Relax...Or Else
Life will always be stressful. Here are three key areas where you can take charge and ease the pressure

By Kelli Rosen

The potential for stress is everywhere. From raising kids to worrying about retirement, our jammed schedules and competing priorities can leave us with precious little room to breathe. While stress isn't exactly a new concern—a Time cover story tagged it as the leading U.S. health problem nearly two decades ago—recent fears about terrorism and a plummeting economy certainly haven't had a calming effect. In fact, the Yonkers, New York-based American Institute of Stress recently estimated that up to 90 percent of all visits to primary care physicians are for stress-related problems.

Our fast-paced lifestyles are unlikely to change, but you can reduce the stress you feel by learning to manage your responses to challenging situations. Committing to a few relatively simple lifestyle changes will help limit your vulnerability to extreme stress and bolster your backup system for dealing with the inevitable. Following, we've noted several areas where stress manifests, along with suggestions for decompressing.

Career
Many experts deem job tension to be life's biggest stressor. Our feelings about our work can powerfully affect how we feel about ourselves, as well as about our relationships with others. In a recent study conducted by the Families and Work Institute in New York, nearly one-third of people surveyed said they "very often" felt overworked and overwhelmed at the amount of work they had to do.

When stress hits you at work, the last thing you might think of doing is writing down your thoughts in a journal. But according to Kitty Klein, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, "the act of expressive writing actually helps improve concentration and cognitive ability."

By taking about 15 minutes once or twice a week to concretely outline not only your frustrations, but also the circumstances that provoked or contributed to them, Klein says, you diminish the power of work problems. "You're putting these thoughts in a small corner in your brain," she says. "You know they're there, but now they won't continue to affect your life when you want to ignore them more easily." Regularly examining and keeping a record of your thoughts and emotions over time also will help you recognize positive and negative patterns and more accurately gauge the day-to-day quality of your work experience.

For a dose of instant stress relief while sitting in a meeting or working on a project, mini-relaxation breathing exercises can help, suggests Alice D. Domar, PhD, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and director of the Mind/Body Center for Women's Health at Boston IVF. Whenever you're feeling frustrated or tense, simply start breathing deeply into your abdomen, making sure that as you inhale, both your chest and stomach rise. If you have more time, find a quiet space in which to be alone with your thoughts, either by closing your office door or heading outside for a walk. Spend a few moments mentally scanning your body for tension points. Focus on these areas one by one as you inhale, then visualize releasing tension as you exhale.

Talking about your work stress can help, too. "Seek out empathic coworkers who can listen and provide moral support," suggests Domar, who's also the author of Self Nurture: Learning to Care for Yourself as Effectively as You Care for Everyone Else (Penguin Books, 2000). Not only do supportive conversations offer a welcome break in the daily grind, but finding a confidante who's having similar issues with a particular coworker or boss may also help validate your feelings. But be careful not to fall into the victim mentality when you counsel with a colleague. If you share your troubles with others at work, keep the conversations productive and focused on positive solutions.

Bringing a little bit of home to work by personalizing your workspace with family photos, healthy snacks, and herbal teas, says Domar, should invoke feelings of calm and remind you of the world beyond your desk. On the flip side, don't take work stress home with you. Ellen Galinsky, president of the New York-based Families and Work Institute, suggests ridding yourself of work stress by exercising during the workday, even if it's just a short walk; meditating for a few minutes before you leave your office; and listening to relaxing music during your commute home.

Significant Other
Arguments with a loved one are a frequent and combustible source of stress, which makes learning to problem-solve as a couple critical for maintaining a healthy relationship. "Even the best relationships come under fire," says Pepper Schwartz, PhD, a sociology professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, "so you need to develop the emotional negotiating equipment to handle what comes up." Schwartz advises discussing problems—even the small things—soon after they arise. "What's dangerous to the relationship is not the actual problem," she says. "It's not handling it when it does come up."

If you're in the midst of an argument and you feel angry or upset, Schwartz suggests you let go of the desire to solve the problem right then. But rather than just leaving the room, set up a definite time to discuss the problem so you can reflect and be constructive. For example, if you're arguing about how much one of you spent at the mall last weekend, commit to talking about it the next day at lunch.

