Some level of stress is normal, so most of us adapt to it -- at least most of the time. But if it gets to be too much, it can affect your emotional and physical well-being. This series of questions can help you decide whether stress has overtaken your ability to handle life in a healthful way.
- Wake up feeling exhausted?
- Dread holidays and other events that are usually pleasurable?
- Lean angrily on your car's horn when stuck in traffic?
- Bark at airline personnel when a flight is delayed?
- Forget things?
- Fly off the handle with little or no provocation?
- Have no time to do daily chores you used to have time for?
- Feel depressed or run-down at the end of the day?
- Suffer regular headaches, fatigue, sleep problems, muscle aches, or digestive troubles?
The more of these questions to which you answer "Yes," the more likely that stress is injuring your health. See the tips below about changes you can make in your life. Or see a doctor or therapist about sound ways to cope with stress.
If you'd like to evaluate your stress level, take our quick quiz. You'll also learn some simple relaxation tips.
Feeling tense? To make your holidays more relaxed, consider our expert suggestions to help put a lid on stress.
- Divide chores equally. It's essential that dual-income couples share household tasks, according to Dr. Redford Williams, a behavioral medicine expert at Duke University Medical Center. He explains that this doesn't mean the woman simply decides what needs to be done and hopes her partner pitches in. Each must anticipate chores and complete them within an agreed-upon time frame. This is especially true during the holiday season, when the list of things to do increases enormously. Work out a plan with your partner; for example, if it's easiest for you to buy all the gifts for out-of-town relatives, perhaps he can wrap and mail them.
- Don't be too hard on yourself. Don't feel guilty if you can't relax. Some people are simply more anxious than others. You may be one of them. However, psychotherapy and other types of behavior modification may help lower your stress setting a bit. Also, don't expect to be completely stress-free. We've all heard the saying, "A little stress may be good for you." As it turns out, this may be true. Stress hormones, in small doses, stimulate the brain and come in handy when we need to think on our feet, such as when we must make an important speech... or find the right gift for your spouse's mother.
- Exercise. Regular exercise helps take the edge off. Sporadic exercise isn't beneficial, and may be risky for people with health problems.
- Lean on others. A sympathetic ear can lighten the load. "Seek support from family and friends during difficult times," urges psychologist Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, of Ohio State University. You may have to make your needs known, she says. Others suggest sharing your problems with a close friend. Concider starting a support group for single parents. Hearing about other people's struggles may make your own troubles seem less intense and feel better.
- Meditate. There's good evidence that meditation and relaxation exercises are physically and psychologically soothing, according to Dr. Kiecolt-Glaser.
- Simplify your life. Many of us are caught in a time crunch, says Margaret Chesney, a stress researcher at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine. The solution: Set priorities. Decide what needs to be done, and then delegate or delete the rest. "Quality time with your kids is really important," she says. "Whether the cookies for your child's class party are really homemade is not such a big deal."
- Lobby for family-friendly policies. Work and family life often collide, but try to look for ways to reduce the pressure. For instance, you may be able to work through lunch in exchange for leaving earlier in the day, or compress a 40-hour schedule into four days. Even if this wouldn't work as a permanent arrangement, perhaps a short-term change for the holiday season would make you more relaxed.
- Talk it over. If the above steps don't make you feel better, a therapist can help you break down problems, so you can attack them separately and gain a sense of control. If you feel you can do something about a situation, it will likely seem less stressful. Some people may benefit from antidepressant drugs, which correct certain biochemical imbalances and reset the way the brain responds to stress.