When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Then use lemonade to wash down Xanax. Funny stuff on a bumper sticker, but as a commentary on America's epidemic of stress and anxiety? A little too close for comfort. Fact is, stress is a serious problem for us right now. In a survey of 1,568 adults recently commissioned by the American Psychological Association (APA), 75 percent of respondents said they had experienced moderate to high levels of stress throughout the previous year. Women bore the brunt of it, with 27 percent reporting severe stress compared with 19 percent of men. Women also were far more likely to develop stress-induced symptoms such as lethargy, sadness, irritability, and appetite changes that led to overeating. Naturally, there's a bumper sticker for that, too: "Stressed" spelled backwards is "desserts."
Clearly we know how stress makes us feel emotionally--stressed!--but it also manifests physically. The process begins when the brain perceives a threat and responds by activating the body's fight-or-flight defenses. This involves the release of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which prime the body for action by accelerating heart rate, tensing major muscle groups, and even thickening blood--a safety measure that speeds clotting if you're gravely wounded, says journalist Thea Singer, author of Stress Less (Hudson Street Press, 2010). That's handy if your house is on fire, but if stress never lets up and your system gets stuck in code red, health can take a hit. "We've found that over time, cortisol can wear down the protective ends of DNA," says Elissa Epel, Ph.D., a psychiatry researcher at the University of California in San Francisco. "This ages the immune system, heightening a person's vulnerability to cardiovascular disease and a host of other illnesses."
It's not always possible to make life less hectic (hey, those weeknight dinners aren't going to cook themselves), but not to worry: Experts say the real trick to achieving greater calm and better health is to change how you respond to stress. Read on for three simple strategies, and get ready to breathe a sigh of relief.
Skill #1: Figure out what's making you crazy
On the surface, it seems we have no trouble identifying our stress triggers. Women who took part in the APA survey cited money as their top stressor, followed by work, the economy, and family responsibilities. But these aren't triggers as much as broad categories, so expansive it's tough to tease out the real culprit. So it pays to dig deeper, even if it makes you uneasy. "People tend to treat stress like the Big Bad Wolf--they think if they open the door it will consume them," says Edward Creagan, M.D., a stress specialist and oncologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. "But in reality, confronting the monster is half the battle."
To pinpoint what's pushing your buttons, try asking yourself, What aspects of my daily life feel overwhelming? Stress arises from the circumstances that make us feel helpless, Singer explains. For instance, maybe you're anxious about money--even though you earn a good salary. The real problem could be a haphazard bill-paying system that leaves your monthly budget in disarray.
That said, your body sometimes knows better than your mind which circumstances are setting you on edge, says Shelley Carson, Ph.D., a psychologist and researcher at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. So if you're still stumped, be on the lookout for headaches, fatigue, impatience, and GI distress. Such symptoms can flare in stressful situations--like when you realize the utility bill is overdue.
Once you zero in on specific stressors, problems tend to appear smaller, allowing solutions to bubble up around them, Singer says. For example, maybe it's time to download a budgeting application or make an appointment with a financial planner.
Skill #2: Root out and rewrite self-defeating thoughts
Even when you take steps to intercept stressful situations, a curveball can catch you unaware--for instance, you blow a tire on your way to the school fund-raiser you're overseeing. It's hard not to feel overwhelmed in a situation like that, Carson acknowledges. But allowing frazzled nerves to get the better of you cranks the brain into fight-or-flight mode, putting stress hormones into play when there's no physical emergency at hand. "Your body's stress response is closely tied to your mental appraisal of a situation," Carson says. To adjust your appraisal and counteract stress, she recommends the following strategy: When a tense situation strikes, scan your thoughts for negative statements that position you as lacking control. Examples of stress-fueling thoughts include Why do these things always happen to me? and I don't have time for this right now! Then, revise those thoughts to frame yourself as a take-charge survivor with the upper hand. Stress-defusing affirmations include This is unexpected, but I can manage it and Once I adjust my schedule, things will be OK. Your flat tire might have been an unpleasant surprise, but you still have a say in what happens next.
Skill #3: Know when to call a time-out
It's not even noon, and already your furnace is on the fritz, the dog mauled your snow boots, and your son was sent to the principal's office. On days when nothing goes right, battling stress can seem futile. The more efficient option? Give yourself a break. "A pleasurable distraction can interrupt the body's fight-or-flight response by separating the brain from the stress-inducing input," Carson explains. So put damage control on hold for a few minutes while you wait for the repairman. Watch a funny video online, phone an upbeat friend, or do a crossword puzzle. Afterward, your mind will be calmer and you'll be better equipped to cope.
For longer-lasting stress protection, consider meditation, deep breathing, yoga, or other exercise. These activities boost the body's resilience to stress, plus they fire up the brain's reward center--perks that linger even after you've completed a session, Carson says. It doesn't take much for the benefits to kick in, either. In a six-week study conducted last year, volunteers who were randomly assigned to take an hour-long yoga class once a week reported feeling more self-confident during stressful situations, as well as calmer and happier in general, than those who skipped the sun salutations. "The longer you engage in these activities, the faster your body is able to relax," Carson says. "And when your body is calm, you literally can't feel stressed."
Sneaky little stressors
Environmental triggers can set off the body's stress response without you even realizing it, says psychologist Shelly Carson, Ph.D. Here, four annoyances worth nixing:
1. Ambient racket
Studies show that background noise--say, from a TV droning in another room--can stimulate the release of the stress hormone cortisol. If you can't quiet the clamor, try to distance yourself.
2. Wardrobe woes
Itchy sweaters, too-tight hosiery, pumps that pinch. An uncomfortable ensemble can leave you on edge all day. So when choosing an outfit, don't focus on how it looks until you consider how it feels. Not comfy? Slip on something else.
3. Chronic clutter
It's not how much stuff you have; it's how you store it. Stress sets in when objects are hard to find or appear disorderly. Two quick moves that can help: Clear tabletops and pick up loose objects from the floor.
4. "Urgent" emails
E-mails cause more stress for women than men because women feel greater pressure to respond immediately. So try turning off your e-mail alerts, and check your inbox when the timing is right for you.
P.S. Mark your calendar
January 5 is the most stressful day of the year, according to a British survey of 2,000 people. Chalk it up to the holidays ending, work resuming, and gloomy winter weather persisting. Fully 26 percent of respondents reported feeling so tense that the sound of their coworkers breathing was enough to drive them nuts. Next time January 5 rolls around, keep tension in check by exercising, catching up with a friend, or devoting a few minutes to your favorite hobby. (And consider holding your breath at the office watercooler.)