When you do meet, Schwartz recommends two things. First, conduct your conversation in the secure context of how much you love each other—not in the context that one might leave the other if he or she is not happy with the outcome. Second, find a way for both of you to get something you want. "It's about making a compromise," reminds Schwartz. "No one wins and no one loses."

Learning to problem-solve as a couple is critical for maintaining a healthy relationship. To alleviate tensions that inevitably crop up between parents raising children, Schwartz says it's difficult to overestimate the benefits of nurturing a loving physical relationship. "You can use sex to shelter each other from the world," says Schwartz, who's also the author of The Great Sex Weekend (Perigree, 2000). "Many couples, especially once they have kids, look at lovemaking as the dessert they never get around to. They should, however, view sex as more of a main course with very vital nutrients." Not only do you feel close to your partner during sex, but reaching orgasm releases a "happy hormone" called oxytocin, which is associated with feelings of love and affection. When the parents' relationship is on solid ground, they're more likely to be able to cope with whatever the kids deal out.

Everyone feels stressed at one time or another, but how you let these situations affect your overall well-being is up to you. So align your defenses and make a commitment to handle each stressor as it arises. Whether you choose to write in a journal or rejuvenate your sex life, know the decision to beat stress is always a wise one.

Finances
If you're like most Americans, you felt the abrupt end of the booming '90s economy as a distinctly unwelcome pressure on your pocketbook. Your best tool for getting a grip on financial stress following the gravy days? Knowledge. "Most fears stem from not knowing what the financial picture actually is," says Fred Brown, a personal financial consultant in Portland, Oregon, and the author of Money and Spirit (ARE Press, 1995). "It's not necessarily about the amount of money someone has, it's about understanding how to live with that amount comfortably."

Recent dismal stock-market performances are triggering the same cyclical fears Brown has witnessed throughout his 30-year practice. The truth is, many shareholders can't even bring themselves to open their monthly broker statements. "Open that statement," Brown says, "because typically the picture in your mind is much worse than the reality. Even if it is as bad as you anticipated, at least now you can take steps to change it."

To understand your financial prognosis, Brown suggests a two-part process. First, write down all your assets and debts, as well as a summary of monthly income and estimated expenses. Brown recommends focusing on the relationship between the numbers and your resources, values, and goals. For example, if you realize you're spending about $400 a month on entertainment but only $100 on food, you may want to rethink your priorities. Or if you're spending $500 more than your monthly income, you need to find a way to cut back on your purchases. "Understanding these concrete facts gives you the feeling of being able to take charge," says Brown. And taking charge of your finances is the first step to reducing stress.

Life flows, so you need to adjust your goals to meet your overall budget. The next part of step one is to keep track of your expenses in a notebook. Instead of sticking to an itemized monthly budget, try the spending-goal model. At the top of a new page each month, write the total amount you've determined you're allowed to spend. As you subtract expenditures, it's clear how much money remains. If you plan to buy gifts for an imminent holiday, you may need to spend less on clothing that month. Extravagant purchases, such as a new television, aren't off-limits; you just might have to economize for a month or two beforehand. In practice, this gives you an opportunity to exercise control over your impulses and ensures you're buying something you indeed want. "Life flows, so you need to adjust your goals to meet your overall budget," Brown says.

Step two is exploring how your family background and parents' attitudes toward money may be currently affecting your financial situation. Emotions determine much of our money-related behavior, says Brown, so understanding the origins of these complex feelings is critical to gaining control. If you grew up poor and watched your parents struggle month to month, you may shy away from spending what you have now. This often creates tension between spouses, especially if the more free-spending partner doesn't understand the other's emotional issues. Talk with your partner and use what you discover about your own relationship with money to ease the strain.

Just putting the facts on paper should help you start to feel better about your finances, but Brown warns it could take up to six months to feel in control. He also recommends writing out a new summary to reflect changing financial needs as you enter each new life stage, such as living independently for the first time, getting married, having kids, getting a divorce, planning retirement, and facing death.