Less Stress? Yes!

Feel anxious? Overwhelmed by too many obligations at work and home? Been yelling at your spouse, kids, or co-workers lately for no good reason? If so, you’re probably stressed, and you’re not alone. A Gallup Organization survey finds that almost one in five adults say stress affects their concentration at work, all or some of the time. Unattended, high stress can affect your health and personal life. It can even lead to depression. Here are 12 suggestions from health and fitness experts that can help you ease daily stress and create a positive mental attitude.

  • Know the symptoms. Some common signs include faster heartbeat, increased sweating, nausea, feelings of unease (“butterflies in the stomach”), shaky hands, irritability, heartburn, nightmares, fidgeting, headaches, and rapid, shallow, or irregular breathing.

  • You are what you drink. Skip that cup of coffee or caffeinated soda, and drink fruit juice or water instead. There’s enough caffeine in two cups of coffee to increase your heart rate an extra 16 beats per minute while boosting anxiety and adrenaline, notes New Orleans psychologist John Wakeman. Go easy, too, on sugar, cigarettes, and alcohol, all stress-enhancers.

  • You are what you shouldn’t eat. A poor diet leads to fatigue (another stress inducer) and can contribute to depression, say doctors. Some suggest keeping an apple or banana handy for a daily fruit break. But don’t routinely eat alone. That keeps you too focused on work and reduces human contact, which can create personal isolation and more stress. Join co-workers at lunch. If you work alone, go home for lunch or brownbag it at the mall or a park bench.

  • Pray. A few minutes of prayer or meditation in the morning helps you relax, puts the day ahead into perspective, and creates confidence, say experts.

  • Stretch. Just 20 minutes of exercise is calming for up to 24 hours, say researchers, because vigorous activity expels excess adrenaline while releasing endorphins (which block pain and anxiety) into the body.

  • Take breaks. This is important when you work long hours or have growing responsibilities. On your feet a lot? Sit for a while. At a desk or bench for hours? Take a short walk. Fresh air and a change of view help you think. Can’t go out? Walk briskly upstairs or down the hall. You can lessen stress, too, by reducing rapid breathing: Inhale normally, but exhale slowly, thinking of something pleasant.

  • Go to bed. Chronically stressed people “almost always suffer from fatigue,” notes Canadian psychotherapist David Posen. So, a good night’s sleep fights stress buildup.

  • Say “No.” If you’re stressed from doing too much, maybe you’re saying “yes” to too many requests, projects, or invitations. Set priorities. Do what you reasonably can, but don’t feel obligated to do everything.

  • Check off. Each morning, make a short “to do” list and check off items as you complete them. Do the most difficult or unpleasant tasks first. Even if you don’t get all done each day, you’ll have a greater sense of control as well as a sense of accomplishment.

  • Reduce it. Don’t let big projects at work, home, or for civic or social groups overwhelm you. Review and break them down into manageable sizes (i.e., steps in a process, time allotted).

  • Leave it. Don’t take work worries home, or home cares to work. That just aggravates matters. Saki Santorelli, professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, suggests marking the transition between work and home-and mentally leaving behind stressful problems-with a ritual, such as immediately changing into casual clothes.

  • Have fun! Do something new or fun each month, such as weekending at a fancy hotel, going to the theater or a local hot spot, visiting a great exhibition, biking, hiking, or reading the latest page-turner. Escape “winter blues” and vacation in sunnier climes. If your job is fast-paced and demanding, vacation quietly at home or on retreat; if it’s routine, do something exciting. And congratulate yourself with small rewards-e.g., candy, a movie, or a new compact disk-for finishing those stress-causing tasks.