Feeling stressed and overwhelmed? Over seventy-five percent of my patients admit to being “overworked, stressed-out and frazzled” when they appear for an initial evaluation. Their stressors may differ—financial problems, lack of job satisfaction, relationship issues, attaining work-life balance—but the core elements remain the same.
We know stress increases cortisol levels and wreaks havoc with the immune system. The negative health effects have been well documented: stress can contribute to high cholesterol, high blood pressure and digestive problems along with increasing the risk of cancer, sudden stroke and heart attack. Chronic, untreated stress can also lead to an anxiety disorder
The good news is that although stress is inevitable, it can be managed; here are ten proven techniques to help you get started.
Get moving. Exercise is a stress-buster. John Bartholomew, a professor of kinesiology and health education at the University of Texas-Austin, says “Every form of physical activity has been demonstrated to produce a reduction in feelings of anxiety and negative moods.”
Take a ten minute break. I always recommend taking a “pleasant, fun, relaxing” ten minute break when things become chaotic. Everyone’s idea of relaxation is different. One of my patients takes a brisk walk around the block, another learns a list of Spanish verbs. The trick is to engage your mind in something pleasurable and you’ll be able to return to your task with renewed energy.
Manage your calendar, manage your life. Stress brings feelings of being “out of control,” and mastering your daily schedule is a way to restore harmony. Sticking to a schedule suddenly makes your life more manageable. Try to perform the same tasks in the same place every week at the same time; habit can have a calming effect. Keep a to-do list and check off the tasks one by one.
Let go of perfectionism. Perfectionism and unattainable standards can lead to chronic stress and anxiety. Each of us has one hundred and sixty eight hours every week to juggle our tasks. Many of my patients have extraordinarily high expectations for themselves. Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook says that her favorite saying is: “Done is better than perfect.”
Learn mindfulness techniques. There are several techniques to calm your mind and give you perspective. The Relaxation Response, a simple deep-breathing exercise developed by Herbert Benson, is easy to learn and will not only release endorphins but give you a sense of well-being and make you feel more at ease.
Make an executive decision to remove yourself from a stressful situation. When people are stressed, they often report feeling trapped and fail to see that they have options. Don’t hesitate to walk away from a job that is demoralizing or a relationship that is toxic; your health and emotional well-being could be at stake.
Think of stress as a warning sign. It’s smart—and self-protective—to do a quick check of your stress levels throughout the day. Are you feeling jittery, on edge, like things are flying out of control? If so, take action immediately and nip the stress reaction in the bud. Awareness is the key to taking control.
Look at the big picture. One of my patients asks himself, “Will this really be important in fifty years?” A healthy sense of humor can defuse high-stress situations and give a sense of perspective.
Learn to prioritize. I suggest that my patients keep a “yes” list. Choose three self-care goals that are an absolute “yes” for you—daily exercise, a phone call to a friend, reading a chapter of a favorite novel—and let nothing interfere with them.
Seek professional help, if needed. A brief stint of short-term, focused psychotherapy can be enormously helpful in identifying stressors, setting goals and learning to lead a happier, more productive life.
Mary Kennedy is a licensed clinical psychologist at Focus Behavioral Health in Wilmington, DE. She is also a mystery novelist and the author of the Talk Radio Mysteries for Penguin Books. You can read more about Mary at www.marykennedy.net
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