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If you were prone to stress before the love-marriage-baby-carriage days, it may have gotten worse now that you're worrying for three, four, or more. "Women expect that we can do it all -- be the mom, the wife, the star employee," says Dale V. Atkins, PhD, a NYC-based psychologist and author of Sanity Savers: Tips for Women to Live a Balanced Life. "But in our quest to be perfect, we end up forfeiting our own sanity."
And it doesn't stop there: Many studies have linked excess stress to depression, heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer recurrence. Excess tension also has a trickle-down effect for kids: "Children aren't born knowing what stress management is," says Bruce Rabin, MD, medical director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Healthy Lifestyle Program. "If they see you constantly frazzled, they'll be more likely to grow up that way too." So what are you waiting for? Put a few of these tips to the test tonight to keep the whole family happier.
Find the Funny
A recent Japanese study found that laughing can directly alleviate anxiety; people who watched comedies had lower levels of circulating stress chemicals afterward than those who viewed regular movies. Here, two simple ways to laugh it up:
1. Take a step back. The next time you're about to reach that I'm-gonna-lose-it point -- your toddler just chucked his peas at the wall (again) or the dog threw up all over the carpet -- take a step back. "Ask yourself, 'If my friend were telling me this story, would we laugh about it?'" says Shoshana Bennett, PhD, a clinical psychologist in the San Francisco Bay area and author of Postpartum Depression for Dummies.
2. Stroll down memory lane. Give yourself permission to thumb through old photos -- when the kids were teeny, of those college sorority days. It's a seemingly simple act of reminiscing, but one that will likely make you smile, laugh, and count your blessings.
Re-Think Your Drink
What you sip can affect your stress in both good and bad ways. What to start and what to stop:
3. Try tea. A steamy mug boasts health benefits even beyond its already antioxidant-packed contents: "Drinking something hot literally makes you slow down," explains Jackie Keller, a Los Angeles-based nutrition and wellness coach and author of Body After Baby. "You have to sit still for 10 minutes and decompress." A recent British study found that people who started drinking tea had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol after six weeks compared to those who consumed a placebo beverage.
4. Ditch your 3-a-day Diet Coke habit. "When you're revved up on caffeine all day long, your heart rate and breathing increase, which can make you feel unnecessarily anxious," says Wendy Warner, MD, president of the American Board for Holistic Medicine.
5. Be a water guzzler. Drinking this hydrating fluid is all-around good for you, but here's one benefit you probably haven't considered: Getting up to pee often (and hence, pulling yourself away from your inbox) guarantees regular mind-clearing breaks, says Atkins. What's more, when you're up and about, you're likelier to interact with coworkers -- and have social conversations that aren't all business. The stress payoff? Studies have linked having close office pals to better anxiety management.
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Make Time to Move
Exercise is a known stress-reducer: It releases endorphins, those feel-good brain chemicals, and lowers blood pressure, which can skyrocket under duress. But how to find time for it? Here, three ways we swear by:
6. Bring along baby. Strolling together is a totally underestimated relaxer, says Keller. "Physically, the act of walking is very rhythmic and repetitive. That alone has a soothing effect -- for you and your infant," says Keller. Plus, it's a no-brainer way to sneak it in while the little guy naps or quietly soaks up the landscape.
7. Stock sneakers everywhere. If you stow a pair of comfy walking shoes in your office or car, it's much harder to make excuses not to walk. Even just 10 extra minutes a day can have an impact; consider parking at the farthest end of the lot or hopping off the bus or subway a stop earlier. "That combination of fresh air, alone time, and light exercise can be an instant calmer," Atkins says.
8. Pay attention to your energy ebbs and flows. "If you match high-energy activities to high-energy times of the day, you'll enjoy them a lot more," says Pam Garcy, PhD, a Dallas-based clinical psychologist and author of The Power of Inner Guidance. Some moms love hitting the gym right after work for an instant mood-boost before heading home; others need the pick-me-up first thing in the morning, for example. Figure out what feels best -- and go with it.
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Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth
9. Splurge selectively. You don't want to make a habit of binging every time you're stressed, but a little dark chocolate can bring on the calm. "It has the perfect combination of fat, sugar, and compounds that stimulate the brain to release endorphins," says Ann G. Kulze, MD, a family physician in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. "The sugar also kicks up production of the mood-boosting brain chemical serotonin, which can help lower the body's stress response."
Look on the Bright Side
Being optimistic helps reduce the negative toll stress hormones take on your body.
10. Find three good things about your day. "The principle here is that there's always something positive," says Keller, whether it's wrapping up a report two days early or getting a killer deal on sale-rack stilettos. This is also a great game to play with older kids -- and an early lesson in gratitude to boot.
11. Redefine your stressors. "What if you were to describe your jam-packed week as 'full and vibrant' instead?" says Jill Wodnick, a yoga instructor and childbirth expert in Montclair, New Jersey. "Words have power, so be precise about how you use them."
Divvy Up Dinner
12. Pre-chop your veggies. You certainly don't have 45 minutes to whip up dinner every night, and you're probably not going to spend all of Sunday preparing frozen meals to eat all week long (does anyone really do that?). The solution: "Take an hour on the weekend to cut up the produce you use most," says Keller. Weeknight dinners become a snap: A half-hour stir-fry recipe takes just 10 minutes when the veggies are all ready to toss into the wok.
