Research has linked chronic stress with increased risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and other potentially serious conditions. Chronic stress decreases the ability to fight infections and worsens some existing conditions such as asthma and digestive problems. Stress can make our muscles tighten and trigger migraine headaches. Scientists have also found that when we are stressed over long periods of time, the hormones that are released can actually alter sections of the brain that help us think, feel and react.
Studies suggest that higher levels of stress hormones are associated with poorer memory, focus and problem-solving skills. It seems like life is only getting more hectic - and more stressful. Between the economy, our struggle to balance work with personal and/or family activities and all of the seemingly "bad news" around us, it is easy to forget that we are really in charge of our own lives. In fact, correcting the misconception that we are unable to manage stress is one important step toward relieving it. Here are a few more steps for combating your stress:
1. Plan to manage your time
Invest in an egg timer. Not for cooking but for giving yourself five to ten minutes to write down what you need to do that day, in priority order if possible. Many of us turn on our computers or blackberries, then automatically respond to e-mail, even if we know that's not the most critical thing we should be doing. The egg timer can help you get in the habit of effective time management by prioritizing your work or other important tasks before the day gets ahead of you.
Simple stretching sends impulses to the brain that evoke a relaxation response. One of the best ways to decrease eye strain and tension in your neck is to do some slow, deliberate neck rolls. Start with a deep inhalation and slowly bring your head to one side and laying it down on your shoulder like a pillow. Roll your chin to your chest as you exhale and slowly move your head to the other side. Repeat. Go slowly, taking time at those more tender spots.
3. Relax Your Eyes
Because our eyes are open most of the day, looking at people, paper, the kids or a computer or TV screen, we need to rest them. Start by turning away from your computer or other work. Rub the palms of your hands together vigorously until you create some heat. Close your eyes and gently place your cupped hands over your eyes. Take ten slow, deliberate breaths in and out and relax. Repeat as often as needed throughout the day.
4. Play music
But not just any music. Choose tunes that you really enjoy and that you associate with positive feelings, then listen when you can throughout your day. Music with a moderate or slow tempo makes it easier to relax. Fast and frenetic music might have the opposite effect -- making you feel rushed and harried.
5. Focus on the positive
Reframe negative thoughts. Many times, we have a recording in our heads telling us that our work or life is overwhelming and it becomes self-fulfilling. Such thinking evokes a physiological stress response. Remind yourself to tackle one task at a time, even if the list of tasks is long.
6. Get enough sleep
People who are stressed tend to get too little or poor quality sleep. Research suggests that when people don't sleep enough, they are prone to mood swings, errors in judgment and chronic conditions like obesity. Try to keep regular sleep hours and stay away from stimulants like caffeine in the evenings. Foods and beverages such as chocolate, caffeinated sodas and caffeinated teas can delay and disrupt sleep.
7. Move more
Find ways to be more active throughout your day. Physical activity can improve your mood and help relieve stress. Regular physical activity can also help you maintain a healthy weight and reduce your risk for heart disease and other leading causes of death and disability. The 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, produced by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, recommend that adults ages 18-64 get at least two hours and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity per week.
Examples include walking briskly, water aerobics, bicycling, ballroom dancing and general gardening. Keep in mind that it's best to spread out your aerobic activities - activities that make you breathe harder and your heart beat faster than normal - throughout the week so you can break them down into episodes of ten minutes or more.
8. Enjoy it
Find activities that feel good, help you relax and reduce stress, whether it's meditation, yoga, walking, dancing or other types of physical activity. If you find something you enjoy, you are more likely to continue along this healthy path. And, if you can find a friend or family member to join you, even better. The benefits of these tools reach well beyond yourself into other domains of your life, including your relationships and your home and work lives.
9. Talk to your health care provider
If you continue to have trouble coping with stress, talk to your health care provider. There are a variety of other therapies and techniques to help you deal with stress. It is important to get help right away if you are feeling depressed or anxious. Be frank with your health care provider and discuss not only your medical history but also what is going on in your life right now. Hopefully, relief will be on its way.
About the Author
Rachel Permuth-Levine, PhD, MSPH, is a public health practitioner and an expert in worksite health promotion. As a health behavior theorist, she strives to use evidence-based programs that produce the best results for her employees. Rachel is also a yoga and fitness instructor.