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STRESS THROUGH THE AGES

Craft Your Management Plan—and Follow Through
Part 5 of 5

Note: This is a five part series on stress that addresses stress in children (part 1)stress during the teen years (part 2)stress as adults (part 3)getting control of your stress (part 4) and managing stress on an ongoing basis (part 5).

If you’ve read this far in the series on stress, you may have a strong interest in finding ways to manage your stress over the long term.  

The key is to find the right combination of techniques that works for you. In addition to the basics discussed in part 4, study the following collection of stress management ideas from doctors, counselors and other experts. Try as many methods as it takes until you find your unique stress management plan.

So, take a few moments. Relax. Take a deep breath. And read on…

Easier Said Than Done…

  • When you can’t really eliminate a particular stress factor—preparing family meals, for example—try delegating.  Your 14-year-old may not be able to manage filet mignon for everyone (although you never know!), but he would probably be perfectly capable of fixing soup and sandwiches on days when you’re particularly busy. If there are tasks at home or at work that others can do, let them do it. And then, if a job is acceptable, be satisfied with it. 
  • At the same time, be satisfied with your own work. When you’ve done the best you can within the allotted time, remember that good enough is acceptable. Are you finishing a paper that’s due tomorrow? Do a final edit, and then go to bed. Your work doesn’t have to be perfect. Do your best; then let it go.
  • Learn to manage your time. Something as simple as a desk calendar or a weekly planner may help you take more control of your life. On the other hand, if you become a slave to your schedule, any little variance or failure to follow it can lead to even more stress. It’s important to allow yourself some flexibility, as well.
  • Take control of your environment. Could your home and work surroundings affect stress levels? Yes, says Phyllis A. Balch, author of Prescription for Nutritional Healing. Wherever you spend a lot of time, use the setting to your advantage. Low noise levels, soothing colors, and natural lighting can all contribute to a more pleasant, low-stress environment. 
  • Perhaps you need to organize your space. When you feel depressed or overwhelmed every time you walk into your junked up office, it’s time to straighten up! It’s frustrating and time consuming when you can’t find what you need. Take a little time each day to improve your surroundings and watch your stress levels fall.
  • Take an official day off.  Sure, you have a day off, but do you really take the day off? Do you bring work home with you? Maybe you work out of your home office and find yourself working every day of the week. Maybe you’re a student and working two jobs. Maybe you work almost non-stop at home caring for your baby and two preschoolers. Nobody said it was convenient to take time off in today’s society. But it can be vital for your well-being. Do what’s necessary. Turn off the phone. Shut down the computer. Get a baby-sitter. Take time off.
  • Don’t let worry take control.  Does your spouse claim you’ve made worrying a new Olympic event? Try this method, used successfully in a University of Pennsylvania study: Set aside 30 minutes each day for worrying, and then don’t let yourself worry anymore that day.

Yes, those are all easier said than done…but definitely worth a try!

A Little Help from Nature

Several herbal supplements have been proven effective in reducing stress. Dr. Mark Stengler, in The Natural Physician’s Healing Therapies, hails the three forms of ginseng as the best herbs for combating stress. As “adaptogens,” Stengler explains, these herbs help the body “adapt to changes in the environment and to resist the effects of stress.” 

Other herbs used for stress and its related symptoms include ashwagandha, chamomile (most often taken as a tea), valerian, St. John’s wort, holy basil, and passionflower. Remember: It’s always a good idea to consult your doctor or other health professional before taking an herbal supplement, especially if you’re taking any medications.

Specific Therapies and Techniques

  • Deep Breathing.  In her book, Phyllis A. Balch describes one easy deep-breathing technique, which you can practice anywhere, even in the midst of a difficult situation. Breathe in deeply through your nose and hold your breath for a few seconds. Then, holding your tongue at the top of your teeth, breathe out slowly through your mouth. Repeat until you feel more relaxed.
  • Biofeedback includes two basic elements: the measurement of various bodily responses, such as heartbeat or breathing rate, and the process of learning how to control those responses. This therapy usually requires a qualified technician or health professional, although there is at least one type of home biofeedback system available.
  • Progressive muscular relaxation relieves stress-related muscle tension with a series of exercises focused on the various muscle groups of the body. As you’re guided to tense and relax each muscle group, your whole body begins to relax. As noted in WebMD’s “Stress Management Health Center,” “When your body is physically relaxed, you cannot feel anxious.”
  • Music and sound therapy.  If you’ve ever popped in your favorite Mozart CD or strummed a few chords on your guitar in order to chill out, then you’ve practiced a simple form of music therapy already. Music has the power to alter brainwaves to promote a calmer state of mind and to slow heart and breathing rates, bringing about relaxation for the body, explains Elizabeth Scott, author of 8 Keys to Stress Management. Even singing in the shower probably counts! A certified music therapist can use various specialized techniques, in which the patient may either listen to or perform music. Therapists have also used environmental sounds such as ocean waves or falling rain to treat stress and depression. 
  • Aromatherapy uses essential oils, such as lavender, lemon-scented eucalyptus, or sandalwood. Try a few drops on a handkerchief and inhale throughout the day.
  • Color therapy.  The idea that colors affect our lives originated in ancient times, writes Balch. Choosing the right colors for your clothes and surroundings can influence your moods, thoughts and behavior. For soothing, relaxing effects on both body and mind use blue, green, violet and pink.
  • Hydrotherapy. A warm bath or shower can help soothe nerves and calm the body. For added relaxation add a drop of lavender or jasmine essential oil. 
  • Massage.  Whether you see a professional massage therapist or request a session from your spouse, a massage can ease tense muscles, stimulate circulation, and promote relaxation.

