Flight attendant Steven Slater made the national news in August 2010 after announcing he’d "had it" and inflating the JetBlue plane’s emergency slide for his grand exit. He admitted to police and media sources that his meltdown had a lot to do with stresses of his job and personal life.
While his actions appalled many people (most notably JetBlue officials), most of us can recall situations when we’ve wanted to take a similarly dramatic (if not-so-bizarre) action.
"There are going to be events that cause stress in our lives, and our response is what’s key," says Vanessa Horning, who has taught stress management for 25 years (including for Fred Pryor Seminars). "You have to take control before you allow yourself to react where you have to apologize or unruffle feathers."
CAUSES AND PAUSES
Hair loss, muscle spasms, digestive disorders, skin conditions, headaches, mouth ulcers, cardiovascular disease and hypertension, aggravation of asthma and degenerative neurological disorders, reproductive organ disorders, impotence, and immune system disturbances: According to the American Institute of Stress, "it’s hard to think of any disease in which stress cannot play an aggravating role or any part of the body that is not affected."
The causes of stress are as multitudinous and varied as the effects. The obvious "bad" ones include traffic, school- and work-related pressures, rising prices, and just about anything you own breaking down. Then there are the ones that should only make us happy: vacations, wedding planning, holiday shopping, and (on occasion) just about every member of our family.
Horning has developed a mantra for coping with stressful situations: pause, think, and then respond. "Pausing gives us the opportunity to take a breath," she says. "When we feel stressed, our heart beats faster. We talk louder and come across more strongly than we would want to. When we take a breath, we can slow ourselves down and soften our voice. Time to think helps us respond in a manner more appropriate for the situation."
When we allow ourselves to become annoyed or angry by the actions of others, we are granting them power over us, Horning says. "That gives a lot away. I am the only person that can control my reaction. Dealing with stress is within my power."
CONTROL AND FLOW
Dr. Les Alhadeff, a psychiatrist whose specialties include stress management, has seen numerous physical ailments in his Palm Desert office, including head and back aches, upper GI pain, diarrhea or constipation, rashes, shortness of breath or palpitations, insomnia, tinnitus, and chronic overall pain such as fibromyalgia.
"Once causes outside the brain are ruled out, physical symptoms turn out to be a very common presentation of stress and anxiety," he says. "Their hyperactive brain, whether they are aware of the hyperactivity or not, through its control of the nervous system causes real physical symptoms to appear."
Type A personalities (those involved in an incessant struggle to achieve more and more in less and less time) are particularly prone to suffering from physical disorders of stress, "the most important of which," Alhadeff says, "is a 300 percent increase in their risk for coronary heart disease and a 200 percent increase in their risk for heart attack."
Type As cannot simply turn their minds off and relax; the best short-term relaxation involves a diversion. However, Alhadeff says, "If your hobby is playing golf, it is important that the game be played solely for enjoyment in a relaxed way. Do not rush. Play nine holes instead of 18. Do not keep score. If you run, do not try to see how many more miles you can run in the same time. If you have a running mate, do not try to show them how good a runner you are."
To gauge your level of stress, take the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Stress-O-Meter quiz at www.bam.gov/sub_yourlife/yourlife_stressometer.html#
SUPPLEMENTS, MEDICATION, AND THERAPY
Dr. Les Alhadeff frowns on the use of herbs as stress relievers. One of the most popular, St. John’s wort, "is a really bad idea," he says, "because it can interact with other medications.
"On the other hand," he continues, "I am a big proponent of vitamins and minerals. In particular, vitamin B6 is absolutely essential in making neurotransmitters."
Alhadeff also recommends supplementing the body’s store of folic acid and vitamin B12. "Though people usually have sufficient levels of both, those 55 and older may need to take B12 sublingually, since its absorption decreases as we age," he says.
Calcium, often taken in supplements to protect bones, displaces magnesium, which transmits neural impulses. So Alhadeff recommends a multivitamin that includes magnesium, as well as zinc.
SAMe, a synthetic compound touted as increasing serotonin and dopamine levels, "comes close to trying to do what B6, B12, and folate do," Alhadeff says. "You make your own ‘SAMe’ in your body as long as you have B6, B12, and folate."
If supplements aren’t enough to help you handle stress, you may want to see a doctor. "People need to seek professional help when the stress they’re under causes symptoms that change their lifestyle because they’re severe," Alhadeff says.
"For mild to moderate anxiety, therapy would be fine and probably superior to medication, but it takes time," he says. "People who are stressed are people who don’t want to take the time. Medications can be effective and can work faster; but when you stop taking them, the symptoms return. You haven’t learned very much.
"If symptoms are moderate to severe, I recommend combining therapy and medication. I don’t recommend medication alone, because stress requires coping skills. You won’t get those skills from medication."
The problem with benzodiazepines such as Valium, Ativan, and Xanax are that they’re addictive. "They relieve anxiety, but they also affect your memory," Alhadeff says. "Under good supervision, it’s fine for somebody with significant symptoms, but I would do that for the short term."
25 PROVEN STRESS REDUCERS
1 Do nothing that, after being done, leads you to tell a lie.
2 Plan ahead. Fill the gas tank before it drops to a quarter full; keep staples stocked; write appointments and events on one calendar.
3 Allow an extra 15 minutes to get to work or an appointment.
4 Carry a book or magazine with you to places where you may have to wait.
5 Relax your standards. The world will not end if the car isn’t washed this weekend or you serve your dinner guests a dish you haven’t made from scratch.
6 Count your blessings! For every one thing that goes wrong, 10 (or 50 or 100) go right.
7 Listen to your favorite music. Dance.
8 Distinguish between needs and preferences.
9 Get plenty of sleep; don’t set the alarm on weekends.
10 Take a hot bath (preferably with bubbles) or sit in a spa to relieve tension.
11 Light a lavender-scented candle.
12 Take a walk, even if it’s just around the block.
13 Breathe slowly and deeply.
14 Every day do something you enjoy doing.
15 Do something for someone else.
16 Forgive. Accept that we don’t live in a perfect world with perfect people. Believe that most people are doing the best they can.
17 Declutter your surroundings (house, office, car).
18 Get in touch with nature. Watch the birds; smell the flowers; putter in the garden.
19 Find ways to laugh — every day.
20 Maintain a positive state of mind. Keep a list of your accomplishments.
21 Make space on your desk for a framed photograph, mini Zen garden, or wind-up toy.
22 Eat a healthy diet.
23 Make exercise, including yoga, a part of your daily routine.
24 Focus on what you can control.
25 Learn to say no (politely, of course) when your time is limited.
List compiled with assistance from Vanessa Horning.