Wouldn't it be great to be able to do a simple nose twitch, like Samantha on "Bewitched," and -- poof! -- magically obliterate life's stressors as they head your way? One little wiggle of the proboscis and suddenly your boss is wearing a halo, your desk is immaculate and all stop-and-go traffic barring your way simply disappears.
Since such sorcery is unlikely to be within your powers any time soon, the only earthly solution is to take charge and save yourself. "The human body was never meant to deal with chronic stress," says Pamela Peeke, M.D., M.P.H., assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and author of Fight Fat After 40 (Viking, 2000). Release of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the neurotransmitter adrenalin is absolutely healthy under short-term stress, like when you need to run away from an angry dog and such hormones keep you alert and focused. "The problem is when we lead lives that make us feel like we are constantly running from an angry dog," says Peeke. "Increased levels of cortisol and adrenalin on a chronic basis are known to be toxic to almost every bodily system."
Before stress undermines your sanity, and your health, embrace these 11 simple ways to come to your own rescue.
1. Worry about one thing at a time. Women worry more than men do. In a study of 166 married couples who kept stress diaries for six weeks, Ronald Kessler, Ph.D., a psychologist and professor of health-care policy at Harvard University, found that women feel stress more frequently than men because women tend to worry in a more global way. Whereas a man might fret about something actual and specific -- such as the fact that he's just been passed over for a promotion -- a woman will tend to worry abstractly about her job, her weight, plus the well-being of every member of her extended family. Keep your anxiety focused on real, immediate issues, and tune out imagined ones or those over which you have zero control, and you'll automatically reduce stress overload.
2. Focus on your senses a few minutes a day. For a few minutes a day, practice being mindful -- focusing only on what's going on in the present -- whether it's during your workout or taking a break from your work, says Alice Domar, Ph.D., director of the Mind/Body Center for Women's Health at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Cambridge, Mass., and author of Self-Nurture (Viking, 2000). "Take a relaxing 20-minute walk and don't think about your job worries or anything else," suggests Domar. "Pay attention only to your senses -- what you see, hear, feel, smell. If you can do that every day, it makes a huge difference to your emotional and physical well-being."
3. (Debbie says "Draw about") Talk about -- or write out -- what's worrying you. Writing or talking about the things that prey on you -- in a diary, with friends, in a support group or even a home computer file -- helps you feel less alone and helpless. One study, published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, looked at people who had either rheumatoid arthritis or asthma -- conditions known to be stress-sensitive. One group chronicled in a perfunctory manner the things they did each day. The other group was asked to write daily about what it was like, including their fears and the pain, to have their disease. What researchers found: People who wrote at length about their feelings had far fewer episodes of their illness.
4. No matter how stressed or busy you are, exercise. "Exercise is probably the most effective stress reliever there is," says Domar. Researchers recently found that after spending 30 minutes on a treadmill, their subjects scored 25 percent lower on tests that measure anxiety and showed favorable changes in brain activity.
"If a woman has time to do just one thing a day for herself, I would say exercise," asserts Domar. If you can't hit the gym or trails, even a brisk 30-minute walk at lunch or getting up several times a day to stretch and walk around will help relieve stress.
5. Take time to be touched. Experts haven't figured out why having your body pressed and prodded works wonders, but they know that it does. Studies suggest massage can speed up weight gain in premature babies, improve lung function in asthmatics and boost immunity in men with HIV, says researcher/psychologist Tiffany Field, Ph.D., of the University of Miami's Touch Research Institute. If you can't indulge in regular full-body massages, treat yourself to the occasional pedicure, manicure or facial -- all nurturing, hands-on treats that offer some of the benefits of massage.
6. Speak a stress-free language. People who handle stress well tend to employ what stress experts call an "optimistic explanatory style." They don't beat themselves up when things don't work out in their favor. So instead of using statements that catastrophize an incident, like "I'm a complete failure," they might say to themselves, "I need to work on my backhand." Or they'll transfer blame to an external source. Rather than saying, "I really blew that presentation," it's, "That was a tough group to engage."
Peeke urges women to replace the word "expect" with "hope." "I believe the greatest amount of toxic, chronic stress comes from unmet expectations," she says. Expectations can only be used for those things over which you have the greatest personal control. You can expect to quench your thirst with a drink of water. You cannot expect to get the job you just interviewed for. You can hope to get it. Think "hope" instead of "expect" and you'll greatly reduce stress.
7. Don't be so serious. There's nothing like anxiety to annihilate your sense of humor. It would follow, then, that it's impossible to feel stressed when you're hunched over in a fit of giggles. Studies have shown, in fact, that laughter not only relieves tension, but actually improves immune function. "Swap jokes with your friends," suggests Domar. "Get a silly screen saver. Rent a funny movie when you get home. Stop taking things so seriously!"
8. "Fire" those voices of negativity. We all have what Peeke calls an "internal government," made up of various voices which alternately egg us on or drive us mad. "Some of these people -- the important ones -- were elected to that post," says Peeke, "and others were not but somehow got on the board anyway -- like cranky neighbors, micromanaging bosses." Peeke suggests visualizing a boardroom and actually firing those people who do nothing more than create stress in your life. Choosing to ignore their input is very cleansing and empowering, because it means you no longer allow those people to push your buttons.
9. Once a day, get away. When you're having a hell of a day -- good or bad -- checking out for 10-15 minutes is revitalizing. Find a place alone (and definitely ditch the cell phone) -- the attic, the bathroom, a quiet cafe, a big oak tree -- and wipe the slate clean for a few minutes. Do whatever it is that relaxes you: Meditate, read a novel, sing or sip tea. "It's so important to take some time -- even a few minutes -- to establish an inner sense of peace," says Dean Ornish, M.D., director of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, Calif. "What's crucial is not how much time you allot, but being consistent and doing something every day."
10. Name at least one good thing that happened today. It's a scenario played out every evening all over the country: Come home from work and start venting to your spouse or roommate about your day. Instead of creating a negative atmosphere the minute you walk in the door, try starting off the evening with your family or friends by exchanging what Domar calls "news and goods." "Every day something good happens, even if it's just that you were stuck in traffic and someone let you pass her," she says.
11. As a ritual, literally take the stress in, then release it. "No matter how good, bad, up, down, evil or uncomfortable life is at times, the bottom line is that we must embrace it," says Peeke. "It's so important to think in terms of being resilient, elastic, of being able to bounce back."
To achieve this positive POV, Peeke recommends doing a tai chi exercise known as "embracing the tiger," where you take your arms, spread them wide, put your hands together and then draw them -- and everything around you -- toward your navel, the center of your being. "The tiger represents all that is life," explains Peeke. "It is gorgeous, warm, colorful, powerful, dangerous, life-giving and potentially life-threatening. It's everything. Doing this allows you to say 'I take it all, the bad with the good.' " Then you reverse your hands and push them out. "By doing this you're saying, 'Look, I've accepted and integrated all that has happened to me and I no longer allow it to cause me stress.' " And when you can control stress, it can no longer control you.