You don't need a boor of a boss like The Office's Michael Scott to feel supremely stressed at work. The National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety cites a survey that says 40 percent of American workers believe their job is "very or extremely stressful," and a recent Gallup poll reports that 80 percent of workers feel stress on the job. Conference calls, e-mail, instant messages, meetings, social media, TPS reports—not to mention an unsettled economic environment—all conspire to make work one of the biggest stressors in our lives, especially for women. "I can tell you that, being north of 50 years old, the women's lib movement did not do us any favors in terms of the notion of balance between home life and work life," says Dr. Jandel Allen-Davis, an obstetrician who is now vice president for government and external relations for Kaiser Permanente in Denver. "A big source of stress is that we know we're not balancing our work life and our home life 50-50. We need to recognize that at times work is going to trump home, and at other times home is going to trump work." Here's how to create a balance between being productive and managing stress at the office.
FOCUS ON THE TASK AT HAND
"Modern technology has given us all these gadgets to help us multitask, but research shows that we're actually not effective when we're multitasking," says Dr. Antonia Pieracci of the University of Colorado Denver Depression Center. "If a woman can fully immerse herself in whatever she's doing she'll likely enjoy it more. So we can reduce our stress—and be more effective—if we can actually be in the here and now."
MAKE TIME FOR MINI-MEDITATION SESSIONS
"Close your office door and just sit quietly for five minutes, or even two or three minutes," says Dr. Karin L. Kempe, director of clinical prevention in the Department of Population and Prevention Services at Kaiser Permanente in Denver. "This idea comes directly from my teaching [of] mindfulness-based stress reduction: Let your breath or the sounds around you anchor your mind so that you have a mini-meditation or mini-vacation in the middle of your busy day."
"Unless you're an emergency worker, there are very few true emergencies at our jobs," says Dr. Mary Coussons-Read, a professor of psychology and director of the Masters of Integrated Sciences program at the University of Colorado Denver. But if, for example, you have a boss that has a tendency to drop projects on your desk and say, "I need this tomorrow," you need to be prepared. "Be honest about who your boss is. Build in buffer time so you can finish the project, or know you're going to have to work a weekend every once in a while. We might have to do that sometimes; just don't make it a habit."
Think, for a moment, of Betty Draper, the outwardly perfect wife and mother played by January Jones on Mad Men: She's beautiful, she's glamorous—and, oh, by the way, she keeps a lovely home and raises three young kids and always seems ready for a romp in the hay with her ad-man husband, Don. She's also completely, totally stressed out. (And she's got a nanny!) Betty may be an anachronism, but whether it's the 1960s on TV or real life in 2010, women always place a very high value on the romantic relationships in their lives. "Women put tremendous pressure on themselves to be the perfect wife, or the perfect mother, and are trying to live up to not only society's standards but their own internal standards," says Pieracci. "And they usually fall short because their standards are unrealistically high." By nature, women are nurturing and pay more attention to relationships than men do. On top of that, women are usually responsible for taking care of the home and taking care of the kids—even if they have intense, full-time jobs. And that means they may have the equivalent of two full-time jobs, which doesn't leave a lot of time, or energy, for romance. Here's how to ensure that romantic relationships remain a source of joy, not a source of stress.
Stop thinking in terms of quantity and start thinking in terms of quality. So: What kind of jobs can you hand off to others in order to spend more time with your significant other? If you can have someone clean your house, says Allen-Davis, that will "allow you to focus the few waking hours you have on your family and yourself, and will enhance your time at home."
Even something as simple as doing something nice (writing a love note, taking out the trash without having to be asked, making breakfast) for your partner every day helps. "Whether it's a genuine compliment or scheduling a dinner and getting a babysitter—those little things can really go a long way," says Pieracci. "And if one partner does it, then the other is more likely to start reciprocating."
MAINTAIN THAT ORIGINAL SPARK
Passion waxes and wanes, but intimacy is important in every romantic relationship. One of the most common reasons women visit their gynecologists is for sexual dysfunction. "We mistake sexual intercourse with intimacy, and they are very different. As relationships mature, that intimacy becomes much, much more important to keep the sexual part alive," says Allen-Davis.
Late last year, when 32-year-old actress Brittany Murphy died from cardiac failure, the speculation was that the heart attack might have been caused by an eating disorder. Murphy's death highlights the extreme end of the spectrum of how women perceive their bodies, but Dr. Jennifer Gaudiani, a hospitalist and assistant medical director of the ACUTE Center at Denver Health, says that "many women exist somewhere on the spectrum of disordered thinking about their bodies and food." Constant talk of weight and physical appearance, ubiquitous conversations about food, and the barrage of mass-media images of stick-thin models and actresses can be huge sources of stress for women. Paradoxically, stress from other sources can trigger body image issues. "Some people might grab a bag of chips and eat it when they're under duress," says Gaudiani. "Others might look in the mirror and instead of saying 'I'm stressed' or 'I'm sad,' they might say 'I'm dissatisfied with how my body looks or how my body functions.' " Here are three ways to help create a healthy and happy relationship with your body.
