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How to Conquer Every Kind of Stress

Written by Jane Donald on January 6, 2014. Posted in magazine article


You know the feeling — tense muscles, a knot in your stomach, maybe a headache. No matter how hard you try, being calm and collected isn’t in the cards. Stress happens to all of us, and a recent American Psychological Association poll revealed that we’re feeling it more now than ever. Women in particular seem to be bearing the brunt: More than 80 percent reported having prolonged stress about money and the economy, and 70 percent say they’re worried about health problems affecting them and their families.

“Women have more on their plates when it comes to the work-life balance, which takes considerable emotional resources,” says Alice Domar, PhD, executive director of The Domar Center for Mind/Body Health and coauthor of Live a Little! Breaking the Rules Won’t Break Your Health. The comforting news is that stress isn’t always bad. “If you know how to manage it, stress can give you the extra energy you need to succeed and get through difficult situations,” explains Jay Winner, MD, director of the Sansum Clinic Stress Reduction Program in Santa Barbara, California, and author of Take the Stress out of Your Life. There’s even a term for this good kind: eustress. “I tell my patients to think of eustress just like it sounds: ‘use stress,’” says Dr. Winner. “When you’re in a situation that’s making you produce all that high-octane adrenaline, how can you put it to productive use?” For example, think about how the stress of nearing a project deadline might push you to focus more intensely and come up with creative ideas. Or how entering a competition motivates you to do your very best in an attempt to win.

The key distinction: Good stress feels exciting and energizing; the bad type feels scary and paralyzing. Unfortunately, you can’t always control when and if you get stressed, but you can learn to cope so that you minimize its negative impact and, whenever possible, make it productive. To help you do just that, we’ve put together this playbook for how to handle just about any kind of tension — be it an in-the-moment crisis or a chronic worry. So take a deep breath and get ready to feel better.

You’re already late trying to get your family out the door when your husband starts freaking out about a lost set of papers, your kids start whining, food gets spilled and the dog starts barking. Oh, and did we mention it’s all happening as your mother calls to say she’s planning to visit — and wants to stay with you — for two weeks?

What’s going on:
Your body’s stress response — called fight-or-flight — kicks into gear. It dates back to prehistoric days, when a quick pick-upand- run reaction meant the difference between life and death. Once you’re exposed to a stressor, your body releases a surge of hormones including adrenaline and cortisol, which divert blood flow toward your muscles, heart and brain and away from other areas. That enables you to hightail it away from danger as quickly as possible. Depending on how much adrenaline you’re producing, your heart rate may increase and you may start sweating.

What you can do:
Breathe. A common gut reaction is to jump in and try to fix the situation ASAP. But this will just exacerbate that harried, out-of-control feeling. Instead, take three deep breaths — 5 seconds in, 5 seconds out — to slow your heart rate and reduce the pace at which stress hormones are flying through your system, says Sonali Sharma, MD, a clinical instructor in psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. While focusing on your breath, remind yourself that the anxiety you’re feeling is a chemical response, or just visualize the phrase “I’m strong and I’m capable,” suggests Dr. Sharma.

Lighten up. If you can take a step back and laugh at yourself and the situation, great. If not, try to think about something else that’s funny. Like deep breathing, laughter helps scale back your physical and psychological reactions to stress, which gives you more mental resources to devote to the actual problem, says Dr. Winner. (As soon as you stop fixating on what an idiot you are for misplacing your checkbook, you’ve got a lot more energy to focus on finding it.) A study by The American Journal of the Medical Sciences found that just anticipating laughter can reduce the presence of stress hormones by nearly half.

Put it in perspective. Say you’re late for school drop-off, which means you’ll be late to work and possibly just about every other deadline that day. It may seem like the end of the world, but try to think about the situation in the context of the rest of your life: Focus on how great it is to have a job and a loving family — even if they’re getting on your last nerve at that moment. You can also focus on a mental picture of a loved one, a goal or a favorite place. If the problem is an interpersonal one — say your boss is driving you crazy — try to think about the other person’s big picture, too. If your boss is going through a divorce, that may explain why she’s been hypercritical lately. Empathy helps defuse tension.

Take steps to solve the problem. “The ebb and flow of worry can affect your focus, so if possible, make a written, step-by-step outline of what to do to deal with the situation,” says Jonathan Abramowitz, PhD, director of the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Clinic at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Then tackle things in bite-size pieces; productivity combats stress.

Get with the stress rhythm. If immediate action isn’t possible — say you’re waiting for a test result or answer — you may need to settle into it. In this case, Dr. Abramowitz suggests calming yourself by looking for a pattern in your heartbeat, or imagining the butterflies in your stomach actually flying in formation. The deep breathing recommended by Dr. Sharma can also help here, as can defaulting to a few simple soothing habits: A 2009 study found that chewing gum markedly reduced stress hormones and promoted feelings of calm, while another study found that drinking hot black tea seemed to double the rate at which people were able to calm down after a tense situation.