When life gets too fast-paced, chill out with these easy ways to a calmer and healthier you.
Q: I'm constantly juggling, which can be stressful. How can I relax more?
A: For most of us, stress is a fact of life. In a recent national health study, 78 percent of women said that they regularly experience stress or anxiety. Research indicates that working moms are the most highly stressed group compared with men and other women. But there's a lot you can do to manage and even prevent anxious feelings.
Keep your surroundings soothing. Sunlight increases the brain's levels of the calming chemical serotonin, so take your breaks outside or at least near a window. Surround yourself with calming colors like lavender and blue instead of high-energy colors like red and orange. Minimize irritating background noises like ringing telephones and office machines by closing your door, getting a sound machine or even using earplugs.
Get moving. Regular exercise, such as brisk walking, running or bike riding, stimulates the brain to produce mood-boosting chemicals called endorphins.
Eat right. Limit caffeine intake to no more than four beverages a day and keep refined sugar in your diet to a minimum. Caffeine can increase your heart rate, and sugar can lead to elevated levels of the stress hormone adrenaline in your body. Try substituting peppermint tea for a cup of coffee. And avoid skipping meals, which lowers blood sugar and elevates adrenaline.
Sleep at least seven to eight hours. When you're not rested, it's easy to become irritable and stressed because you have less energy to deal with problems.
Plug into pals. Make time to talk and meet with friends. Research shows that having a support system can reduce the effects of stress. Acknowledging the stressors in your life can help you find solutions and feel less alone.
Tighten your to-do list. Strive to be a good working mom, not a perfect one. Do your best to plan ahead and stay organized, which will help you feel more in control. And pick your priorities before you say yes to every request you get, say, from your child's school or from work.
Take breaks throughout the day. No matter how swamped you are, take a deep breath and stretch, even if it's just for a minute or so.
Find time for yourself. Rather than considering time for yourself as another item on your to-do list, think of it as doing something you love, even for just a few minutes. For instance, listen to your favorite music at your desk. Get up ten minutes earlier than the rest of your family to watch the sun rise. Stock your bedside table with a paperback to enjoy at the end of the day. And when you can, schedule longer pleasure times to meet a friend for lunch (remember that support system?), participate in a book club or get a massage. Take a break once in a while, and everyone in your life will reap the benefits.
Q: I've heard that some stress is good for you, but I've also heard a lot about how it can be bad for your health. Which is true?
A: Both. Short-term stress can be a terrific motivator at work, urging you to meet deadlines or complete time-sensitive tasks like writing a memo or polishing up a presentation. On the other hand, some health problems have been associated with prolonged stress. These include elevated blood pressure, which can increase your risk for health problems such as heart disease and stroke, a weakened immune system, infertility, headaches and stomach ailments. Stress can also disrupt sleep, trigger skin inflammations like hives, rashes and acne (possibly due to elevated stress hormones) and exacerbate existing conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome or eczema. Weight gain is another problem: Research shows that women tend to make unhealthy dietary choices when they're stressed and may eat food more quickly. Plus, some research suggests that chronic stress can elevate the body's cortisol level, which may cause fat to accumulate around the stomach. One study on mothers found that those with the most stress had changes in their chromosomes that were equal to having aged nine to 17 years. And mentally, stress can lead to moodiness, depression, anxiety and difficulty concentrating. However, in a surprising and welcome development, research from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle finds little to support the widely perceived link between stress and cancer—giving us one less thing to stress about!
Our Expert: Jay Winner, MD, family physician, director of the stress-management program at the Sansum-Santa Barbara Medical Foundation Clinic and author of Stress Management Made Simple: Effective Ways to Beat Stress for Better Health.