Benjamin Franklin once commented that “… in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Well, Ben, most Americans have a third item to add to your list: stress. If you’re reading this, chances are you’re like the millions of people who are stressed in every aspect of their lives: at work, at home, in relationships, financially and even by the “little” things like traffic jams and rude cashiers.
Unfortunately, the stress epidemic sweeping our country is not only widespread; it’s also on the rise: According to the American Psychological Association, 77% of Americans say that they “regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress,” 73% have “experienced psychological symptoms,” and 48% feel that “their stress has increased over the past five years.”
“It’s impossible to get through life without encountering stress, and unfortunately, most people don’t learn the correct ways to cope with it,” says Allen Elkin, PhD, author of Stress Management For Dummies®, 2nd Edition (Wiley, May 2013, ISBN: 978-1-118-52392-6, $22.99). “That’s why symptoms ranging from feeling tired, irritable and worried to experiencing muscle tension, indigestion, a lowered immune system, and even heart disease are so common.”
In his book, Elkin gives readers guidance on how to identify stress triggers, make them more manageable, cope with unpleasant side effects and symptoms … and even use unavoidable stress in a positive, motivational way.
“The good news is, managing your stress isn’t a magical process,” Elkin assures. “It’s all about mastering new behaviors and finding new ways of looking at yourself and your world. If you’re committed, you can retrain how your body and mind react to all types of stressors. You’re more in control than you may think you are.”
Here, Elkin shares the top ten habits of highly effective stress managers:
- Knowing how to relax. In order to banish stress (or at least keep it at bay), you need to know how to let go of tension, relax your body, and quiet your mind. Keep in mind that there is no one right way to relax—some people prefer meditation or focused breathing, while others gravitate toward a more active approach, with techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation.
“However, attaining a state of greater relaxation need not be limited to formal approaches,” points out Elkin. “Any activity that distracts you from the stressors of your world can be relaxing. It can take the form of a hot bath, a stroll in the park, a cup of coffee (decaffeinated, though!), or a good book or favorite TV program.”
- Eating right and exercising often. You may not like hearing that your unhealthy diet and sedentary lifestyle might be impacting your ability to handle stress—but it’s true. Your body needs a balanced, healthy diet to maximize your ability to cope. This means giving your body the right nutrients that supply you with adequate reserves of vitamins, minerals, and other essential elements. And don’t forget the liquids. Your body needs to be adequately hydrated in order to operate optimally.
“And don’t forget about exercise, which can reduce stress, help you to relax, and make you feel happy!” reminds Elkin. “Engage in some form of physical activity regularly—at least twice a week and more often when possible. Your exercise regime doesn’t have to be fancy or overdone. Walking whenever you can is one of the more overlooked forms of exercise out there. If you belong to a health club or gym, even better. The secret of exercise is building it into your life by scheduling it.”
- Getting enough sleep. Everyone knows what it’s like to wake up tired, drained, and grumpy after a bad night’s sleep. Your body and mind just aren’t prepared to tackle stress, and as a result, problems and irritants seem even more overwhelming than usual. Keep in mind that while individual needs vary, most people do well on seven or eight hours per night, so make a reasonable bedtime a priority.
“Basic sleep ‘hygiene’ can really help when it comes to getting quality rest,” comments Elkin. “Try to get to bed at a consistent time, leaving you enough hours of sleep before you hear your alarm. Before bed, don’t get over-stimulated by exercise or an argument with your partner or spouse. Keep the room dark and cool. Stay away from large meals just before bedtime. Avoid stimulants like smoking or caffeinated drinks. And reserve the bedroom for sleep if at all feasible.”
- Not worrying about the unimportant stuff. Many—if not most—of life’s stressors are relatively inconsequential. But putting things into perspective is often much easier said than done. Elkin recommends asking yourself, On a scale of one to ten, how would I rate the relative importance of my stressor?
Remember that eights, nines and tens are the “biggies”: major life problems such as serious illness, the loss of a loved one, a major financial loss and so on. Your fours, fives, sixes and sevens are problems of moderate importance: a lost wallet, a broken-down car, or a broken water heater. Your ones, twos and threes are your minor worries or stressors: forgetting your wallet, having your watch battery die or getting a bad haircut.
“Now, rate the level of worry and distress you feel about that stressor,” Elkin instructs. “Again, use a similar ten-point scale, where ten represents ‘a great deal of distress’ and one is ‘only a very small amount of distress.’ Finally, compare the two numbers. If the amount of stress you’re experiencing is larger than the importance of the stressor, you’re probably overreacting.”
