Just as stress is a natural reaction to a sense of danger, experiencing chronic stress is a natural response to feeling besieged by the demands of modern life. "You're not a weak person because you react negatively to stress," explains Dr. Yehuda. "I think this myth of the superwoman that can do everything and handle everything still abounds, and women feel that they should be able to deal with their parents, and their children, and their spouses, and their jobs, and their bosses, and their neighbors, and the PTA, and everything else that they're asked to deal with. And it's really a lot. It's too much. So, it is actually a measure of their strength that they know when they're in over their heads, or when they need a little support."
Help can come in many forms, from simply taking time out for relaxation, to seeking counseling or a support group. But first, you have to identify the sources of stress in your life. Everyone is different, and what stresses one person might not bother another. Next, identify whether your reactions are making things worse, or at least not helping matters.
"Poorer coping mechanisms have to do with unleashing an inordinate or disproportionate amount of anger and emotion on the straw that broke the camel's back," Dr. Yehuda cautions. "Sometimes a woman may yell at her child for saying, 'Can I have something to eat?' because of the accumulation of stress from the day. So anger management is an important skill to develop. Or, taking drugs and alcohol are particularly bad ways of coping because then you're going to have to deal with the negative consequences of having taken the alcohol or drugs."
Finding positive ways to cope with the sources and effects of stress will depend on your individual circumstances, and often employing a combination of methods will be most effective. You can start simple: some centuries-old relaxation techniques such as yoga, tai chi, massage, and meditation are proven stress reducers. Exercise of any kind is also a documented stress-buster.
Behavioral and cognitive therapies teach skills for recognizing your stress triggers and reacting in productive ways. "In a coping or skill-building class, they're going to learn techniques that they can take home and use in whatever their situation may be, that are going to help them to calm down, to feel more in control of the situation," explains Beth O'Boyle, a stress-reduction instructor at New Jersey's Chaitanya Mind/Body Center.
Our busy software executive, Angela Small, finds that guided imagery, an increasingly popular cognitive therapy, helps her to deal with unresolved emotions contributing to her stress. She's also an avid runner, and says the exercise helps her blow-off steam. "Stress management is the key to living a healthy life, where we can have a richer experience of ourselves and of life," says Dr. Sally Norquist, a psychotherapist and Director of Chaitanya, "It's not so important what the stress is, as how the person is perceiving it."
That's probably the most important coping tip the stress experts want to get across. Stress is natural, and you can't always eliminate the sources of stress in your life, but you can change how they affect you. As Dr. Smoller observes, "You know, life is stressful. Certainly emotional turmoil is part of it. And what kind of empty life would we have if we had no calls on our inner resources? The issue is, how are we going to deal with that stress, and how do we build up our inner resources so we can deal with it? So we're emotionally resilient, so we don't break every time a wind hits us."