Keep in Touch with Yourself

  • Meditate.  Does that word conjure up images of Buddhism for you? Perhaps it makes you think of sitting cross-legged in a roomful of candles. Although meditation can be part of a religious observance, the basic practice simply involves learning to focus your mind. And because of its proven capability to provide inner peace, relaxation, and other health benefits, meditation has become an accepted form of complementary medicine.

A recent issue of the Harvard newsletter, “Healthbeat,” promotes the practice of a particular type of meditation called mindfulness, which “can be a powerful antidote to the stresses and strains of our on-the-go lives.” When you practice mindfulness, you learn to fully engage your senses in the present moment, without letting your mind wander to the past or the future and without “getting caught up in opinions about what is going on.”

You might also want to explore other forms of meditation such as guided visualization, focused meditation, and Qi gong. If you have trouble sitting still, you might even try a form of meditation while walking or engaging in some other peaceful activity. The basic elements of any meditation include focused breathing and a concentration on the present.

  • Express emotions.  You might find it difficult to express your feelings, especially if you’re a male. But Balch reminds us that repressing them can lead to more stress build-up. It’s important, she says, to accept your feelings and to express them. Whether you simply talk with your girlfriend or boyfriend, use a more creative medium such as music or art, or sit down for a good cry, releasing emotion can be an important part of your stress management.
  • Keep a journal. Learn to write down your true frustrations, thoughts, and emotions, without worrying about what anyone else would think. Journaling often leads you to new realizations about yourself or your situation. The act of free-writing can even reveal alternative solutions to your problems. There is no right or wrong way to journal—just write.
  • Think positive.  Mayo Clinic experts tell us we can reduce stress with more positive thinking. But what if you tend to be a pessimist? Can you change some of those negative thoughts into positive ones? The experts say yes, although it will take some time and practice. Among their suggestions: Surround yourself with positive people, seek the humor in life, and practice positive self-talk.

Keep in Touch with Others

Do you duck out of social gatherings when you feel stressed or anxious? Maybe you shouldn’t. Many studies show the importance of positive social interaction in relation to health and well-being. Sheldon Cohen, PhD, psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University, wrote in a 2004 report, “Social connections benefit health by providing psychological and material resources needed to cope with stress.” Knowing you’ve got friends you can count on gives you a feeling of security and a sense of control over the situation. As long as your friends don’t encourage unhealthy habits like drinking too much or overeating, stay connected!

Keep in Touch with Your Basic Beliefs

Need a good reason to go back to church or your local synagogue? Here it is.Connection to organized religion can help keep stress levels to a minimum. Religious observances—including prayer, worship attendance, and the reading of sacred literature—often lead to a sense of inner peace and contentment.

Harold G. Koenig, MD, Director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology, and Health at Duke University, looked at evidence from more than 400 studies. He found that religious practice helps people cope with a wide variety of illnesses and problems, including “overall stress” and “miscellaneous adverse life situations.” 

In addition to the built-in support network provided by a religious congregation, organized worship and theological study can help you focus on the important things in life and make sense out of life’s uncertainties.

Professional Help

“I don’t need a counselor; I can handle things myself.  Besides, people will think I’m crazy.” Is this your attitude toward counseling? 

Turning to a qualified professional does not indicate weakness. It doesn’t mean you’re a failure or that you have a serious mental illness. It simply means you need assistance and advice for a particular area of your life, just as you might need assistance for a physical condition. A trained professional can offer an objective assessment of your situation, providing insights and ideas you may not have considered. Counselors often help people find and quickly learn the best stress management skills for their circumstances. 

