By Michelle Konstantinovsky
Learning how to manage stress can be tough. It seems that stress seeps into almost every aspect of day-to-day life, from your work environment to your home — and even on the commute in between! And while massages and weekend retreats are great ways to rejuvenate, they're not always realistic if you're already crunched for time.
But letting stress go unmanaged isn't an option either — it can start to take a serious toll on your health. Everyday unmanaged stress can lead to digestive problems, increase your cholesterol and blood pressure levels and reduce your body's immune response. It can also cause sleepless nights and unhealthy diet choices and can even make you look as frazzled as you feel.
"Stress can lead to a tired look, poor skin tone, breakouts, rashes and hair that can look brittle or unattractive," says plastic surgeon Jeffrey Spiegel, MD, chief of the division of facial plastic and reconstructive surgery at Boston University Medical Center. "It can really be described as unnecessary wear and tear on the psyche and body."
Luckily, even if your schedule is scarce on opportunities to relax, you can turn a few things you already do on a daily basis into powerful ways to minimize stress. They're fast, simple and effective — even just a little bit of stress management can go a long way in helping you feel happier and healthier.
Stress Buster #1: Breathe
That's right. You can reduce stress just by breathing — how's that for basic? The key is to take a couple of extra seconds to be aware of how you're breathing. Slow, deep, even breaths allow you to take in more oxygen while relaxing your shoulder, neck and upper chest muscles.
Practice this kind of mindful breathing any time you start to feel overwhelmed. Jane P. Ehrman, a behavioral health specialist at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, recommends this 2-minute breathing exercise:
1. Take a slow, deep breath in from the abdomen.
2. Exhale slowly, with control, through pursed lips as though you're flickering the flame of a candle.
3. Take a normal breath in between.
4. Repeat this three to four times in one sitting, and repeat the entire series three to four times a day.
"Imagine inhaling a comfortable energy, exhaling tension and negative thinking," Ehrman says.
Stress Buster #2: Get Your Zzz's
You probably already know that a good night's rest leaves you feeling energized, upbeat and ready to tackle the day, and that lack of sleep has the opposite effect. But even so, most of you still aren't getting the recommended 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night. Almost one in five adults in the United States is moderately to excessively sleepy during the day, according to a 2010 study by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
Feeling well-rested doesn't have to be an out-of the-ordinary occurrence. Just a few simple changes to your nighttime routine can help increase the quality of your sleep. Try to follow a consistent sleep schedule by going to bed and rising at the same time every day, even on weekends and days off. About an hour or so before you plan to turn in, turn off your TV and computer and do something you find relaxing, like reading a book or taking a shower. Your to-do list will still be there in the morning — but at least you'll be able to tackle it with a positive attitude.
Stress Buster #3: Get Moving
Whether you unwind after work with a power walk through the park or you prefer to take your energy out on a punching bag at the gym, any form of exercise that gets your heart pumping and your body moving can help produce endorphins — the brain's feel-good neurotransmitters — while reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Don't associate exercise with long hours on the treadmill. The most important thing is to pick an activity you like — that way your workout is something you look forward to, rather than another "to-do" that contributes to stress and anxiety.
Stress Buster #4: Talk It Out
A strong social support network is a critical component of stress management. Scientific studies have shown that cultivating close confidants increases one's sense of self-worth, creates a sense of belonging and increases feelings of security. A recent study by the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center even suggested that a child's best friend can provide a measurable calming effect on stress hormones. It's not hard to imagine the same is true for adults.
So fight the impulse to cancel plans with friends when you're feeling pressed for time. Whether it's brunch, a coffee date or a quick phone call during lunch, spending time with people you care about isn't just fun — it will also leave you feeling more relaxed and upbeat all day long.
Stress Buster #5: Say Thanks
Good manners compel you to utter "thank you" as often as "please," but how often do you really stop to appreciate what you're saying thank you for?
According to an experimental comparison at the Emmons Psychology Lab at the University of California, Davis, people who kept weekly gratitude journals felt more optimistic about upcoming events than those who recorded hassles or neutral life events.
Try this easy gratitude meditation:
"Take two to three deep breaths to center yourself, then choose a positive feeling, connecting a person, place or thing to bring forth the good feelings," says Ehrman. "Really feel it! Breathe deeply, exhale, and imagine these good feelings resonating or radiating from your heart." Repeat this breathing three to four times to shift your mood and energy.
"Doing a daily gratitude meditation will help to lower blood pressure, reduce stress, deepen respirations, slow the heart rate, soften muscles, reduce pain, quiet the mind, enhance mood and more," Ehrman says.
Michelle Konstantinovsky is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.
Published September 27, 2011.