Putting the Reins on Stress

Putting the Reins on Stress

Medically Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD
From the WebMD Archives

Oct. 10, 2001 -- Who's not feeling stressed these days? We have faced the worst of tragedies, war, and layoffs. Like many people, you may be waiting for the other shoe to drop. Those comforting but bad habits -- smoking, drinking, overeating -- are pretty tempting in times of high anxiety.

"There's no doubt that people deal with stress in different ways," says Joseph Miller, MD, a preventive cardiologist at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. "People worry, get depressed, have trouble sleeping ... As we know too well, slothful behavior has negative long-term effects on health, leading to high blood pressure and risk of diabetes."

Better to develop better coping skills to get you through rough times., he says. "Everybody needs a mechanism to deal with stress. Some deal with it through religion, some with exercise, some by talking with their spouse or friends, others through formal support groups, some meditate."

"I think some kind of exercise program -- whether it's walking or whatever -- is a fantastic way to deal with stress," Miller tells WebMD. "Exercise helps you sleep, and when you're not fatigued, you deal with stress more effectively."

Analyze your particular response to stress, advises Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, clinical psychologist and a professor of psychology at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

Example: "If you want to sleep all the time, if you're withdrawing, make sure you get up and take a walk, do yoga, call a friend, get yourself to the office -- do something even if you don't feel like it at that moment," she says.

Also, take deep breaths. "When people feel anxious, they unconsciously hold their breath," Clance says. "That's why meditating, walking, and yoga works -- they get people to breathe." If you take a few moments during the day to take a full, slow breath, then let it out slowly, that will help release the irritability or sadness -- whatever feelings that you express in stress.

Also, identify what helps you feel "more centered, grounded in your life," she tells WebMD. "For many people, connecting with friends in more genuine way, talking about what's happening with them, can be very helpful."

Learn to be assertive, to set boundaries. "If you can really understand your own priorities, then you can set boundaries for how much you will or won't do in certain situations," she says. "That doesn't mean that you neglect regular responsibilities. But if you can set boundaries to set aside time for walking, yoga, being with friends, you will feel more in control of your life."

Spending 10 minutes a day to write what you're feeling -- all those distressing emotions -- helps you put them behind you, says Clance. "When people don't feel comfortable talking about their problems, writing can be helpful, help you focus inward. Then you have to get away from it, focus on something that's not stressful, something in your daily activities. Finding something that distracts you is very important."

But stress is part of life -- and accepting that fact also helps, says G. Ken Goodrick, PhD, associate professor of family and community medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. He is also author of the book Energy, Peace, Purpose.

"As Shakespeare said, 'There's nothing neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so,'" Goodrick notes. "Stress is always in the background. It's just that these other events have elevated it."

With the right kind of positive outlook on life -- the right kind of personal energy -- "you can get through almost anything, except maybe severe physical pain or threat of death," he says. "You just say, 'that's life, I'll just do what I can.'"

Nutrition, sleep, exercise -- all those things help us manage stress, give us peace. Then we must do something with that peace -- "instead of wallowing in narcissism," he says.

"Sharing your life with others in a meaningful way -- that's the root of happiness according to all the great research, all the religions, all the philosophies," Goodrick tells WebMD. "Everything about happiness and meaning in life has to do with productive interpersonal relationships."

"The recent crises should be a stimulus for people to think about their lives," he says. "People spend too much time wondering if their SUV is big enough, not thinking about the important things. People pay more attention to the care of their cars and their dogs than they give to care of mind and body."

"I've seen thousands of patients," Goodrick says. "All the depressed people are sit-on-the-couch people. I've never seen a depressed person who exercises regularly and has energy."

Originally published Oct. 10, 2001.

Updated Sept. 5, 2002.