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Stress Busters

You might have been lucky enough to avoid the personal impacts of skyrocketing foreclosure and unemployment rates throughout Southwest Florida, but it’s impossible to isolate yourself from the national gloom of ruin and despair.

According to the American Psychological Association’s 2008 Stress in America Survey, eight out of 10 Americans feel stressed out by the economy. More people, especially women, reported symptoms including fatigue, irritability or anger, sleeplessness, lack of interest or motivation, sadness, headaches and muscular tension.

What’s a stressed-out soul to do? Indulging in fun and relaxing activities is the best prescription for the psyche: Spend lots of time with friends, get massages and spend a day at the beach, fishing or gardening—anything that’s healthy and gives you pleasure.

But beware: Twinkies, martinis or other unhealthy indulgences might provide temporary relief from stress, “but if that becomes a lifestyle for you, that could have significant effects” not only on you, but also on the people around you, says Jonathan Robbins, Psy.D., of Associates in Family Psychology in Fort Myers.

And remember, not all stress is bad. It’s that “fight or flight” response that kicks in when we’re faced with some disruption. Stress is why we enjoy riding rollercoasters or skiing, Robbins explains. It’s what makes us complete projects we’ve been putting off and take on new challenges, such as interviewing for a better job or trying public speaking for the first time.

In situations like those, short-term acute stress can be beneficial. The body responds by releasing cortisol and andrenaline, which increase the heart rate, tighten muscles and sharpen the senses. “It could really help you out. It could get you out of a situation or help you get that jolt of energy that you might need.

But if you’re that way for too long, the andrenaline and cortisol could really start to hurt your body,” he adds. Chronic stress can lead to hypertension, heart disease, digestive problems and pain disorders. “It’s been linked to lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. It really starts to break you down.”

Irritability, anxiety and depression are the three major emotions associated with stress. If you’re snapping at friends and unable to focus, “get yourself checked out,” he says. You might not need professional help, but be aware of what your mind and body are doing.

If you’re feeling stressed out, you can take steps to get it under control. Here are a few suggestions from Robbins as well as the American Psychological Association:


1. Identify the sources of your stress and how you respond to them; your reaction could be making things worse. Even if you can’t change the source, you can change your thoughts, reactions and expectations; learn to let some things go. If the financial crisis has you stressed out, for instance, follow the news so you know what’s going on, but don’t get lost in the gloom and doom. “The exposure you’re getting from watching MSNBC all day long is not going to help,”
says Robbins.


2. Figure out what you can control, and take steps to make things easier on yourself. If you start every day stressed because you can’t get out of the house on time, make the kids’ lunches and lay out your clothes the night before. If the problem is with your cash flow, write out a plan to cut expenses and to budget. Contact creditors and try to negotiate achievable payment terms.


3. Turn to a support network, and be sure not to isolate yourself. “Do things with people you like,” says Robbins. Get together with friends more often and stay in contact. In addition to emotional support, they can give you a different perspective and perhaps help you realize some solutions.


4. Eat well, exercise, get plenty of rest and do something “to recharge your batteries,” such as a new hobby or volunteering. Make time for healthy, enjoyable relaxation at the gym, walking, meditating, doing yoga or even hitting a punching bag—if you can do it without thinking about upsetting things. “If you can find a healthy way to get rid of the excess energy and the tension in your body and cleanse yourself in a healthy way, that’s good,” Robbins says.


5. Look for opportunities. Check into new income options that you might not have considered before—or that the current economic and political climate might be creating. Broaden your education, experience and skills, and meet new people.

None of this is easy, Robbins assures us, but simply making some decisions and taking some steps can restore a sense of control. Besides, it’s hard to find the downside of hanging out with people you like and doing what you love.

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