Stress is like dark chocolate. A little of it won’t kill you. In fact, small blocks here and there can be good for you, or at least give you a reason to get out of bed in the morning. But chronic and severe stress will damage your body and mind, blocking the fluid communication to and from most organs–especially in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and in the limbic system, the brain’s emotional center. Believe me, you want these two systems running as smoothly as possible, with low levels of the delinquent stress hormones in your bloodstream.
The best way to combat chronic stress is to always keep some stress busters handy. Here are 10 of my favorites.
Cut your to-do list in half. How? Ask yourself this question after every item: Will I die tomorrow if this doesn’t get accomplished? Believe me, even you A-type personalities will get a lot of no’s. I’m sure Franklin Covey has a more efficient and elaborate system. But here’s mine: Every morning I immediately jot down my to-do list. Once I experience the first heart palpitation, the list gets cut in half.
Let’s say you’ve got five huge work projects due next week, two Cub Scout commitments you promised your son, your mom’s overdue taxes on your desk, your wife’s 50th birthday celebration to plan, and your daughter’s computer to fix. What do you do? You record all the tasks on a sheet of paper or on your computer and you give each one a number between 1 and 10: 10 being the most important (life threatening) to one (stupid thing I signed up for). Start with the 10s. If you never get beyond the 8s, that’s okay! Don’t beat yourself up about it. It can go on tomorrow’s list.
3. Use Pencil, Not Pen
If you rely on your to-do list as much as I do, then you’ll want to start using pencil instead of pen because one important stress buster is to try to stay as flexible as possible. Things change! And change is not the enemy, even though our brain categorizes it as such. You want to be able to erase a task or reminder at any time, because who the heck knows what your day will be like.
4. Give Away Your Cape
If you haven’t already guessed by now, you are not a superhero and don’t possess supernatural qualities and capabilities. And if you do, you should be advertizing the fact so we can call on you when we get stressed. Seriously, I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to join the race … the human race. Which means surrendering to limitations and conditions–like the number of hours in a day (24) and the amount of time it takes to get from point A to point B. In your car. Not in your Batmobile.
Embrace your humanity and your limitations. You’ll be a lot happier with yourself.
5. Collaborate and Cooperate
There are lots of people out there with to-do lists that look very similar to yours. Why not let them do some of your tasks so that you all don’t have to do them? The moms around me have mastered this concept, as they have set up a babysitting co-op: one mom volunteers to watches a neighbor’s kid and by doing so earns babysitting points that she can redeem when a neighbor watches her kids. Think co-op. It’s an effective system.
Just as chronic and severe stress can damage organic systems in our body, humor can heal. When people laugh, the autonomic nervous system mellows out and the heart is allowed to relax. Laughter can also boost the immune system, as it has been found to increase a person’s ability to fight viruses and foreign cells, and reduces the levels of three stress hormones: cortisol, epinephrine, and dopac. Plus it’s just fun to laugh. And having fun is its own stress buster. Not to mention, the opposite sex finds it laughter a very sexy trait.
Exercise relieves stress in several ways. First, cardiovascular workouts stimulate brain chemicals that foster growth of nerve cells. Second, exercise increases the activity of serotonin and norepinephrine. Third, a raised heart rate releases endorphins and a hormone known as ANP, which reduces pain, induces euphoria, and helps control the brain’s response to stress and anxiety. You need not run a marathon or complete an Ironman triathlon to experience the runner’s high. A quick stroll in the morning or in the evening might be just enough to tell the stress hormones in your blood to scatter and to let those endorphins out to play.
8. Stop Juggling
I realize some multi-tasking is inevitable in our rushed culture, but do we really have to simultaneously cook dinner, talk to Mom, help with homework, and check e-mail? If you were an excellent waiter or waitress in your past or present, then skip this one. However, if you have trouble chewing gum and walking at the same time like I do, you might try your best to concentrate on one activity at a time. That way you know it will get done well the first time.
9. Build Boundaries
Speaking of activities, set some boundaries, ASAP–meaning designate a place and time for certain things so that your brain doesn’t have to wear so many hats at the same time. I thought this was impossible as a mom who works from home until I made myself abide by some rules: computer is off when I’m not working, and computer stays off in the evening and on weekends. My brain adjusted nicely and appreciated the notice of when and where each hat was required, and it actually started to relax a tad.
10. Think Globally
I don’t say this to induce a guilt trip. No, no, no. Guilt trips compound stress. What I mean here is a simple reminder that compared to other problems in our world today–abject poverty in Somalia or Cambodia–the things that we stress about are pretty minor. In other words, if we shift our perspective a little, we can see that there are far worse dilemmas than maybe your unfinished report or my poor royalty figures on a few books. Put another way: Don’t sweat the small stuff, doing so only makes the small stuff bigger than it truly is.