both facts and feelings, and repeat the process for at least three days. Domar argues that it's an effective way to "acknowledge your wounds and free yourself from pent-up anger, fear and sorrow."
- Maintain social support. Whether in the form of a friend, partner, sister or professional counselor — or a pet — social support helps combat stress. In fact, the risk of heart attacks has been shown in some studies to be lessened with professional counseling — even when patients failed to exercise or alter their diet. "Studies show people with little social support are at as great a risk of premature death as those who smoke or have high cholesterol," says Harvard Medical School's Domar. Also, a social worker or psychologist can help with strategies.
- Recognize the benefits of stress. Stress can be stimulating — or damaging to one's health. Before a major presentation or athletic event, stress can actually help. You'll do better. Learn to recognize when it benefits you — and how to combat it when it doesn't.