Suddenly you become a victim of forces beyond your control: You’re late for a theater show, for which your husband spent a fortune. Just as you’re about to leave, the phone rings. On the line, your sister is sobbing. Bad news—she lost her job. You can’t say, “Sorry, sis. I’m off to a show.” But you can’t stay on the phone, either, not with time ticking away and your husband about to explode.
Feel your blood pressure rising? This sort of loss of control is a one-way ticket to stress that wreaks havoc on your mind, body, and spirit.
Stress mobilizes the body’s fight-or-flight reflex, which prepares us to cope with emergencies: It triggers the release of stress hormones that increase respiration and heart rate, elevate blood pressure, and raise blood sugar levels, which get your muscles ready for self-defense or escape.
But in today’s hectic world, the fight-or-flight reflex often works overtime, causing chronic stress and its attendant symptoms: headaches, heartburn, neck or shoulder pain, cold hands and feet, stomach “knots” or “butterflies,” an irritable bowel, chronic fatigue, substance or food abuse, anxiety attacks, and a worsening of other conditions because stress depresses immune function.
How can you keep from being overwhelmed?
“Regain control—or at least partial control—over your stressors,” says Paul J. Rosch, M.D., president of The American Institute of Stress in Yonkers, New York. “Reasserting some control is the key to coping.”
It’s also an argument against taking pharmaceuticals, such as Valium. When you pop pills, you don’t think, “I’m taking control here.” Instead, you think, “I’m out of control, so I need a drug to take control for me.” Sometimes, in the face of overwhelming stress—a death in the family—a short course of drugs may be necessary. But for everyday stress, natural approaches are preferable because they work with you, not for you. The very act of incorporating them into your life represents a step toward reasserting control and relieving your stress.
One quick way to reassert control, says Allen Elkin, Ph.D., director of the Stress Management Counseling Center in New York City, is to gain perspective. “Seeing your situation as a small part of a bigger picture helps.”
Unless someone dies or your house burns down, most stresses are not disasters. But thinking they are can overwhelm you. Shakespeare put it well in Hamlet: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Training yourself to think that stressors are manageable helps control them. That old cliché is right: Don’t sweat the small stuff. And just about everything is small stuff.
1. Recognize your stress symptoms. Are they neck or shoulder pain? Shallow breathing? Stammering? Or loss of temper? When they appear, say aloud, “I’m feeling stressed.” Acknowledging your stress signals is the first step toward reasserting control.
Then ask yourself: “What’s really bothering me?” Perhaps you stained your shirt while changing the toner in the office copier. Figuring out what’s really bothering you helps you take control of the situation and relieve your stress. “If you don’t know why you feel stressed,” Elkin says, “you can’t change things. But once you understand the problem, you can assert some control.”
2. Play the ratings game. If you have trouble thinking that your stressors are manageable, Elkin suggests rating them on a 1-to-10 scale, with 10 being a catastrophe—for example, the news that an illness will kill you in a week—and 1 being a minor hassle like breaking a shoelace. “Most problems,” he says, “rate somewhere in the 2 to 5 range—not that big a deal.”
3. Count your blessings. Things could be worse. “There’s a selfish reason to be altruistic,” says David Sobel, M.D., M.P.H., director of patient education and health promotion for Kaiser-Permanente health maintenance organization in northern California. “When you help people who are less fortunate, you gain perspective and your problems feel smaller and more manageable. Counting your blessings is an old-fashioned way of gaining perspective,” he explains.
4. Divide and conquer. Jot down two lists. In one, note the stressors you can change, in the other, those you can’t. “Change what you can,” Rosch advises, “and try to stop fretting over what you can’t.”
5. Take a personal time-out. Before you say or do something you’ll regret, try stepping away from the stressor and collecting yourself. Excuse yourself briefly. Or count to 10. Or put the caller on hold. Use your brief time-out to take a few deep breaths, count your blessings, or do anything else that helps you cope.
6. Stop trying to be perfect. Demanding perfection only produces stress because nobody’s perfect—not even you. Do your best, and expect others to do theirs. But don’t expect perfection. If you notice yourself becoming perfectionistic, Elkin suggests repeating this helpful affirmation: “I’m very good, but not perfect. It’s fine not to be perfect.”
7. Say “no” occasionally. Just as it’s impossible to be perfect, it’s equally impossible to please everyone all the time. Give 100 percent, but be clear on your limits and assert them.
8. Laugh. Laughter is physiologically stress-relieving, notes William Fry, M.D. in his 1992 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, “The Physiologic Effects of Humor, Mirth, and Laughter.” It deepens breathing, eases muscle tension, and adds extra oxygen and nutrients to the blood. Humor also provides perspective. Keep a joke book within arm’s reach. When stress strikes, open it to a random page and read one. Try to laugh at yourself. Life is too serious to be taken too seriously. Post cartoons and quips. Here’s my favorite, posted above my computer screen: “God grant me patience—right now!” If you’d like help incorporating more humor into your life, contact The Humor Project, 480 Broadway, Suite 210, Saratoga Springs, NY 12866; (518) 587-8770.
9. Be creative. Doodle, knit, create little sculptures from paperclips, write silly poems—whatever strikes your fancy. Esther Orioli, president of Essi Systems, a San Francisco company that organizes stress-management programs for major corporations, does crossword puzzles when she’s stuck in traffic. “They focus my mind,” she says, “and take me emotionally away from the stress of gridlock. Use your imagination. Puzzles and other creative endeavors are something you control, and feeling in control is the basis of stress management.”
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Medical journalist Michael Castleman, M.A., is the author of ten consumer health books, most recently Blended Medicine (Rodale, 2000), a home medical guide that combines mainstream and alternative therapies. Currently he devotes a good deal of his writing to health-oriented websites. He is the alternative medicine columnist for PlanetRx.com and lives in San Francisco with his wife, a family physician, and their two children.
If you would like to obtain a reference list for this article, write Herbs for Health Stress Reading List, 201 E. Fourth St., Loveland, CO, 80537-5655; fax (970) 669-6117; or e-mail HerbsForHealth@HCPress.com.