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Stressed? Learn to Recognize Your Triggers and Find Calm

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Stressed? Learn to Recognize Your Triggers and Find Calm

Want to live healthier?

Pay attention to your stress level. Studies show that managing stress can ward off problems such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

But keeping stress in check may not be easy. According to a survey by the American Psychological Association, stress levels are on the rise in Washington and nationwide.

Nearly half of Americans report experiencing increased stress over the past year, and roughly a third characterize their stress level as extreme. More adults say stress is affecting their health.

Not all stress is bad. In small amounts, it can help you overcome a fear or meet a deadline. Problems arise when stress morphs into worry that lasts too long and triggers your body’s warning system.

The number-one cause of stress nationwide, according to the APA report, is money, followed by the economy. Among Washingtonians, money anxieties and work demands top the list. Washingtonians are less likely than other Americans to stress out over relationships, family, and health problems but are more likely to fret about housing costs.

Carrie Holl, a psychologist in private practice in Dupont Circle and director of behavioral medicine at Georgetown, encourages patients to learn how to spot their stress responses—things such as headaches, muscle tension, back pain, upset stomach, irritability, rapid heartbeat, and forgetfulness. Next, she advises rating the anxiety level on a scale of 0 to 10: “If you’re above a 4 or 5, it’s time to manage the stress and bring it down a few notches before trying to deal with the task at hand.”

Meditating, taking a walk, playing a sport, talking with a friend, reading a book, and listening to music are healthy ways to manage stress. Drinking, smoking, overeating, shopping, and gambling usually are unhealthy. They may numb feelings, but they don’t address the source of the stress.

Controlling stress is a learned behavior. The APA recommends these steps:

• Understand how you experience stress, particularly how it changes your thoughts and behaviors.

• Identify the source: What events or situations trigger your stress? Are they related to family, children, health, money, or something else?

• Recognize how you deal with it: Determine whether you’re engaging in unhealthy behaviors as a means of coping.

• Take care of yourself: Eat right, get enough sleep, and exercise regularly.

• Reach out: Talk to a friend. If you continue to feel stressed, consider seeing a professional. Says Holl: “If a person feels like their quality of life is diminished, it’s important to consider seeing someone.”

This article first appeared in the July 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.