Stress is rampant in modern America. In fact, anxiety disorders, which affect 40 million adults in the United States, are the country's most common form of mental illness, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Whatever personal and societal factors might contribute to this, psychologists and wellness consultants say stress management should be a cornerstone of our frenetic lives. Here are eight of the most useful tips to keep minds healthy, creativity high and work-life balance within reach.
Identify and Control Your Stressors
Stress is mainly triggered from the outside, according to Judith Belmont, a psychotherapist, mental health speaker and author of The Swiss Cheese Theory of Life. But “it is our attitude and our perceptions that determine how stress affects us,” she says.
From this perspective, stress is a result of our personal interpretations of events. So, even if you can’t eliminate all of your stressors -- work deadlines, finances, hosting the holidays -- if you can control your inner state, then you can control your stress levels. Perhaps the most direct way to do this involves mindfulness meditation.
Taking a few minutes to meditate daily helps relieve stress and increases one’s sense of well-being, says Dr. Kathleen Hall, founder and CEO of The Mindful Living Network & The Stress Institute. Many peer-reviewed studies have testified to these benefits, and the practice has found traction among Silicon Valley engineers and developers.
Reframe the Way You Think About Stress
Belmont likens stress to a musical string: too much tension and it snaps; too loose, and it remains limp and ineffective.
“All too often we think stress is negative and something to be avoided, but we need stress to be successful both personally and professionally,” she says. “Stress can give us motivation and energy, and demonstrates passion…[It] is negative and handicaps us only when it is out of our control and seems unmanageable.”
In addition to mental practices, regular physical exercise is a time-tested way to reduce stress. If you can’t wake up early enough to take a morning run, a 20-minute walk during lunch will help you feel more in control of your mind as well as your body.
Memorizing a handful Yoga stretches or participating in family activities are great options for physical activity if you don’t have a lot of time on your hands, says Hall.
Start the day by writing out one positive intention. “Think of an action or resolution that will help you put a positive spin on the day,” suggests Belmont. “Today I will make an effort to smile more. When I am in the meeting, I will say at least two things even if I fear sounding stupid. This will help me to feel less immobilized by my fears.”
Promote a Healthy Schedule at Work
Employers should have a responsibility to conduct business in a way that’s supportive of the mental health and well being of their workforce, says Dr. Greg Marcus, a life-balance coach and author. Marcus cites Henry Ford instituting the 40-hour work week finding he could make as many cars in five days as he could in six, because people made fewer mistakes when they only worked 40 hours.
“I think we all know that it takes far longer to find and correct a mistake than it does to do it right the first time,” says Marcus. “Therefore, company policy should help support a lifestyle where both physical rest and mental recovery become part of the daily routine.”
We strive for work-life integration, but it's still important to devote time to unplugging from electronic devices. During family dinners, put your cellphones and tablets on silent and leave them in other rooms. And don’t check email or texts after 9 p.m. These simple exercises will decrease work-related stress.
We don’t typically associate diet with levels of stress. However, Hall says we can help to manage internal stressors by watching our food consumption. She recommends eating breakfast, as this “increases your metabolism, which helps keep your weight down and helps with your mood swings.” In addition, certain supplements, like Omega 3s, have been shown to help with anxiety, stress and depression. Vitamin B6 increases the serotonin, which regulates mood to calm and heal. Foods to avoid are stimulants that increase your stress and anxiety, such as energy drinks, too much coffee or tea, sugar and excessive alcohol.