Relax! Stress, if Managed, Can Be Good For You

You're aiming for stimulated and focused—but not frazzled.

When work gets overwhelming, Daniel Lobring picks up his drumsticks.

When work gets overwhelming, Daniel Lobring picks up his drumsticks.

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Steinhardt suggests pausing when stress hits to simply recognize its source, whether it's an unrealistic deadline, a family reunion, or an inflating mortgage. Focusing your attention on the problem is key to identifying what you can control and accepting what you can't and to preventing a panicked reaction from developing unchecked. If you're not in a panic, you can offer yourself some coaching: Is anger going to be productive? Are you really (choose one): a bad employee, the black sheep of the family, someone completely incapable of handling personal finances?

Being a perfectionist, not surprisingly, can lead to excessively high cortisol levels, increasing the risk of diabetes and depression. Working mother Alice Domar, a Harvard Medical School professor and author of Be Happy Without Being Perfect, argues that we need to retrain our brains to think realistically. She recommends keeping a journal detailing any perfectionist tendencies, what's gained from them (a spotless house, perhaps), and what's lost (the novel waiting on your nightstand).

The guilt has to go along with the outsize expectations. Feeling overwhelmed by the needs of her husband and two kids and the demands of her employee relations job at computer maker Dell, Tonja Eaton of Round Rock, Texas, says she learned to put her wants (free time on Sundays, family evenings at home, belly-dancing classes) over her shoulds (visits with relatives, birthday parties for her children's acquaintances, serving on a charity board) after joining a monthly "personal renewal group" focusing on work-life balance issues. More than 150 of these groups, based on The Mother's Guide to Self-Renewal by Renée Trudeau, have formed around the country. "I've discovered a lot of creative ways to say no," says Eaton, 36. "I've learned to make it a rule that a minimum of 50 percent of weekends be spent at home. We're much more connected as a family when we do that."

Understressed. While the health hazards of too much stress have been well established, too little isn't good for you either, according to Monika Fleshner, an associate professor of integrative physiology at the University of Colorado-Boulder who has conducted numerous studies on the stress response. It could be that if the stress system isn't activated often enough, she theorizes, it produces higher levels of stress hormones when it does get turned on. Like a muscle, it may need to be used regularly in order to stay in peak working condition. This could explain why some people fall apart when hit by a serious crisis while others rise to the occasion. If your body isn't used to having challenges, Fleshner speculates, "perhaps when the stress response finally does get turned on, it's hard to turn off."

More established are the daily psychological consequences that stem from a lack of challenge: boredom, low energy, and a reduced sense of accomplishment. Teresa Walden, 44, grew all too familiar with these feelings in the years after quitting her in-house-attorney position in Austin to raise her two sons. She assumed that going back to her position once her sons started school would restore her mojo, but instead she felt stymied by the same old work. Ultimately, Walden decided to become a life coach. "I definitely feel more energized, more alive with purpose and intention," she says. "It makes me a better mom."

Whether you're bored or overwhelmed, reaching the optimal stress zone requires bridging the gap "between your current reality and your desired future," says psychologist Rosen. "There's the voice inside you that says take a leap, go forward, but there's also the voice that holds you back, warning that it's too risky." His five-step plan for getting through the gap: Identify what you want to change; imagine your desired outcome; assess your current situation; analyze what it will take to get you to your future goal; and take action to get there, setting one small goal at a time.

Try the cure-all. Beyond using your mental processes to manage your response to stress, there's that terrific physiological tool: exercise. Regular physical activity is the single best thing you can do to gain energy if you're understressed and to relax if you're frazzled, say experts. A 2007 study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine found that people who exercise at least two or three times a week have smaller increases in blood pressure, heart rate, and inflammatory chemicals when given stressful word-naming tasks than those who never exercise.