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Decompress your stress

By Mark Umbach

Demanding bosses, difficult relationships, financial problems, illness, or injury, whatever the cause, stress plagues just about every aspect of twenty-first-century living.

If you're like most people, you face stress everyday. The silver lining? You can beat it. Finding simple yet effective ways to cope with life's daily stressors will not only help you be a more fit and healthy person, it will also make your life a lot more enjoyable.

As stress begins to creep into your life, it causes both physical and mental changes in the body. Stress can cause anxiety, depression, poor sleep, and a short fuse. It can also lead to a lack of appetite or nausea, neck and back pain, heart palpitations and pain, and excessive sweating.

And that's just the temporary symptoms. Unchecked, stress can even cause serious medical conditions that will not only impact your quality of life, but may lead to an untimely death. "Medical problems such as heart disease, hypertension, ulcers, and chronic illness can be exacerbated by periods of stress," says Dr. Phebe O'Mullane, MD, a Sydney-based physician. "In prolonged periods of stress, the body can become depleted of various vitamins and minerals [such as] vitamin B, C and D. Recent research shows that the immune system can be slower to respond to viruses when the body is stressed."

Stress doesn't just happen at work. Ray Yamrus, head athletic trainer at George Mason University in Virginia, says that stress can particularly affect people participating in competitive athletics. "[Stress] can be emotional and/or psychological. Some athletes shut down, almost literally, with the thought of an upcoming game," Yamrus explains. "They may get diarrhea, headaches, anxiety attacks where they hyperventilate, cry, and just lose it—something comparable to a mental breakdown. This can all lead to poor performance in games and also in practice."

Because signs of stress vary from person to person, it is important to find your own ways of dealing with stress. One of the most important ways to reduce stress is through exercise, which allows the body to release endorphins—a natural stress reliever. But regular exercise isn't a cure-all for stress; it's just one of many things that you should do to keep your stress levels in check. Below, courtesy of Dr. O’Mullane and Yamrus, are 10 other stress-reduction tips to help you keep your stress levels well below the danger zone:

1. Eat an Apple a Day
Eating a balanced diet and following the dietary pyramid set forth by the U.S Department of Agriculture allows your body to maintain the energy levels it needs to combat stress and prevent the depletion of key vitamins and minerals.

2. Get in the Groove
Throw on your headphones and catch the latest from your favorite musicians. Listening to music soothes the mind and allows for an easy escape from the trials and tribulations of the day.

3. Go Away
Pack up for the weekend and get out of town. Sometimes a short vacation or even a long weekend out of town will give your body the rest it needs to refuel and catch a break from the wear and tear of daily life.

4. Bend an Ear
Find a friend or loved one with whom you can just sit down and shoot the you-know-what. Talking about your problems will help you identify what is causing stress in your life. It may also help you figure out how to handle those stressors in a constructive manner.

5. Breathe Deeply
Taking a Yoga class or learning to meditate and control your breathing can help you find a state of serenity. Deep breathing and meditation will help you control your thoughts, and getting your thoughts under control will clear the way for a more relaxed and stress-free state.

6. Get Creative
Your body needs exercise—and so does your brain. And while the logic-focused left side of your brain is probably overtaxed with the daily stress of just navigating through each day, your creativity-focused right brain may be dying for some stimulation. Whether it's writing, painting, or strumming a six-string guitar, doing something creative will help you get out of your body and leave the stress behind.

7. Leave the Day Behind
Once you're done with work, focus your thoughts on the upcoming evening or weekend. Turn off your computer and enjoy your downtime. (Checking email and voicemail obsessively outside of work isn't only a sure-fire way to increase stress levels, it's also kind of pathetic.) Better yet, give yourself a break during work hours—leave the office for 30 minutes and let the office run without you while you take a walk or eat lunch.

8. Grab a Pen
You don't need to be the next literary legend to keep a journal. If you don't want to burden anybody with your problems, pick up a pen and be your own listener. Whether your write 20 pages or only a paragraph a day, keeping a journal will lighten your load...and keep you on good terms with your friends.

9. Think "I Can"
When you're facing a deadline or pounding through the last minutes of your workout, keep positive thoughts flowing and know that you're giving it your best effort at that specific moment. It may sound clichéd, but the power of positive thinking can provide the adrenaline you need to get through the task at hand. It will also give you a sense of accomplishment that will help reduce your stress levels further.

10. Organize and Delegate
Keep a list of daily tasks and then prioritize that list to keep the simple things in check. While thinking about your many to-dos may overwhelm you, when you jot them down and actually see what you need to get done, you'll be able to plan your day and allow yourself to manage your time more efficiently. Don't be afraid to lighten your load by enlisting the help of a friend or family member willing to keep things running smoothly.

While the tips above will help reduce everyday stress, people facing extraordinary stress and those who find themselves unable to cope with their stress levels should consult a physician or mental health professional. "If the stress is affecting [your] daily function, there are doctors and psychologists that can help [you work] through that stress," says O'Mullane. However, O'Mullane cautions against over-reliance on prescription drugs to treat stress. "Medications are a last resort and are never prescribed without proper adjuvant counseling," she says.

Not all stress is bad, of course. The anticipation of an upcoming event causes a person to be more mentally alert and focused. "Physiologically, adrenaline is released, pupils dilate, hearing becomes more acute, and blood pressure increases," says Yamrus. "[This] helps with the absorption of oxygen, and respiration and heart rate increases to prepare the body for action." And that can all be good, whether you're preparing for your next game or preparing for the board meeting. As long as you learn to control it.

Mark Umbach is the managing editor of, as well as an active marathoner and swimmer. He works for the National AIDS Marathon Training Program and serves on the board of directors for the LGBT swimming and water polo team West Hollywood Aquatics in Los Angeles.