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Stressed out? 5 ways to embrace balance

Monday, June 23, 2014  
Posted by: Barbara Francella
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By Kathy Caprino

When I was younger, I was in a constant state of overload. I grew chronically ill, depleted and depressed dealing with my high-level corporate job, juggling the needs of my little children (with whom I desperately wanted to be more present and engaged), and not having time to relax and rejuvenate. 

Stress was the reason. But back then, I believed there was nothing I could do about it. Now I know better.

Dealing with stress effectively is a life-long process — of learning about and accepting yourself, understanding what you value and gaining awareness of your triggers. The more you engage in this process of self-discovery and self-mastery, the more powerful you become in reducing stress and dealing with it in life-supporting ways.

Related: "3 ways to be perfectly imperfect"

First of all, what is stress? Stress is necessary for life, and for creativity, learning and survival. It’s a normal physical response to events that make you feel threatened or upset your balance or status quo. It’s also the body’s way of protecting you, by helping you stay focused, energetic and alert. When we sense danger of any kind — whether real or imagined — we tend to move into a "fight, flight or frozen” reactions, and both "positive” and "negative” or common events can contribute to these reactions.

Stress becomes harmful when it becomes overwhelming or chronic. When that’s the case, stress can cause major damage to your health, mood, productivity, relationships, functioning and quality of life. And chronic, everyday stress can be as damaging as stress from a traumatic incident. (See my book Breakdown Breakthrough for more.)

It’s critical to know where your stress is coming from and understand how you are exacerbating it. Are you making yourself more stressed? Do you:

  • Worry about things that are out of your control?
  • Dwell only on the negatives?
  • Imagine the worst?
  • Criticize yourself mercilessly?
  • Hold yourself and others to unrealistic standards?
  • Take on too many responsibilities that are impossible to manage?
  • Engage in "below the line” thinking — pessimistic, fatalistic beliefs and mindsets that tell you there’s nothing you can do and no one who can help to make things better?

If so, realize that managing stress is all about taking charge of your thoughts, your emotions, your schedule, your environment, your relationships and the way you deal with challenges and problems.

Here are five steps you can take starting today to change how you respond to life’s challenges and to reduce and manage your stress:

1. Avoid unnecessary stress.
Not all stress can be avoided and it’s not healthy to avoid a situation that needs to be addressed. But there are many stressors you can eliminate. First, you need to know when and how to say "No!” to people who stress you out and to environmental factors that overwhelm you. For instance, avoid hot-topic buttons with your family over the dinner table. Don’t let yourself engage in discussions that will inevitably end in fist fights. Also, force yourself to pare down your to-do list. Stop your perfectionistic over-functioning. Control your environment and say "no” to hosting 30 people for dinner if that’s just too much for you. Accept yourself, learn what stresses you and begin to erect powerful boundaries that help you honor who you are authentically. Stop spreading yourself too thin and exposing yourself to experiences that make you feel overwhelmed, resentful, angry and out of control. You don’t have to live up to someone else’s standards anymore. You’re you and you’re more than enough.

2. Alter the situation. Figure out what you can do to change things so that the problems you’re facing don’t present themselves in the future. Often, this involves changing the way you communicate and operate in your daily life. Begin to express your feelings productively rather than bottling them up and letting them fester. Confront the issues rather than hide from them, but be willing to compromise. (Learn more about the power of fearless confrontation). 

3. Adapt to the stressor. If the stressor is here to stay, adapt to it. Find a way to reframe the problem so that it doesn’t break you. Look at the big picture and see what this challenge might be teaching you that will benefit your growth in the future. Adjust your perfectionist standards, for instance, and reshape your attitude so that you can embrace what’s happening and learn from it, instead of resist and fight it. And eliminate absolute words in your vocabulary such as "always,” "never,” "should” and "must.” These are telltale marks of self-defeating, self-hating thoughts and mindsets. And most of all, learn to forgive — yourself and others

4. Make time for fun and relaxation and for you. In my work with high-achieving professional women, I see firsthand that the last thing that women prioritize is themselves. They leave no time to nurture and recharge, to have fun, to be creative, silly, free and to simply relish life. It’s all about striving, stretching, achieving and accomplishing.

For a healthy, happy life, you have to nurture and love yourself. Do that by:

  • Committing to fun, healthy ways to relax and recharge.
  • Setting aside relaxation time. Include rest and relaxation in your daily schedule.
  • Connecting with others you love, respect and admire. Spend time with positive people who enhance your life.
  • Doing something you enjoy each and every day.
  • Keeping your sense of humor.
  • Introducing stress relief into your life each day, and tapping into and relishing each your senses.
  • Bringing gratitude and happiness to the forefront.

5. Adopt a healthier lifestyle. Finally, to handle the stressors in your life effectively, increase your resistance to stress by strengthening your physical health. Make time for at least 30 minutes of exercise, three times per week. Eat a healthy diet. Reduce coffee, soft drinks, chocolate and sugary snacks in your diet — you’ll feel more relaxed and sleep better. Also, self-medicating with alcohol or drugs may provide an easy escape from stress, but the relief is only temporary and damage is likely to occur in the long run. Get enough sleep. Feeling tired will increase your stress because it may cause you to think irrationally.

Remember, stress management is within your control. Instead of fight or flight, build a new, more effective reaction to stressful situations, one that reflects your authentic self at your best, with the highest degree of balance, wisdom, courage and self-love.

Kathy Caprino is a nationally recognized women’s career and leadership coach and speaker dedicated to the advancement of women in business. Author of Breakdown, Breakthrough, Caprino is a contributor to ForbesHuffington Post and AARP. Follow her on Twitter at @kathycaprinoFor Kathy's original post on this topic, visit her Forbes Leadership blog "Career Bliss.”

Views expressed in signed blogs and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and sponsors.

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