25 Chill Pills to Control Costly Stress

Stress is a killer -- literally. It also leads to wanton spending, unanticipated medical expenses and income loss. 

In the worst case scenario, high stress can lead to suicide. The annual indirect cost for each attempted suicide is $31,616 and each completed suicide is $446,314. The emotional cost to family, friends and the community is incalculable.

None of us want to end up in debt because of stress, particularly stress that can be managed. Some problems simply can't be avoided (Are you listening BP?): Others we can control.

I'm one of those people who used to stress out over simple things, like driving. It's taken me YEARS and lots of money to develop tricks for controlling this mania. I'd like to share 25 tips learned along my merry therapeutic path. Hopefully, they'll save you money without spending your money.

1. Avoid Human Stress Magnets
Limit exposure to those who create stress in your life, particularly if they refuse to change. You might even consider ending the relationship entirely. That can create more stress during the process, but the result can be surprisingly blissful.

2. Control Your Environment
Is this you? You're driving home, listening to the evening news when someone spouts an unbelievable inanity. You clutch the steering wheel and scream! (Okay. Maybe that's not you, but it's sure me.) That's why I now listen to music or books on CD during drive times.

If it's the traffic that makes you tense, take a longer but less-traveled route. If going to the market drives you up the wall, delegate the job to someone else, shop during slower hours or do the bulk of your shopping at farmers' markets, community-supported agriculture groups or bodegas/neighborhood stores.

3. Flip the Switch on Hot Buttons
Discussions of religion, politics and the economy make some people see red. If certain hot buttons just drive you 'round the bend, cross them off your conversation list. If you repeatedly argue about the same subject with the same people, stop introducing the topic or excuse yourself when they start in again. With enough practice, you might even be able to laugh off their foolish viewpoints.

4. Just Say No
We all have limits, but not all of us insist others recognize them. Refuse to accept excessive responsibilities, whether in your professional or personal life. You may be pleasantly surprised at the reaction you'll receive. Then again, you may not. But you won't know until you try; and you deserve to try.

5. Create a To-Don't List
Identify the "shoulds" and "musts" on your to-do list and eliminate or drop the non-necessities to the bottom. Shoot the "shoulds" to the top of the list if they ever become "musts," (if that makes sense).

6. Express Yourself

Nobody can read minds, not even "True Blood's" Sookie Stackhouse. (Not really.) Communicate with co-workers, friends and even the supermarket cashier when there's a problem.

Be honest and respectful when discussing a problem to avoid even more stress, however. Replace in-your-face like, "I have a bone to pick," with "I have a few concerns." If it helps, write down the nasty discussion on paper, tear it up (into tiny, tiny, tiny pieces) then use the non-confrontational language in your live discussion.

7. Compromise
Be willing to make changes in your own behavior when asking someone to change for your benefit. Two trees bending in the middle will meet in the middle, while one tree bending over backwards will just break and land on the ground. (Great analogy, huh?)

8. Be Assertive About Your Rights
Don't be the back-seat driver in your own life. Instead, take pro-active action. Arrange car pools ahead of time, not the day of a big soccer tournament. Study for that big exam throughout the term, not the night before. Talk to your roommate about the dishes before the pile overflows into the family room.

9. Manage Your Time
Poor time management is one of the biggest stressing agents for Americans. It’s hard to stay calm and focused when you’re stretched to the max and out of time. It's difficult to plan ahead, but it sure helps. I found a color-coded Personal Digital Assistant invaluable when I was juggling multiple projects.

Smart phones have built-in PDAs and list managers that back up to computers. Take advantage of this technology. If such cellphones are out of your price range, buy a cheap paper agenda and use it. (I do!) Begin by tracking your time for a couple weeks, then look back to see how you can tighten up your schedule to reduce stress.

10. Reframe Problems
Change a smallish stress experience into a smallish, positive experience. Rather than fuming about a traffic jam, make it an opportunity to pause and regroup. Listen to your favorite radio station, a book on CD or simply lay back and enjoy some alone time.

11. Big-Picture Your Life
Will this situation matter in a month? A year? Is it really worth getting upset over? If the answer is no, focus your time and energy elsewhere.

12. Adjust Your Standards
Perfectionism is a major source of avoidable stress, particularly for women. Stop killing yourself by requiring perfection. Establish reasonable standards and learn to be okay with "good enough."

