Learning to chill this holiday, thanks to work
By Rhonda Rowland
CNN Medical Correspondent
This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.
ATLANTA (CNN) -- It was the perfect assignment: a story about stress management.
It was exactly what I needed, as I began the month of December with a list of tasks that grew longer as the days went by: holiday shopping, selecting and sending cards, baking, decorating the house and the tree, hiring babysitters, attending parties, hosting a dinner party, hosting a book club (and reading the required book), teaching Sunday school, keeping play dates, handling a family situation requiring hordes of paperwork, fighting a sinus infection, going to doctor appointments and, of course, going to work. Oh, and exercising.
I had to get it all done, but how? I was stressed out.
Cause and effect
My first interview for the story was with a 60-something man who used to be under enormous stress. Dan Chambers, who does voice-overs for a living in Atlanta, suffered a heart attack while driving to his next appointment one day, and his doctor recommended a stress management course as part of his rehabilitation.
"I discovered I was a stress junkie," Chambers said. "I created my stress, and I thrived on it. It was like an adrenal rush ... [it] made me feel very alive and very much a part of the world."
I realized I had created my stress. And many of the tasks on my holiday to-do list were under my control.
Chambers described the kind of schedule he kept.
"If I had an appointment and I knew it would take me a half hour to get there, I might allow myself 20 minutes because then I'd really have to push and I could get a couple of more things done. Maybe I would have time to get some gas or drop over here and pick something up. I had absolutely every moment jam-packed."
In his stress management class, Chambers learned how to schedule his day to allow enough time for each activity. He learned how to prioritize and let go of the tasks that didn't have to be done. And he learned to determine which stress factors he could control and which he couldn't.
"It cleared my mind, gave me a great peace of mind," Chambers said.
I left the interview realizing I, too, had created my stress. I was responsible for feeling overwhelmed. And many of the tasks on my list were under my control.
Hazardous to your health
Stress affects our bodies as well as emotions, causing tightness around our shoulders, physical tension, stomach aches, headaches and less clear thinking.
It can affect our immune system's ability to fight common illnesses such as colds and the flu. Some studies indicate the same is true with more serious illnesses. Researchers found that when people with HIV were under stress, their disease progressed more quickly. Another study found excessive stress increased the likelihood that a woman with breast cancer would have a relapse six-fold.
The first line of defense in managing stress involves lifestyle factors: regular exercise, a good diet and enough sleep. These familiar suggestions are known to work.
And as it did with Chambers, stress can affect our heart.
"There is some evidence that job stress can contribute to the
increase in risk in heart patients or in healthy people who haven't developed heart disease yet," said Dr. Redford Williams of Duke University.
A number of studies have been done that confirmed the link between work stress and heart risks in men.
Marital stress takes a toll on women, according to a study published this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study found that work stress was not predictive of a future heart problem in women, but among women who had suffered a heart attack and were married to or living with a man, those who experienced severe marital stress had three times the risk of another heart problem.
Try this at home
I looked forward to our interview with Emory University psychiatrist Jack Kelsey, who provided some tried and true methods for managing stress.
The first line of defense involves lifestyle factors: regular exercise, a good diet and enough sleep. These suggestions are familiar but bear repeating because they are known to work.
"Patients tell me exercise is often the first thing they let go," Kelsey said. "When we get stressed and we're kind of tight for time, that's where we need to be a little more proactive about planning the things that we know are helpful."
Hearing that helped renew my fall resolve to get to the YMCA at 6:00 a.m. at least two mornings during the week. I've been good about it overall, but I lapsed when I was traveling and sick, and then found it hard to get back into the habit.
But I figured, Dan Chambers does it, and like others, I found that exercising first thing in the morning gave me more energy to get through the day. The hardest part is motivating myself to get up when the alarm goes off.
Other methods for reducing stress include:
- Relaxation exercises such as deep breathing and visualization
- Talking about the stress with someone you trust
- Getting rid of clutter in your office or car
- Learning to say "no"
You can find many other stress management techniques in self-help books. I felt these were suggestions I could implement.
"Self-help books can be helpful if -- and this is a big 'if' -- people are actually able to implement the suggestions that are made," Kelsey said.
Stress cannot be cured. We all have and need stress in our lives to some extent. It becomes a problem when it is so overwhelming that we are not able to do what we normally need to do.
That's why some people do better taking a stress management course. But be careful -- not everyone offering a course is qualified.
"You need to spend some time and effort checking out any sort of stress reduction class," Kelsey advised. "Check on the credentials of the person who is running it: Do they have a degree in psychology, social work, nursing, some sort of health- or psychology-related degree?"
For some people, stress has become so great that it may be a good idea to seek one-on-one counseling. "Probably the best rule of thumb is, if you're wondering, 'Should you go to see someone?' the answer is 'Yes,'" Kelsey said.
Stress, however, cannot be cured. Doctors say you need to continually practice the stress management techniques that work for you.
A little dab will do ya'
We all have stress in our lives to some extent. It becomes a problem when it is so overwhelming that we are not able to do what we normally need to do.
Warning signs of too much stress include chronic headaches, backaches or stomach aches, difficulty sleeping, excessive worry, and feeling like you're going to shut down.
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We also need some stress. It's the fuel needed to help us meet a deadline or deliver a speech. Perhaps a little stress was what I needed to get me through my December to-do list -- it spurred me on to complete what I had to do.
I also learned from my research and cut out some tasks under my control. I skipped some parties and didn't bake as many cookies. I realized it was OK to ask for help, and got someone else to run some errands and even bake a batch of cookies for me. I took a few vacation days and made myself say "no" to some requests.
And I hope my friends will forgive me if their cards arrived after Christmas.
Condition Clinic: Stress
American Heart Association
American Institute of Stress
American Psychological Association
Journal of the American Medical Association
International Stress Management Association
National Mental Health Association
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