- Not getting angry often. Anger is a stress emotion that affects your mood, your patience, your ability to effectively relate to others and even your physical health. That’s why knowing how to avoid becoming angry and losing your temper is a skill well worth mastering. Learning how to control the expression of your anger (which can often make a bad situation worse, thus creating more stress) can also spare you a lot of grief and regret.
“Much of your anger comes from various forms of distorted thinking,” explains Elkin. “You may have unrealistic expectations of others (and of yourself!) that trigger anger when they aren’t met. Your anger may arise from low frustration tolerance, where you exaggerate your inability to cope with discomfort. You may be ‘catastrophizing and awfulizing’ or creating some ‘can’t-stand-it-itis.’”
- Being organized. You don’t have to label every drawer in your house or structure your calendar down to the minute, but it is important to feel a sense of control over your environment. A cluttered and disorganized life leads to a stressed life. (If you’re skeptical, just think about how frustrating it feels to get out the door ten minutes late in the morning because you couldn’t find some important papers or your keys!)
“Getting organized means developing effective organizational strategies and tools,” says Elkin. “For many, clutter is the prime culprit. For others, the lack of an organizational strategy becomes the roadblock; for example, wondering where, exactly, you stored a particular file. Fortunately, once you’ve identified what your organizational challenges are, you can overcome them with help from others and advice from books, articles and these days, online instructional videos.”
- Managing time efficiently. How aware are you of how you spend your time? How much of your day is productive, and how much time is spent doing nothing, procrastinating or goofing off? While there’s nothing wrong with a little downtime, you do need to use your time wisely and be in control of your schedule if you want to minimize stress. No one likes the feeling of having a long to-do list and very little time in which to accomplish those tasks—especially because of poor time management!
“A good place to start is creating and using organizational lists,” shares Elkin. “By combining to-do lists and your calendar (paper or digital), you have a powerful organizational tool to help you gain control over your time. To know where your time goes, you may try keeping a simple log, tracking how you use your time. Doing this for even a few days gives you a good picture of what needs to be changed.”
- Having a strong support system. Don’t neglect meaningful people in your life; after all, they can support you, provide a listening ear, make you laugh, distract you, and even offer solutions to life’s problems. For these reasons, says Elkin, spending time with your family, friends and acquaintances is a very effective “stress buffer.”
“If you find that your social support system is a little thin, consider ways of meeting others like joining a book group, playing a sport, or hiking, walking or biking in a local park,” he recommends. “Going online can make this process much easier. Your local church or synagogue can also bring you into contact with people who share your values and goals. And don’t rule out a volunteer experience; you can help others and meet new friends!”
- Living according to one’s values. Examine your values and goals, assessing whether they truly represent who you are and where you want to go in life. Pursuing values that aren’t reflective of the kind of life you want can lead you to an unhappy and stressful place. Often, people cling to core values that they inherited from their parents, their peers, their religion, their teachers, the media, their employer, and more, and those adopted values cause them to behave, interact, eat, vote, believe and live in ways that are unfulfilling.
“Ask yourself, What do I want to get out of life, and what is truly important to me?” instructs Elkin. “What may have seemed worthwhile and important at one point may not be as valuable and meaningful to you now. The greater the congruence between your values and your goals, and between your decisions and your actions, the lower your stress level will be.”
- Having a good sense of humor. The old saying “laughter is the best medicine” has stuck around because it’s true! Whenever you can laugh at a frustrating situation (or even yourself), you’re well on your way to putting stressors into perspective and not allowing them to infect your mindset. Plus, laughter and smiles—whatever their source—simply feel good and are a natural mood booster!
“Laugh at life’s little hassles and annoyances,” advises Elkin. “Don’t take yourself too seriously. And remember this bit of wisdom: He who laughs lasts.”
“These qualities are, I think, the most important skills and behaviors for reducing stress and creating stress resilience,” concludes Elkin. “But don’t let applying them to your life stress you out! Pick just one or two strategies to focus on, and once you’ve incorporated them into your life, move on to a few more. Before long, you’ll be enjoying life’s pleasures and satisfactions more while devoting less time and energy to draining, unhealthy worries and frustrations.”
Allen Elkin, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and the director of The Stress Management & Counseling Center in New York City. Nationally known for his expertise in the field of stress and emotional disorders, he has appeared frequently on Today, Good Morning America, and Good Day New York.