Although relaxation ought to be, um, relaxing, stress management has somehow become yet another pressing item on our to-do lists. We're made to feel like failures if we can't live in a state of balance. But stress is good. Great, even. The discomfort of stress is a sign that you are tackling life's problems head-on. Stress also improves productivity and performance - at work, at the gym - and your body will be stronger if you alternate periods of calm and heart-pounding excitement.
Are you as healthy as you think?
If you want a pretty healthy life, your goal is not to completely avoid stress and lounge in your pj's all day. Not only is the couch-potato life boring, it's a classic sign of clinical depression. Your goal is to bring on a reasonable amount of challenge and excitement - and amass a repertoire of strategies to keep you from being overwhelmed when life throws you a few too many curveballs.
How much sleep do you really need?
Once stress reaches a certain level, however, productivity goes down. Too much stress can lead to sleep problems and irritability and, over the long term, is linked to high blood pressure and a weakened immune system. Know this: Sometimes stress will get the better of you. A crucial aspect of stress management is self-acceptance - knowing that you are, for example, a stress eater. There may be days when you are so frustrated that you eat a pound of fettuccine Alfredo. It happens. Do what you can to prevent these reactions - meditate, keep a food diary - and then move on.
Is stress making your body ache?
If stress gets to be too much, try these solutions:
Ask for what you need. You have to stop feeling guilty or weak for relying on others. Remember: When you ask for help, you're giving your friends or family the gift of being needed. Conversely, just say no to requests that will only boost your anxiety levels.
Meditation. People get nervous about trying this, but it's not hard. Find a quiet place to sit. Then think of a mantra, which is a sound, word, or phrase that has a peaceful or neutral meaning to you. The classic mantra is "om," but you can also try "stillness," or "calm blue ocean," or anything that feels right. Breathe in and say your mantra to yourself; exhale and say it again. Repeat this for 15 to 20 minutes, trying to focus on your mantra. Your attention will wander, and that's okay; gently bring it back to your mantra. That's it! And it's so worth it: Meditation evokes your body's relaxation response - meaning it physically calms you down, helps you tune out stress and other distractions, and even lowers your blood pressure.
Eight ways to declutter your mind
Deep breathing. Mentally count "one, two, three, four" while you inhale deeply. When you exhale, count "four, three, two, one."
Guided imagery. Imagine yourself in a calming situation - say, a field of wildflowers or a beach. Use each of your senses to put yourself fully into the scene. Can you smell the flowers? Is the water warm against your toes?
Keep a journal. Expressing your emotions in writing can be highly beneficial to your health and happiness, studies show.
Find your spiritual side
What do you do to relive stress? Do you have a stress success story?
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Reprinted with permission of Hearst Communications, Inc.