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Tips for Managing Stress & Gaining Control

(Excerpted and adapted from "The Medical Minute: Stressed out? Tips for taking control," Penn State Health News, January 10, 2013)

Everyone has some level of stress--good stress, bad stress, a mix of both. For many, it comes and goes, no problem. You deal with it. However, if you have an anxious or depressive temperament, it's especially important to pay attention to stress signals.

Outward signs of stress may include an increase in coping habits--picking skin, pulling hair, cracking knuckles, or chewing your lips. Physical symptoms may include lower back or shoulder pain due to tension, fatigue, heartburn, constipation, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, or heart palpitations. Some people may be unable to sleep or sleep well.

Many times simple coping strategies such as exercise, talking to a friend, or taking time to think things through can alleviate the stress. However, Dr. Alan Gelenberg, Chair of the Department of Psychiatry Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, says that the mental and emotional side effects can be a concern. If the person is shirking daily responsibilities, not sustaining important relationships, staying in bed, or considering self-harm, it's time to seek professional help, perhaps a primary care physician.

Dr. Gelenberg offers some practical advice for not allowing stress to get beyond one's control:

  • Prioritize - Take time to reflect and decide what's important. Create reasonable goals. Work on one goal at a time so that you don't overwhelm yourself.
  • Don't deny it. Don't hide the problem in busyness. The longer you avoid it, the worse it will be.
  • Ask for help; delegate. Research your options and find out what kind of relief might be available. Seek help--from your family, a social worker, a counselor, or your church. Dr. Gelenberg says, "When people take on huge burdens on themselves alone, their knees will buckle at some point." He advises, "We're fragile. We're flesh and blood, and we can't just keep sustaining body blows."
  • Say, "no." Some of us add stress by saying "yes" too often to others' requests. Have reasonable expectations for yourself and practice saying "no."
  • Exercise self-discipline. Don't create a long to-do list and then sit on Facebook for hours at a time, getting nothing done.
  • Sleep. This is restorative sleep. When stress mounts, people will shortchange themselves on sleep. Prepare for sleep, as family and other factors allow. Have a routine that suits you. What helps you relax--a clean pillowcase? a cup of warm milk or chamomile tea? soft music? a favorite blanket? aroma therapy? a period of meditation or prayer?
  • Listen. If a friend or family member expresses concern about your health or behavior, pay attention. It likely is a caring, thoughtful observation.

Find out what works for you. Learn what amount of sleep, alone time, exercise, etc., you require in order to lessen your anxiety. Study your body. It's speaking to you!

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