Trading bad stress FOR GOOD
What we need, of course, is to get a handle on stress, to ease it back like we do a fussy child. Our health will suffer if we don’t, and so will our ability to respond to stress when necessary. After all, good stress is our “on” light, the power behind meeting deadlines, getting the dinner cooked before the guests arrive, or exercising instead of reaching for the ice cream. It powers motivation.
Certainly, that’s true for Erin Munroe, 35, a child and adolescent therapist and mother of an 11-month-old in Boston: “I used to have a job with summers off, and I didn’t know how to function without some stress. I needed to find a way to be productive.” But Munroe hit her limits when her son cried nonstop for his first 14 weeks of life. “I was still working full time, taking care of my child, keeping the house clean and trying to be perfect. I was breastfeeding and felt really ill, and I ended up with a breast infection.” Munroe had reached the point, as Maté describes it, when the body says no. If we’re “on” all the time, our motor no longer revs. Thom E. Lobe, M.D., founder and director of the Beneveda Medical Group in Beverly Hills, Calif., describes it this way: “When we’re stressed, our adrenals glands are spent. And then we press the gas when we really need to go and nothing happens.” In a sense, we become less attuned to our own body’s alarms, says Kim Turk, LMBT, director of massage services at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, N.C. “It’s called somatic numbing—when the mind and body are completely disconnected,” she says. “Like a mom in a grocery store whose kid is yelling at her but she doesn’t hear him anymore, we stop listening to our bodies. Or when you’re tight in your neck and shoulders, but you have no idea that you are.” So, how to get to our happy place? We know that stress, good and bad, is part of life. So how can we control the worst of it so that good stress can work for us when we need it? Here are the key steps experts insist on.
Run a priority scan
Once you know what’s keeping your lights on 24/7, you can figure which ones to turn low. When her mother became ill and died seven years ago, Rebecca Brooks, 40, a mom of two sons and president of a public relations firm in New York City, knew family had to be her focus. “I realized then that I couldn’t manage everything myself,” she says. Brooks learned to delegate and prioritize. She beefed up her staff, and she started leaving work at the office. “Now when the kids have something school-related, I’m always there,” she says.
Listen to your gut
“Part of stress reduction is learning to listen to what your gut tells you about your life, about people, about a situation,” says Orloff. “Ask, ‘Does my energy go up or down when I’m around this person? My stress level? How do I feel about this job? Did I leave the job interview feeling sick?’ Factor the answers into your decisions.” Mary Saunders, L.Ac., an acupuncturist in Boulder, Colo., agrees. “You have to ask yourself, ‘What’s going on that makes me feel this way—overwhelmed, bitchy, shorttempered?’ ” she says. In other words, you have to face what’s stressing you out rather than turn away from it.
Calm your system down
Of course, it may take more than a little introspection to right your cart. Candance Reaves tried antidepressants, poetry and physical therapy before hitting on a yoga-meditation class that restored what grief and fatigue had robbed. “The class allows me to have that out-of- the-body experience when I can look at things differently and really focus,” she says. “When I feel stressed now, I sit down and do deep breathing for 10 minutes. At the end I’m focused about what I need to get done first. It gives me energy and peace.” Even three-minute meditations can re-center you, says Orloff. She practices them throughout her day—a way of turning off stress and turning on endorphins, the body’s feel-good neurochemicals. “Find a comfortable place,” she says. “Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths and begin to quiet your thoughts. Picture yourself breathing in calm, breathing out stress, and find an image that relaxes you—mine is the night sky. This quickly turns off the stress response because you’re slowing down your system.”
Drop stressful “de-stressors”
One person’s de-stressor is another person’s toxin. Driving to a gym, circling for a parking space, pumping iron and returning to a ticketed car, for example, isn’t my idea of relaxing. Erin Munroe had a similar experience. “I was taking hot yoga at 5 a.m. to help me chill out. It was all type-A people and very competitive. The class made me crazy; I would get mad that someone could do a Tree pose better than me. Now I take hatha yoga with people in sweatpants and I’ve realized I don’t need to exercise 9,000 hours a week.”