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.
If only stress stayed short-lived and in the moment. But more often than not, those crazy mornings of juggling family and work (and yourself!) can turn into weeks of constant go, go, go. Meanwhile, you’re trying to balance your family’s budget, make meals and do all the other things that need to keep happening no matter how hectic life gets. Not only can it feel overwhelming to spend day after day with a knot in your stomach, but over time you start feeling more and more exhausted, worn-down and emotional.
What’s Going On
“The body’s stress response is meant for short-term situations. If you’re constantly pumping out stress hormones, that’s going to take a toll,” says Dr. Winner. When high cortisol levels cause blood flow to be constantly directed to parts of the body that control the fight-or-flight response (muscles, heart and brain), crucial nutrients won’t get to where they need to go. Toxins can build up in your system, making you feel lackluster and tired, not to mention prone to insomnia and weight gain.
What You Can Do
Keep a stress diary. If you can’t quite pinpoint the source of that always-harried feeling, write down every time a situation makes you feel stressed. After one week, scan your notes for patterns and brainstorm ways to deal with the circumstances. For example, if you find yourself getting anxious right before the commute home from work, think of ways to make the trip more relaxing: Download an audiobook to listen to in the car or bring a booklet of Sudoku puzzles on the train.
Control what you can. You may not be able to do anything about choices other people make, but there are always some aspects of a situation that you can take charge of. “Make a list—from cutting out jitter-producing caffeine to making sure you’re spending your time with positive people,” says Dr. Domar. “Seeing just how much you can control will calm you, not to mention provide a blueprint for you to get to a productive endpoint.”
Take sleep and relaxation seriously. Sleep, it turns out, can be a major anxiety-buster. One study found that even a short nap can slash stress hormone levels. To help your body wind down at day’s end, shut off gadgets such as cell phones, computers and BlackBerrys by 9 p.m. at the latest. If possible, get them out of your bedroom completely! Also try to keep a regular bedtime. If watching a little TV (even in the bedroom) helps you wind down, that’s fine; just stick to something light and relaxing, like a comedy (skip the slasher flicks and evening news).
Sit up straight. Breathing controls your heart rate and oxygen flow, and we tend to hunch when we’re stressed, which slows oxygen and blood flow (not to mention creates tension in your neck). “An easy way to correct your breathing is to keep good posture,” says Dr. Sharma. “When your shoulders are back, you open the chest and you’re automatically more oxygenated, which helps relieve anxiety.” Keep tabs on posture by straightening up and dropping your shoulders every time you send an e-mail or talk on the phone.
Walk it off. Exercise burns through nervous energy and counters tension by pumping your body full of feel-good endorphins as well as norepinephrine, a hormone that may help us better manage anxiety. One study found that a simple brisk walk five days a week can significantly reduce stress levels in women.
When It’s More Than Stress
If you find yourself worrying excessively to the point that it’s interfering with your everyday life, you may be suffering from anxiety. More than 40 million Americans have some form of anxiety disorder. Among these are panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, social phobia and post-traumatic stress disorder.
How to tell when you’re more than just stressed out? “For most people, when a stressor is removed, they feel better,” says Dr. Abramowitz. “The difference with anxiety is that it tends to revolve around abstract things that haven’t happened yet.” For example, worrying about a hurt child is stress; worrying constantly about whether a child might get hurt is anxiety.Try these tips to combat it.
Challenge the way you’re thinking. “If a loved one is late and you start worrying about an accident, ask yourself, ‘What else could have happened?’ Right there, you’re opening your mind to alternate possibilities,” says Dr. Abramowitz. Once you’ve expanded the outcome list a little, ask yourself what has typically happened in the past when you’ve had this worry. Has the result been what you feared?
Finally, if you’re still feeling unsettled, try making a bet with yourself. Would you be willing to give up something valuable on the wager that your fear will live itself out? If you wouldn’t, you’ve caught your own bluff.
Invoke other parts of your brain. When worry is chronic, it’s easy to let it dominate. Minimize its role by making space for plenty of other things in your mind. “I see a lot of results when people regularly start doing something creative, possibly because they’re tapping a part of their mind that’s removed from the stress. Likewise, group activities will fuel you with outside energy, and nature can help you reach a meditative state,” says Dr. Sharma. This strategy can work for both in-the-moment and long-term anxiety.
As soon as you start feeling anxious, distracting yourself by calling a friend or browsing your favorite websites can help. And picking up a hobby—taking a painting or writing class, for example—keeps you busy and engaged in general, leaving less time for worrying.
Seek outside help. Psychotherapy can be enormously helpful. One type, cognitive behavioral therapy (in which you gradually change your habits and thought patterns) can be especially effective for people with anxiety. The idea is to learn strategies to combat thinking patterns that lead to anxiety. For some people, anti-anxiety medications can be helpful, usually when combined with cognitive behavioral therapy.