(RealSimple.com) -- Feeling frazzled? Try these proven strategies for controlling stress (instead of letting stress control you).
Quick breaks, a brisk walk and relaxation through meditation or yoga are some everyday stress coping skills.
You can control stress
If you feel chronically overwhelmed, try shifting your perspective. Rather than seeing stress as something on the outside pushing in, see yourself pushing it away, and consider these proven ways to get out from under its grip.
"When I ask general audiences if they can control their stress level to make it work for them, no more than half say they can," says Esther M. Sternberg, M.D. "If I ask audiences of pilots or neurosurgeons the same question, they all say they can."
The difference is the amount of control these people believe they have over the situation. Pilots, neurosurgeons, firefighters, and others with high-pressure occupations are trained to use the stress response as a way to monitor their own behavior. When a pilot flies a plane through a storm, his heart races, his breath becomes shallow, and his attention is intensely focused on the job at hand. He experiences the physiological arousal that defines stress, but he doesn't label the situation as stressful. He's done this before. He knows what to expect. He's in control.
On the other hand, if you're a passenger in the airplane cabin, you're uncomfortable because the plane is bouncing around and you can't do anything about it. You feel stressed. "The trick in these kinds of situations is to make yourself feel, little by little, as though you're in control, to make an unknowable situation seem knowable," Sternberg says. Watch the flight attendant. He has the experience to recognize how much danger the plane is in. If he looks calm (and he probably does), you'll feel calmer.
If your work schedule sets your teeth to grinding, make a list of projects you need to get done and front-load it with tasks you can accomplish quickly. As you check off accomplishments, you'll begin to feel in control, and your stress will ease.
Try scheduling daily chores so that you can attack the most difficult ones when your energy level is highest. And delegate. Not just to coworkers but also to your children, your spouse, and your friends.
Give yourself time-outs
Of course, you can't control everything. Your child's schedule will inevitably conflict with your work deadlines. Bad weather will flood the picnic.
"We know that chronic stress has a physical impact on your body," Esther M. Sternberg, M.D., says, but if you interrupt stressful moments with calm ones, "you can lessen that impact." And it's easier than you think to get positive results.
If you have a series of crushing deadlines looming at work, take some R&R in between them. A weekend at the beach can restore your equilibrium. Distract yourself with something you find soothing: Cook, knit, or break out the watercolors.
And if you can't take off for the afternoon when you feel your stress rising at the office, just get out for a walk. Even a short stroll can make a difference.
Reach out, don't retreat
For women, fight or flight should probably be called "tend or befriend," because their response to stress is less about fighting or fleeing and more about turning to family and friends, according to Shelley E. Taylor, a professor of psychology at UCLA, and her colleagues.
Women have more intimate social networks than men do, and when they're stressed, they turn to these networks for support. They're more likely to seek out the company of other women and less likely to flee or to fight. A stress response moderated by a system such as tend or befriend, as Taylor reported in the July 2000 Psychological Review, might help explain why women live five years longer, on average, than men.
So indulge in the pleasure of family and friends. Invite old pals to a women's night out. Call your sister. Recent studies show that Americans are feeling more isolated; try to fight that situation. It may help you live longer.
Eat moderately and keep moving
The same hormones that boost your body's supply of available energy in fending off an impending threat also tell your brain that you need to replenish that energy once it's used up. The result: Your cortisol-crazed psyche sends you on the prowl for all-too-fattening pizza, potato chips, and ice cream in an effort to refuel quickly. If you're going through a stressful period, fight the urge to snack endlessly. Preferably, eat small low-carb, low-fat meals.
And try to exercise regularly. Working out counteracts the unhealthy buildup of body fat and dissipates the nervous energy that often drives you to that carton of ice cream. The exercise doesn't have to be strenuous. Walking releases endorphins that can soothe a jangled mind. And even half an hour a day can ease insomnia, which is both a symptom of stress and a stressor.
Practice mindful relaxation
Physiologically, relaxation is the opposite of stress. When you're relaxed, your breathing and heart rate slow and your mind clears. Mindfulness is a way to achieve this level of relaxation using a variety of techniques, including yoga, meditation, and simple relaxation exercises. Mindfulness quiets your chattering mind by teaching you how to observe your thoughts and feelings without seeing them as positive or negative. It trains you to use your breathing and an awareness of your body to focus on the here and now.
The basic relaxation response was first described in 1975 by Harvard Medical School researcher Herbert Benson. His approach has two steps: First, close your eyes and focus on your breath (that's the foundation). Second, choose a phrase, a word, or a prayer and repeat it to stay in the moment and be mindful.
"I use two phrases," says Bernadette Johnson, director of integrative medicine at Greenwich Hospital, in Connecticut. "'I'm breathing in relaxation and peace' when I inhale. 'I'm breathing out tension and anxiety' on the exhale."
Ideally, you'd begin and end your day with 10 to 20 minutes of regular relaxation exercise. But should you find your tension rising during the day, "take a deep breath, hold it for a count of four, and exhale for a count of four," Johnson says. "That's what we call a mini, and if it's built on a foundation of regular, longer relaxation exercises, you can tap into it whenever you need it."
If a thought or an emotion intrudes on your mindfulness and threatens to take you out of the moment, observe it but don't react to it. Think of it as a leaf floating by on a slow-moving stream.
Why did I snap at my husband?
Inhale. Let it glide on by.
I'm so afraid I'm not going to finish that report in time.
Exhale. Ah, another leaf in the swirling current.
I'm so stressed-out.
Inhale. Not anymore. E-mail to a friend
© 2007 Time Inc.
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