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How to Stress Less

You can face your too-much-to-do day without tensing up or listening to every crazy thought your brain churns out. Are you ready to learn how?

By Meredith Janson

How You Can Relieve Stress

It's been a long, long day. You skipped lunch, ran 50 errands, and now you realize that your whole head is aching, you are seriously cranky, and every muscle in your body is sore. Your life, as they say, is out of control. But that doesn't mean you have to suffer. "There's a lot you can do to relieve stress, even in a single moment, if you prepare yourself," says Herbert Benson, M.D., director emeritus, Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. Next time you're feeling frenzied, frustrated, and fed up, try one of our instant serenity tips.

Tension Trigger #1

It's 3 a.m. and you're wide awake, heart racing as you worry about tomorrow's staff meeting.

How to Stress Less: Picture a soothing scene.
"Our bodies respond as well when we imagine walking on the beach or sitting in our backyard as when we actually go there," says Leslie Davenport, author of Healing and Transformation Through Self-Guided Imagery (Celestial Arts). Mental images are a powerful way to create a calming link between the mind and body. Close your eyes and take a few slow, deep breaths. Spend five minutes visualizing a peaceful spot, making it feel real by noticing details like air temperature, sounds, scents, and colors.

Tension Trigger #2

The kids are clamoring for dinner, your mother calls to say she needs you to pick up her prescription right this minute, and your neck and shoulders are in knots.

How to Stress Less: Give yourself a mini-massage.
"It's a fail-safe way to reduce your heart rate, slow the release of stress hormones, and boost serotonin," says Tiffany Field, Ph.D., director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine. Try this anywhere, anytime shoulder stretch from Katy Dreyfus, author of The Massage Deck (Chronicle Books). Tilt your head to the right. With your right hand, press into the muscles between your left shoulder and base of the neck. As you squeeze, rotate the left shoulder in small circles. Repeat on the other side.

Tension Trigger #3

You're obsessed that your son's C+ in geometry will ruin his chances of getting into college.

How to Stress Less: Stop for a reality check.
In all likelihood, you're being driven to distraction by ideas from your own overactive imagination. "Most of what we say to ourselves is negative," says Alice Domar, Ph.D., coauthor of Be Happy Without Being Perfect (Crown). "It's human nature. But you can learn to stop those stressful thoughts." When you're feeling overwhelmed, create a short phrase that describes what you're feeling (for instance, "He'll never get into a good school,") then ask yourself whether this scenario is more of a knee-jerk assumption, or is supported by real evidence. Now invent a more factually accurate statement. For example: "My son may struggle with math, but he excels in other subjects, so his college prospects are still good."

Tension Trigger #4

The clock's ticking—you have only 20 minutes to drop off the dry cleaning before you have to pick up the kids from practice. Meanwhile, the guy at the cleaners is taking his sweet time with the customer in front of you.

How to Stress Less: Count your way to calm.
Deep breathing puts more oxygen into your bloodstream and lowers your blood pressure and heart rate. The next time you're fuming, notice your exhalations, counting through them from one to four, then repeat the process until you're feeling better. "Consciously choosing where to focus your attention instead of letting it be pulled around by events short-circuits your body's fight-or-flight stress response," says Nina Smiley, Ph.D., coauthor of The Three Minute Meditator (Mind's I Press).

Tension Trigger #5

The cable company stood you up. You spilled milk all over the kitchen. And the babysitter canceled for Saturday, so goodbye, date night.

How to Stress Less: Blow off steam.
"There can be tremendous relief when we transfer our distressing thoughts and feelings from inside our minds to outside," says Davenport. Ideally, you'd call a friend and ask her to listen to a quick vent when your day is unraveling. But for those times when that's not an option, keep a small notebook in your purse so you can write a few uncensored lines about how annoyed you are. The benefits are real: Ongoing studies by psychologist James W. Pennebaker, Ph.D., found that people who wrote daily about their emotions felt better and went to the doctor fewer times. If journaling isn't for you, try scribbling mindlessly or drawing jagged lines on a piece of paper, then tearing it up. "It's not the exact form of release that is important," says Davenport, "but the process of letting the feelings out."

Tension Trigger #6

The great idea you pitched to your boss fell flat, last fall's splurge jeans are now too tight, and your best friend took her book club pal to the movie you told her you were dying to see.

How to Stress Less: Give yourself pep talks.
When life hands us a disappointment, it's often our nasty inner critic who delivers the knockout punch. But we can train ourselves to be more resilient. "Repeat a simple self-affirming phrase several times every day and it will sink in and counteract the negativity," says Matthew McKay, Ph.D., coauthor of The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook (New Harbinger). Think of a compliment you'd like to receive and turn it into a statement—for instance, "I'm a talented, creative person" or "I'm fun to be with" and repeat it to yourself frequently. "Make your affirmation part of your regular routine by pairing it with everyday events like brushing your teeth, sitting down to a meal, or taking breaks at work," suggests McKay.

Tension Trigger #7

Is it Friday the 13th, or what? Nope, it's just one of those "Murphy's Law" days when anything that can go wrong does go wrong. You just can't get out of your own way.

How to Stress Less: Do a good deed.
"Like exercise and nutrition, helping people is great for your health," says Allan Luks, coauthor of The Healing Power of Doing Good (Ballantine). And while research shows that volunteering a couple of hours a week provides the greatest benefit, "an everyday quick good deed can also be a powerful tool by taking the focus off your own problems," says clinical psychologist Barbara Becker Holstein. Send an encouraging e-card to a friend, drop a donation in the box for the food bank, or ask a coworker how she is and then take a few minutes to really listen. You'll both feel better!

How 5 Women Learned to Chill Out

Five inspired women share how they get a grip on what's giving them grief.

Originally published in the February 2009 issue of Family Circle magazine.

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