Learn how to beat stress

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Helena Oliviera, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Naomi Tsu battles high levels of stress every day at work. And increasingly, the Atlanta attorney, doesn’t always cut it off when she goes home.

“It’s hard to put down that BlackBerry,” laments Tsu.

Tsu carves out time every day to rest her busy mind and ease her stress levels. She enjoys cooking and spending time with friends. And she routinely begins her day with meditation — lasting anywhere between five minutes to an hour. With every breath in — and out — she feels her body relax.

“It makes my stress level livable,” she said. “After I meditate, things don’t bother me as much. … If I have a tough conversation with opposing counsel, I don’t carry around with me all day.”

Stress levels in Atlanta may have dipped slightly since the worst of the economic crisis, but new survey results released by the American Psychological Association suggest stress levels continue to hover at unhealthy levels.

Stress levels here averaged 5.3 on a 10-point scale (in which 1 is little or no stress and 10 is a great deal of stress), according to a 2011 survey conducted by Harris Interactive, polling 1,226 adults, including 279 adults living in metro Atlanta.

The peak was 2008 at 6.1.

Employment-related jitters remain a constant source of tension.

Of those surveyed, 77 percent pointed to work as a significant source of stress.

Dr. J. Kip Matthews, an Athens psychologist, said even though the economic crisis has eased, job stability concerns linger among this group. These people include those feeling survivor’s guilt for having held onto their jobs while others lost theirs, those anxious they could be next in line to get axed, those still looking for jobs and those who landed a job but worry it may not last.

The big problem, he said, is many people don’t know how to curb acute stress.

As a society, he believes the lack of emphasis on preventative care spills over into the way Americans handle stress. In other words, Americans don’t tackle the stress; they wait 
until it’s serious and causing health problems such as heart disease.

“People may know stress is not good for them, but there is a disconnect between recognizing they need to make changes and having the tools and the ability to make those changes,” he said.

In fact, the Stress in America study found only a third of those surveyed in Atlanta said they knew how to manage or reduce stress once they experienced it.

And while it’s normal to experience occasional spikes in stress levels, it’s not healthy to face chronic, sharp levels of stress.

Matthews said excessive stress levels release the stress hormone (cortisol) into the body and can lead to a build-up of plaque in the arteries.

Stress levels vary. When working quietly on your taxes, they should be low. If you are a lineman on a football team, they will rise. And while stress levels fluctuate, Matthews believes a healthy range, on average, is between three and four on the 10-point scale.

Among those surveyed in Atlanta, popular ways to lower stress included listening to music and exercising.

Kashi Atlanta yoga studio has seen an uptick in devotees at its Wednesday evening classes, with close to 100 participants.

Long-time yoga and meditation instructor Jaya Devi Bhagavati said she sees burnt-out Atlantans seeking more peace and balance in their lives.

Sometimes, she said, those meditating are simply looking for an escape from technology.

They want to disconnect and unwind.

“Yes, I have seen people who say I need this hour and a half to unplug and get back into the natural rhythms of myself,” said Bhagavati.


Tips for reducing stress

Exercise and eating a healthy diet are always good ways to fight stress. Dr. J. Kip Matthews, an Athens psychologist, offers four more ways to ease stress.

● Nurture your spiritual health: Whether it’s through prayer, meditation or going to church, nourishing your spiritual health can promote a sense of purpose and give comfort.

● Find a hobby: A good way to take a mental break from the stress in your life and carve out some time just for you is to find a hobby. Take a dance class, start painting or gardening. And while some stresses in your life may feel out of control, you can see yourself get better as you become a better painter, grow a garden, etc.

● Be able to say no: It may sound simple, but many people struggle with saying no, worrying they might hurt feelings. But being assertive and saying, ‘No,’ can help people from overscheduling and burdening their lives.

● Simplify your life: De-clutter your house and you will have fewer distractions. It will also give you more clarity. Also, let some things go. Instead of worrying about making a cheesecake from scratch for the school potluck, it’s OK to pick up a box of store-made cookies from the grocery. “Rather than scrambling and worrying about making something perfect, grab something and go and you’ll be in a better frame of mind,” Matthews said.

● Unplug: If you are constantly checking your emails and smartphone when you are away from work — and reading news stories about the cruise ship sinking — don’t expect your stress level to fall. Instead, take a break from your phone, computer, iPad — all of it.

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