As mentioned throughout the book, a variety of effective stress-management techniques exist that can be very helpful in controlling one's bodily responses to stressful situations. It is not, however, the focus of this book to highlight any specific stress-management technique—for that, there are many excellent sources, a few of which are listed in the Resources section. For a handful of quick stress-management tips that don't require major lifestyle change and that are easy enough to begin incorporating into your life today, you can also review the list I've provided in Chapter 7.
I've broken the entire category of stress management into three simple categories: (1) avoid stress, (2) manage stress, and (3) get enough sleep. To some readers, this may appear to be an overly simplistic approach to a topic as complex as stress management. Those readers are quite correct—it is simplistic—but for the vast majority of people (your author included), these three simple steps will provide the greatest return for the time they are prepared to devote to the specific practice of stress management (which is not a great deal of time). At this point, let's recap some ideas presented in Chapter 7 for managing stress, as well as throw in a few new ones.
Avoid Stress (Whenever You Can)
It probably comes as no surprise that the most effective stress-management technique is to simply avoid all the stressful situations that you encounter in the first place. If you do this, you have no exposure to stress, no overactive stress response, and no increase in cortisol levels. Obviously, the goal of avoiding all stressful situations is unrealistic, but with proper planning it may be possible to avoid some of them—or at least to plan effective strategies for dealing with the situations that cause you the most stress.
As an example, one of the things that causes me a great deal of stress is sitting in traffic. My personal strategy to avoid this source of stress is to make sure I stay ahead of the traffic by leaving the house as early as possible in the morning and leaving the office as early as possible in the evening. Of course, with two small children at home, it is often impossible to leave the house as early as planned, nor does the pile of work on my desk always allow me to leave the office as early as I wish. On these days, when my first-line stress-avoidance strategy of leaving early fails, I know I'll be sitting in traffic and I know I'll need to employ my backup plan, which is to listen to a book on tape. The book on tape allows me to avoid a personal source of stress because it enables me either to learn something new or to lose myself in a story—instead of stewing my way through a time-wasting traffic jam.
It is important to understand that each person will have a different strategy for avoiding their own personal stressors; the key is to find the plan (and a backup plan) that works best for you.
Manage Stress (As Effectively As You Can)
Obviously, if you can't avoid stress, then you've got to manage stress as effectively as possible. It might be instructive to review the discussion in Chapter 7 about the three mediating factors in the body's response to stress: whether there is any outlet for the stress, whether the stressor is predictable, and whether the individual thinks they have any control over the stressor.
Meditation, yoga, or getting in touch with your "inner self" may all be perfectly acceptable and beneficial outlets for stress, but managing stress is a very individualized concept, and a technique that reduces stress for one person may very well increase it for another. Readers who want to go beyond the approaches to stress management covered in this book are referred to the Resources section for a list of books that focus on a more emotional or psychological approach to stress management.
Get Some Sleep!
Yes, you say, it makes perfect sense that you need to spend enough time in bed when you're stressed; unfortunately, stress also throws a great, big monkey wrench into your normal sleep patterns. Not to mention the fact that our modern, Type C lifestyles have us living "24/7" schedules—so who's got time to sleep anyway? The main problem with this situation is that, aside from the well-known bad mood and inability to concentrate that we've all experienced from too few hours in the sack, sleep researchers have recently linked a chronic lack of sleep to increased appetite, problems with blood-sugar control, and a higher risk of diabetes and obesity—and chronically elevated cortisol is the obvious culprit. Researchers at both the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Chicago have shown that while too little sleep (six hours per night for a week) heightens an already revved-up stress response and keeps cortisol levels elevated, getting back into a more normal sleep pattern (eight hours per night) can reverse many of these detrimental changes and bring cortisol levels back to normal.
Getting more sleep, of course, is easier said than done, so the experts at the National Sleep Foundation recommend a few simple steps, like the ones listed below, for helping to get a person back onto track for obtaining the eight hours of sleep that most of us need each night:
- Establish a regular bedtime and a regular wake-up time—and stick to them for one week, even on the weekends (no matter how hard it is for the first few days). Sleep researchers tell us that within the time span of one week our body clocks will reset themselves to the new schedule.
- Do something calming in the hour or so before bedtime—such as relaxing with a book and a cup of warm chamomile tea, doing a crossword puzzle, or whatever else provides you with a few moments of peaceful reflection. My own getting-ready-for-bed ritual typically also includes a 100 mg dose of theanine (thirty to sixty minutes before I plan to climb under the covers), some light reading, and a background of low-key jazz music from the local public-radio station.
- Avoid exercise within three hours of bedtime. Exercise causes an increase in hormones, body temperature, and alertness—each of which will thwart efforts to fall asleep. For most people, exercising after work or even right after dinner (between 5:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.) is probably okay (assuming bedtime will be three to four hours later), because sufficient time is still available to allow the body to calm down and return to resting levels.