For example, your husband doesn't have to wash the dishes or clothes exactly the way you do. The car doesn't need to be cleaned and waxed every weekend. Cheerios truly won't melt your child's skin.

13. Look for the Turtles
A well-known scientist once gave a lecture explaining the structure of our galaxy, to which an elderly lady objected. Stubbornly she explained the world was really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise. The scientist gave a superior smile and asked what the tortoise stood upon, to which the lady replied, "It's turtles all the way down."

People use this anecdote to illustrate many things, but I like to see it as a way to count my blessings instead of my problems. "Hey baby, it's turtles all the way down." Call me naive, (which nobody does) but at the worst of times this really works.

14. "What Doesn't Kill Us...
...makes us stronger." This is another version of the turtles thing and it may make you want to swat the next person who throws this old saying in your face. That said, it sure helps to look at a major challenge as an opportunity for personal growth, rather than just another example of the universe spitting in your face.

15. Let It Go
Many things in life are beyond our control — particularly the behavior of other people. Rather than stressing out over them, focus on you. Focus on the things you can control, such as the way you choose to react to problems.

This also applies to talking to people about problems. For example, instead of telling your husband, "You make me irritated," tell him, "I get irritated when you leave your wet towel on the carpet."

Nobody can make you irritated, sad or glad. You choose to be irritated, sad or glad. It sounds stupid, but it does help the conversation and your attitude. Sometimes, you'll even get better results.

16. Talk to Others
Move the conversation outside your head by talking to a trusted friend, your minister or a therapist. (Some offer sessions on a sliding financial scale for lower incomes. Check with your county health department.)

Expressing what you’re going through can be very cathartic, even if there’s nothing you can do to alter the stressful situation.

17. Forgive and Forget
Accept the fact that we live in an imperfect world and people make mistakes. Letting go of anger and resentments frees you to appreciate life. Anger is just another way to give away your own energy and doesn't hurt the other person one bit...unless you hit them, of course. But we don't want to go there.

18. Laugh
Laugh and the world laughs with you...especially if you learn to laugh at yourself. The simple act of laughing helps your body fight stress by increasing those mood-improving endorphins that are so good for your health. A healthy sense of humor makes for a healthy humerus, too. (ouch)

19. Connect With Others
Spend time with positive people who enhance your life. A strong support system will buffer you from the negative effects of stress and provide some great laughs. It also helps to have a shoulder when it's time to cry.

20. Cry
When times are so bad there's nothing left to do but cry, just go ahead and cry. Close the door, curl up around a couple pillows and let the waterworks go. If you've bottled up too much stress to cry, slip "Steel Magnolias" into the DVD player. If the cemetery scene doesn't make you shed a few, find your own cathartic movie and let it go. (If you're a guy, try "Brian's Song.")

The Final Five No Brainers

21. Exercise
Take a walk. Chase the kids around the yard. Borrow exercise dvds from the library. The important thing is to move and keep moving.

The experts recommend exercising 30 minutes at least three times per week, but don't get all up in your guilt-grill if you can only manage 20 minutes. The great thing about exercise is it's addicting. The more you work out, the more endorphins your body releases, and the more you crave exercise. Laugh while you exercise and you'll be endorphined all to heck and back.

22. Eat Right
Junk food slows us down while a healthy diet gives us the energy to power through stressful situations. (Fatty diets also makes us fat, which makes us feel lousier about ourselves, which makes us feel more stressed.)

Start the day with a decent breakfast and keep your energy up throughout the day with balanced snacks and nutritious meals. Carry around carrots, V-8 and other healthy tid-bits so you're less likely to stop at McDonald's when the hungries hit. (I recently discovered no-fat, low-calorie Greek yogurt. It's heaven in a recyclable tub.)

23. Reduce Caffeine and Sugar
You've heard of sugar and caffeine highs? Well, those highs also come with major crashes. A cup of coffee in the morning is great, but several cups of java throughout the day, supplemented by a candy bar in the afternoon will leave you jittery, ragged and unable to sleep at bedtime. (See #25)

24. Avoid Alcohol and Drugs (Including Nicotine)
Drinking, smoking and doing drugs are what medical professionals call self medicating. The relief they provide is temporary and only serves to avoid or mask the issue at hand. After you come down from the high they provide your stress will be compounded by the cash you blew getting high.

25. Sleep
According to Shakespeare, "Sleep...knits the unravelled sleeve of care." Even in Elizabethan times they knew sleep was the ultimate cure-all for stress. So get your zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzs.

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