Under pressure: How to manage stress before it affects your health

(BPT) – Stress: it makes your heart race, your head pound and your stomach churn.

While a little stress can be a good thing and help motivate us when needed, too much stress can lead to negative health effects including headaches, upset stomach, back pain, trouble sleeping and a weakened immune system. In fact, the American Institute of Stress reports that up to 90 percent of visits to primary care physicians are due to stress-related health problems.

“Stress can seem unavoidable. Work demands, family obligations and financial pressures all contribute to our stress levels,” says Ruth Kenzelmann, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and vice president of employee assistance programs and WorkLife services for Optum. “But there are steps you can take to derail stress as it’s happening, and prevent it from interfering with your health and quality of life.”

Stress first aid

Dr. Kenzelmann suggests some things you can do “in-the-moment” when you’re feeling stressed:

* Take three deep breaths: Deep breathing can really help reduce stress symptoms or prepare for a situation that you know will be stressful, like a meeting with your boss. Be conscious of letting your belly expand and contract as you breathe. Roll your shoulders and rotate your neck gently, too.

* Make a daily break part of your workday: Working through lunch and for long hours has become routine for many of us. But it’s not a healthy habit and can even reduce your productivity. If you’re feeling stressed or know a stressful day is coming, schedule a short walk or bike ride, have lunch in a park, visit the gym or take a break with a co-worker at a local coffee shop. Write it into your schedule, too, so meetings can’t interfere.

* Seek optimism: How you think about and interpret events as they unfold can turn the dial up or down on your stress. When faced with a stressful day, allow yourself to take a moment to find the good: What makes you lucky to be there? What are you enjoying right now? Take a few moments to savor what’s good about your situation.

Stress prevention

Dr. Kenzelmann recommends using these stress-prevention techniques to help change the way you approach and think about certain situations:

* Value relationships: Positive connections with other people are a great remedy for life’s daily challenges. Each evening, think about the three best social connections of your day and how connected and in touch you felt. Doing this little “mental check-in” with yourself can increase positivity almost as effectively as doing regular meditation.

* Find and use your strengths: People who have the opportunity to act on their strengths and do what they do best every day are far more likely to be resilient and energized. Take some time to clearly understand your own strengths, and then make sure you have ways to use them in your daily life. The boost in positivity that comes from finding new ways to apply your strengths is significant and lasting.

* Practice mindfulness: This can take some practice for most people, but there are many short, easy guides and even mobile apps to walk you through the practice of mindfulness. When you are mindful, you are focusing on your thoughts, emotions and sensations at the very moment. If this all sounds too “new age-y” for you, don’t knock it until you try it – mindfulness is a proven stress reducer!

For more information on the impact of stress on health and wellbeing, and tips for managing stress in your life, visit www.optum.com/stress.

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