SWALLOW YOUR WORDS
"When you're out socially, don't make comments," says Gaudiani. "I have never told one of my friends, 'Gosh, you look so thin!' or asked, 'Geez, have you lost weight?' I don't ever talk about the food I eat, except to say it's delicious. You never know who you're talking to—someone may indeed have a past, and you can't know what you might be triggering by making what are otherwise very socially acceptable comments about body and about food." And by modeling that kind of behavior to others, they may begin to be more circumspect in their comments about your body and eating habits, too.
MANAGE YOUR EXPECTATIONS
The Front Range is a region full of physically active people, and some women feel like slackers if they're not training for an Ironman, running four marathons a year, or bagging fourteeners on the weekend. "Women are constantly comparing themselves to others and feeling like they're not doing enough," says Pieracci. "People in Denver tend to think that if they didn't go for a five-mile run, that they didn't exercise. But if they went for a walk, or if they parked farther from their office and had to walk more to get to the car, those things really make a big difference in terms of how you feel" in terms of your body image and stress level.
LEARN TO LOVE YOURSELF
We all focus on what part of our bodies we're not satisfied with—it's human nature. "But if we can turn our attention to what we like and emphasize that, that's much more useful," says Pieracci. "Because no matter how much we exercise, or even if we have plastic surgery, there are always going to be aspects of our bodies that we don't like as much."
We live in a selfish culture (see, e.g., Bernard Madoff), but women are conditioned to be selfless. All of that outward nurturing means that often women don't have time to tend to their own health, well-being, and growth. "I always tell women to remember what they say on the airlines: Put your own oxygen mask on before you put on your neighbor's," says Allen-Davis. "And we do the opposite as women—we take care of everybody else, and then there's little time for ourselves." That's a recipe for stress. "What we forget is that to be able to do what we want to do with our family and our job, we have to be a little selfish," says Coussons-Read. Here are three tips on how to manage the stress that comes from taking care of others and how to cultivate your own emotional and spiritual growth.
FIND YOUR PASSION
Pick something you love—jogging, cooking, dancing, painting, anything—and then just do it. "One person I know just found something like that in a knitting class, and that's fantastic," says Pieracci. "It's almost like a place of respite, a place of time to reflect on their life, where they don't have to be focused on other people. They can actually just be focused on themselves for that moment."
So often, women (and men) use the excuse of not having enough time to avoid doing something that might actually bring pleasure to them, and so it's important to give yourself permission to take that time for yourself, even if it's just 10 or 15 minutes a day. "Make dates with yourself," says Coussons-Read. "You need to treat yourself just as well as you treat other people, and we don't do that. A simple thing like making an appointment with yourself can be incredibly powerful—if you just stick to it."
Working toward something allows us to grow and brings pleasure into our lives. "I think that's so important for women, whether it's a physical goal like running a marathon, or taking a class to learn something new," says Pieracci. "Something tangible that you're working on, on a pretty regular basis, and you can see progress. That relates a lot to spiritual and emotional growth."
Myth 1: Stress is the same for everybody.
Completely wrong. Stress is different for each of us. What is stressful for one person may or may not be stressful for another; each of us responds to stress in an entirely different way.
Myth 2: Stress is always bad for you.
Stress is to the human condition what tension is to the violin string: Too little and the music is dull and raspy; too much and the music is shrill or the string snaps. Stress can be the kiss of death or the spice of life. The issue, really, is how to manage it. Managed stress makes us productive and happy; mismanaged stress can be seriously detrimental.
Myth 3: Stress is everywhere, so you can't do anything about it.
Not so. You can plan your life so that stress does not overwhelm you. Effective planning involves setting priorities and working on simple problems first, solving them, and then going on to more complex difficulties. When stress is mismanaged, it's difficult to prioritize. All of your problems seem to be equal, and stress seems to be everywhere.
Myth 4: The most popular techniques for reducing stress are the best ones.
No universally effective stress-reduction techniques exist. We are all different, our lives are different, our situations are different, and our reactions are different. Only a comprehensive program tailored to the individual works.
Myth 5: No symptoms, no stress.
Absence of symptoms does not mean the absence of stress. In fact, camouflaging symptoms with medication may deprive you of the signals you need for reducing the strain on your physiological and psychological systems.
Myth 6: Only major symptoms of stress require attention.
This myth assumes that the "minor" symptoms, such as headaches or stomach acid, may be safely ignored. Minor symptoms of stress are the early warnings that your life is getting out of hand and that you need to do a better job of managing stress.
Source: American Psychological Association