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Stay-at-Home Survival Strategy
Just because you're not on the clock doesn't mean you feel stress any less, says Atkins. Two smart ways to fend it off:
13. Make your own breaks. "Being a full-time mom is the only job where time off isn't mandated by law," says Bennett. If you don't pencil in your breaks, no one will. Stick to a standing date three or four times a week, whether it's lunch with friends or a class at the gym. "You need to have regular things to look forward to, and keep them just like you would a doctor's appointment." Feel guilty about taking so much "me time"? Think of it this way: "When mom's doing better, so is her whole family."
14. Read something stimulating. Even if it's just a few pages of a novel before bed, skim something to challenge yourself. "This is especially important when you're reading to and playing with kids all day long," says Atkins. And reading before bed is a better way to conk out than tuning into TV (the light and noise stimulate your brain and keep you awake longer).
15. Start snapping. Next time you feel frazzled at home, grab the camera. "Taking pictures is surprisingly relaxing," says Keller. One, you have to slow down to do it. Two, it distances you from the current situation. "When viewing your adorable baby or rambunctious preschooler through an outsider lens, it reminds you how lucky you are."
How you breathe can have a big impact on stamping out stress. Try these moves:
16. See your stress dissipate. "As you inhale, visualize the word 'calm' coming into your mouth and tense up your body -- make a fist, shrug your shoulders, curl your toes," says Atkins. "When you exhale, imagine the word 'stress' leaving it -- and completely loosen everything up." You'll feel your whole self relax (physically and mentally) right away.
17. Time your breathing. "If you're anxious and need to calm down, exhale for longer than you inhale," says Warner. Breathe in for five seconds and out for seven, for example. "This triggers a chemical change in your brain that makes your heart rate slow down." Likewise, if you're tired and need a boost, inhale for longer than you exhale.
Get Your Game On
18. Play the old-fashioned way. Breaking out a board game or a puzzle is a great way to get your older kids to talk, says Keller. "Inevitably while you're taking turns you can slip in a 'tell me about your day.'" And you're more likely to forget about the 34 e-mails you need to respond to when you're engaged and bonding with your kids than when you're all zoned out to the TV.
Do Over Your Drive
Commutes and errand-running don't have to be a major source of tension. Consider these super simple moves before getting behind the wheel again:
19. Change up your path slightly every day. If you've got the same old commute day after day, you stop enjoying -- or even noticing -- your surroundings. Try to pass by something natural, like a park or a lake, which helps stimulate your senses, says Atkins. Plus, many studies have shown that exposure to nature can help lower stress levels.
20. Be the early bird at after-school pickups. Avoid that panicky rush-rush-rush feeling by arriving at your kid's karate practice five minutes before it ends. "Then use that break to relax and rejuvenate," says Bennett. "Recline your seat, pop in a CD you love instead of the radio, and savor every second."
Create a Calm Corner
Set up a zen zone at home and work, then turn to it when the going gets tough.
21. Deck your desk. It's probably lined with pictures of your kids, but why not add other things that bring you joy too, like a memento from a favorite getaway. "Every time you look at that sea shell, for example, you'll be transported to those relaxing moments -- you can literally see yourself sitting the beach, you can smell that salty air," says Atkins.
22. Find one spot in the house that makes you totally happy. Even a corner of the bathtub will do. "I keep a few beautiful candles perched on my tub," says Atkins. "I may not have time for a relaxing bath every night, but just seeing them helps me feel better."
23. Use soothing smells. A recent Australian study found that emergency room nurses (typically a very high-stress group) had significantly lower anxiety levels after receiving aromatherapy massages. While massage is not realistic in the middle of a crazy work day, you can let the power of scent keep you calm. Stash a bottle of lavender hand cream in your desk drawer and rub it on whenever you need instant relaxation.
Make Chores More Fun
There's no way around housework, but these tips may help you dread the deed a little less.
24. Pump up the volume. Six loads of laundry become a lot more bearable when you're sorting and folding to Bon Jovi -- and taking breaks to dance, sing, and laugh. "When mom's silly, it's remarkable what happens to her kids," says Bennett. "You'll have a roomful of happy, gigglers in just 15 seconds -- it's truly transformative."
25. Treat yourself to some tulips. Studies have shown that fresh flowers can lower stress levels by triggering positive emotions in people who admire them. So make sure to pass by them (and catch a calming whiff) between rounds of vacuuming and dusting.
Get a New Take on Lists
Maintaining a log of tasks may be a lifesaver, but this can actually fuel stress if you do it the wrong way. Keep this in mind before you pick up a pen:
26. Have two kinds. The first is a massive brain-dump that you update whenever you remember something new, whether it's writing a thank-you note or calling the landscaper. From that, draft a shorter daily or weekly list of what you realistically hope to accomplish in that timeframe. "Then at the end of the day, you see all the cross-offs and feel productive, not overwhelmed by what you haven't done," says Bennett.
27. Use it to delegate. Don't just pen the list -- show it to your partner or older kids who can help you whittle it down. "This lets everyone pitch in and prioritize, and ensures that your husband and kids don't need to read your mind," says Keller.
What Goes Around
28. Consider anti-stress karma. If you aid people in their time of need, maybe you'll get help when you're under the gun, advises Mudita Rastogi, PhD, a professor of clinical psychology at Argosy University in Schaumburg, Illinois. "When pregnant women ask you what motherhood is really like, be honest and share your tips. Offer to pick up groceries for a new mom. Watch someone's baby while she takes a nap." Other studies have found that being a good friend can lower blood pressure and help women manage their own stress more effectively.
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