The more successful one is, the more stressful one's life becomes. Every new promotion means added responsibility and added stress. The challenge is how to handle that stress.
"Every successful person has learned to handle stress well," says Dr. Woodson Merrell, of Beth Israel Hospital in New York City. "It's those with a positive outlook on stressful situations who decrease their risk of heart disease, whereas those with increased rage from stress have increased risk of heart disease."
Unless one is a newborn infant or a Buddhist monk, to greater or lesser degrees one has stress in one's life. In school, it is the stress of a big test, pimples and finding a prom date. In college, it's about the big test, pimples, prom dates and getting a decent job after graduation. And while at the time it all seems very stressful, one finds out later that they were only on a nodding acquaintance with stress. It isn't until you get a job, start earning your own way and, eventually, supporting a family and moving up the career ladder, that you not only get to know stress, but stress moves right in, takes your favorite chair and even raids your refrigerator in the middle of the night.
Yet most people, whether they realize it or not, need a certain amount of stress. In the right amount, it can give people an edge. Keep them sharp, awake, alert. After all, imagine a stress-free life. Rocking in a hammock somewhere, feeling the ocean breeze waft over you as you sip a fruity rum drink. Sounds pretty good, right? Maybe. Imagine living like that all the time. Being that laid-back will not help you succeed, pay your kid's college tuition, get you that corner office or that black Porsche 911 you've always wanted.
Conversely, living in a constant state of aggravation isn't such a hot idea either. Constant stress produces high levels of cortisol, which has been shown to impair cognitive functioning and weaken the immune system. Not only will it have a negative effect on one's health, but it can also make one a real jerk. What's the point in living a permanently stressed-out, albeit successful, life, if one drives away friends and loved ones, and dies of a heart attack at an early age?
The ideal, then, is to have just enough stress that one stays focused; but to also have an outlet that can regulate it and keep it from overtaking one's life. The problem is that many so-called stress reducers can do more harm than good — especially if, like stress, they are not taken in moderate amounts.
Avoid drinking, smoking
One of the most common and easiest stress relievers is alcohol. While many gourmets happily choose a vintage Bordeaux to accompany a fine meal, or a wedding may call for a glass or two of champagne, most people consume alcohol after work either as a way to unwind or as a social lubricant. Excessive consumption, of course, can lead to health and, in many cases, domestic problems. Similarly, to many people regardless of age or income, legal and illegal drugs as well as cigarettes are an all too prevalent and dangerous way of dealing with stress in the short term.
Drinking and smoking to excess is not the only potentially harmful way of coping with stress. Many people also find relief in over-eating, trying to numb their anxiety with too much ice cream or smother it in cheese sauce.
That is not to say that the occasional drink is bad for you, nor is the odd cigar or slab of chocolate cake. Again, it is a question of moderation. If, at the end of a long day, a glass of decent Scotch or a good meal restores your equilibrium, go for it.
But there are more effective and more healthy methods for combating stress. One of the best ways is through meditation. Merrell suggests that his clients take two minutes to meditate by concentrating only on a single word during the most stressful time of the day — the morning, which, not coincidentally, happens to be the same time of day that has the highest incidence of heart attacks.
"When you wake up, you're trying to solve the stresses of the dream stage and then subconsciously being bombarded with real worry," he says. That's why it's important to meditate. When you're literally sitting there with no conscious thought it's a powerful, peaceful state to be in, because it doesn't happen during the day naturally."
Other doctors agree that meditation is a great way to combat daily stress, but also say learning any type of technique that relaxes the body and mind will reduce worry — which in the end, is the goal: learning to cope with stress by learning to manage the mind.
"One of the more common techniques I suggest is progressive relaxation," says Dr. Ernesto Randolfi, who runs a private business in stress-health promotion in Billings, Mont. "It involves contracting and relaxing muscles around your body so that people develop the ability to relax at will. It's a strategy that takes a lot of learning."
There are many other techniques for battling stress. To find more suggestions, click on the following slides.