If your symptoms remain unmanageable or severe, see your doctor. He or she may offer a prescription drug to help you temporarily, until you can begin to manage stress in other ways. It’s also important that you rule out any underlying illnesses that may be causing your symptoms.

We all need a little assistance sometimes. Don’t rule out professional help.

Time to Follow Through

Once you’ve got a plan in place, or at least some regular techniques you want to try, how can you make sure that you follow through? How can you make sure that you don’t lose your energy and motivation to take action? How can you get rid of all the excuses?

1. Come to Some Realizations

Realization #1: It’s worth any time, money or effort you put into stress management. When you’re taking a little extra effort to improve sleep, eat healthier, take time off, invest in counseling…whatever you’ve found is necessary, you’ll probably get more done in the long run. You’ll most likely improve the quality of your work as well as your relationships with family and friends.

Realization #2: The world won’t come to an end if you change the way you’re doing things, say no to further commitments, or cut certain activities out of your life.

Realization #3: If you don’t take care of your stress, you might not be able to care for the people who depend on you.  If you’re caring for a family member with a long-term illness, for example, failing to take time off during this very stressful period of time can leave you vulnerable to illness or even emotional breakdown. You can’t take care of others effectively if you’re not taking care of yourself.

Realization #4: Your plan for stress management should not be stressful! Try the simplest solutions first—eliminating stressors, making a few changes in your situation, correcting some poor health habits. (Remember the fundamentals from part 4 of this series?) If needed, pick one or two ideas listed above and try them. Choose the methods you feel you can actually do.

2. Make Yourself Accountable 

Have a friend or your spouse hold you accountable for your stress management follow-through. Your wife may need to be blunt, “Honey, you said you would go for a walk at 5:00. Stop what you’re doing and let’s go.” Or, perhaps you need to give your husband permission to pull you away from the kitchen every Saturday no matter what you say. When you’re tempted to relieve stress with an unhealthy habit like smoking or stopping by the fast food place, call a friend to talk out the stress instead.

3. Change Your Habits

  • Don’t make it easy to continue handling stress in unhealthy ways. For example, if you go grocery-shopping when you’re tired and stressed, you’re more likely to buy the junk foods that have comforted you in the past. Try to shop when you’re more relaxed, or at least on a day that’s a little less busy. Buy healthy alternatives and keep them handy. Or, let’s say you handle stress by turning off the alarm clock and pulling the covers over your head in the mornings. Put the alarm clock across the room so you’re forced to get up. Better yet, get a dog who demands to be walked.
  • Think of new habits for stressful times. Have you lost internet service—again? Instead of yelling at the computer screen, make it your habit to stand up and walk out of the room for a few minutes. Tough day at work? Stop by the gym instead of stopping by the local bar. Feeling the pressure of a deadline? Instead of reaching for the cupcakes, take a quick walk outside or do some deep breathing…whatever stress-relief activity you want to try.  If you fall back into old habits, don’t give up. Remember, it might take longer than you expect before something becomes a habit. A study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology showed it takes from 18 to 254 days for a new habit to form.
  • Build stress relief into every day, even on days that are already not so stressful. Stress builds up over time, and just because you’re not participating in a stressful activity on a particular day, doesn’t mean your body isn’t still feeling effects on those days. As a matter of fact, your not-so-busy days would present perfect opportunities to try the more time-consuming techniques, such as yoga practice or changing your home office environment.
  • Do you make to-do lists?  If so, use them to help build new habits by including your stress-relief measures on your daily list. Between “do the laundry” and “study for test,” you might write in “30-minute worry break.” A word of caution, however: Make sure your list-making habit isn’t defeating your purpose. Although your list is meant to help control your day, you might stress out even more because you are compelled to check everything off the list.  If to-do lists help you get organized and relieve your stress, then, by all means, use them. If not, banish the lists. 

As you continue in your stress management efforts, maybe you’ll implement many of the methods listed here—or maybe none of them suit you. This list simply hits the highlights. If nothing else, perhaps you’ve gained the inspiration to create your own ways of dealing with life’s pressures. Sit on the porch and watch the traffic. Throw peanuts to the chipmunks in your backyard.  Join the church choir. Take tap dancing lessons….Find your unique stress relief method and then follow through!

Written by Beth Prassel-Sieg
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- OTHER PARTS IN THIS SERIES -

Part 1:
STRESS THROUGH THE AGES
A Child's Life

Part 2:
STRESS THROUGH THE AGES
A Teen's Journey

Part 3:
STRESS THROUGH THE AGES
An Adult's Pressure

Part 4:
STRESS THROUGH THE AGES
No More Excuses

Copyright 2014 / Good Choices Good Life, Inc. / All Rights Reserved

A healthy outside starts from the inside. Robert Urich