"You need to work on your stress levels."
We hear these admonitions a lot. But we don't hear much about specific ways to beat stress -- especially when you need to calm down ASAP. After all, when you feel stressed at work or home, it's not always easy to know what to do, right then and there, to feel better.
It's important to acknowledge that we all feel stress, and it's not always a bad thing. The body releases chemicals and hormones in response to dangers and challenges that prepare us to flee if needed or to zero in on solving a pressing problem. The result, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), is a cascade of physiological responses. Your heart beats more rapidly and you breathe faster. Muscles tense and your brain uses more oxygen and increases activity.
However, when you don't get relief from stress, some of these responses can remain even if there's no specific danger or worrisome event facing you. The NIMH reports that routine stress from everyday life and work issues may be harder to notice than cases of acute or traumatic stress -- but chronic stress can be serious because it produces continuous strain on your body. Chronic stress can impact your sleep, your ability to think clearly, raise your risk of headaches and even make you more likely to catch colds and other infections. It can lead to digestive upsets, too. Over time, routine stress may contribute to serious health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression and other illnesses.
Ten strategies to help break the chronic stress cycle and feel more centered and relaxed:
1. Exercise for immediate stress relief. You know regular exercise is health-boosting in myriad ways, but it turns out, just going for a quick walk can have an immediate stress-busting impact. That's the news from researchers Jasper Smits, director of the Anxiety Research and Treatment Program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and Michael Otto, psychology professor at Boston University, who analyzed dozens of exercise studies. "This isn't about working out five times a week for the next year. It's about exercising for 20 or 30 minutes and feeling better today," says Smits.
The next time you need to break the stress cycle, take a walk on your lunch hour or after work and the odds are you'll feel better quickly. "After just 25 minutes, your mood improves, you are less stressed, you have more energy -- and you'll be motivated to exercise again tomorrow," Smits states. "A bad mood is no longer a barrier to exercise it is the very reason to exercise."
2. Have a drink. No, don't turn to alcohol or gulp down more cups of coffee. In fact, not only are over-doing booze and caffeine likely to make you feel more anxious, but both can lead to dehydration which can slow your metabolism, drain your energy, and make you feel more stressed.
So if you are faced with a busy, anxious time, make sure to drink adequate amounts of water. The Institute of Medicine recommends the average healthy adult man should drink around 3 liters (about 13 cups) of water a day while most women need about 2.2 liters (about 9 cups) daily.
3. Take deep breaths. It sounds simple enough -- and it is. Consciously taking deep, slow breaths can reduce blood pressure and calm frayed nerves, sometimes within minutes. Laurie Geter, R.N., author of 47 Steps to Stress Management suggests setting aside 10 to 15 minutes a day to simply focus on your breathing. Lie down or sit comfortably in a chair and feel your muscles relaxing from head to toe, including your facial muscles. Then slowly and deeply inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth gently, without forcing the air out of your lungs. "Your body will signal when to take the next breath," Geter writes. "Even times of intense anxiety can be converted into relaxation using this technique and once you resume your normal activities, you may have a better outlook on the situation that was causing the anxiety in the first place."
4. Listen to music. Listening to whatever kind of music makes you feel relaxed and uplifted can have immediate physiological, stress-busting effects. For example, researchers have found that listening to calming music can decrease blood pressure, heart rate and levels of anxiety, even in cancer and heart patients who are stressed about their health. If classical music relaxes you, try "Mozart for Relaxation" and other CDs created especially for their soothing impact.
5. Take a news break. Zombies and cannibal murders! Political arguments! Crime sprees and celebrity bust-ups! You're inundated with news from all sides -- but do you really need to expose yourself to a constant onslaught of potentially stress-enhancing information? Of course, following your industry or business news is one thing, but there's no reason not to take what preventive healthcare expert Andrew Weil, M.D, calls a voluntary "news blackout" from all the rest. Dr. Weil advises to stop reading the newspaper and watching television for one day, a week or longer to help lower your stress level.
6. Express yourself. Overwhelmed or worried? You'll often feel immediately more relaxed by simply expressing your feelings to a friend or therapist. Talking about your worries can help release pent up anxiety -- like letting steam out of a safety valve. Writing your concerns in a journal can also be a quick and effective way to diffuse stress, according to Janice Berger, a physiotherapist in Newmarket, Ontario, and author of Emotional Fitness.
7. Meditate. In his book The Relaxation Response and Timeless Healing, Harvard researcher Herbert Benson, M.D., points to numerous studies that show calming the mind through a simple meditation technique can dissolve stress and boost health. Here's how: repeat a simple word or phrase for 10 to 15 minutes each day -- it can be anything you choose such as "love", "I am calm" or "one". Close your eyes, breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Exhale slowly as you repeat the word or phrase silently. When stray thoughts intrude, gently observe and release them and continue repeating your word or phrase.
8. Laugh. Sure, you can turn on a crime thriller or sad love story when you watch television. But it's more likely to lower your stress level if you watch a comedy -- or simply allow yourself to be silly with your kids, pets or friends. Research has repeatedly shown that laughter can reduce stress-produced chemicals in the body and may even boost the immune system.
9. Put down the doughnut and pick up the apple and cheese. When harried and stressed, it's tempting to grab fast food and sugary snacks. They may boost energy temporarily, but junk food is one more stress on your body. Sweets in particular produce a rise in blood sugar but, when it falls again, you're apt to feel more tired -- and more stressed. Instead, be conscious of food choices. Fresh fruit is an easy, healthy snack-on-the-go and eating protein with your meals will keep blood sugar levels steady, helping you feel calmer.
10. Ask for help. Whether you are behind on a project or can't figure out how to take care of all your family obligations, not asking for help when you need it is a sure-fire way to increase stress and potentially make you even less likely to fulfill duties at home and work. "We all need to get in touch with our humanness and recognize our own limitations," says Laurie Geter in 47 Steps to Stress Management. Talk to your supervisor, family and friends. Opening up and asking for assistance will have an immediate de-stressing impact.