Americans are constantly on the go. As the average workweek creeps up to 50 hours, we’re spending an additional 7 hours a week managing emails from home – checking messages during dinner, before we go to bed at night and first thing in the morning. Sound familiar? Americans vacation less too, taking only 10 vacation days a year and stockpiling the remaining four vacation days for another “less-hectic time.” Add in the demands of caring for young children or aging parents (or both) and you have one nation under stress.
It’s widely known that stress can cause or exacerbate a host of serious health problems. The most common outcomes are headaches, fatigue, weight loss or weight gain, sleeplessness and depression. Stress has also been linked to memory loss, upset stomach or indigestion, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, infertility and premature aging. A recent study suggests that stress might even make your allergy symptoms worse this spring.
With so much at stake, it’s critical that we find ways to help manage and cope with the stress in our life. In recognition of Stress Management Month, below are five simple practices to help ward off stress and live a healthier, happier life.
- Be Positive – Attitude is everything. When you consider the potential stressors in your life, ask yourself if the cause is something you can control. If not, it’s best to accept the circumstances and focus on the positive things in your life. But if the stressor is something you can control or change, it’s important to assert your thoughts and opinions in a positive way, rather than bottling them up and becoming angry or defensive.
- Take a Break – Practice relaxation techniques to counter the onset of stress and diffuse stress throughout your day. Most of these activities can be done anytime, anywhere in just a few minutes:
- Breathe – there are many effective breathing exercises to help focus your mind and steady your nerves. Our favorite is called “equal breathing.” Simply relax your face muscles and close your mouth. Then, inhale for four counts, and exhale for four counts – all through your nose. Repeat several times.
- Use a Mantra – studies show that silently repeating a mantra – a positive word or calming phrase – multiple times each day, can significantly reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. You can chant the word “Om” (pronounced “awm”), which is a soothing vibrational mantra traditionally used at the beginning and end of yoga practice. Alternatively, you might take a more light-hearted or personal approach, such as repeating the phrase “serenity now” (think Frank Costanza from TV’s Seinfeld) or “sand between my toes” to conjure thoughts of your favorite activity.
- Take a walk – step away from your desk or a stressful situation and head outside. Even a five-minute walk around the block can help increase circulation, boost your energy and lend a fresh perspective on things.
- Make Healthy Choices – eat healthy, well-balanced meals with plenty of lean protein, whole grains, fruits and vegetables to give you the stamina and immune defense you need. Get plenty of sleep and stay hydrated with fresh water. It’s also important to get at least 30 minutes of exercise a day. Outdoor activities, such as walking, jogging and bicycling are easy to incorporate in most daily routines, while yoga and tai-chi teach deep relaxation techniques.
- Manage Your Time – try to limit your commitments and decline nonessential requests that may cause you to overextend yourself. Most people will understand and appreciate if you simply explain you have too much on your plate right now and want to be able to do a good job. This will also allow you to make time for a favorite hobby or social activities with family and friends, which can help turn your attention away from everyday stressors and connect with the things you love. And remember, laughter really is the best medicine for stress.
- Ask for Help – it’s important to reach out to co-workers, friends and family for help with overwhelming tasks, or maybe just to talk through a particular challenge. In some cases, you might seek help from a psychologist who can listen and help you develop a constructive plan to face difficult situations and better manage your stress.