Stress: Focus on the New Relaxed You

10 Ways to Stop Stress

Focus on the New Relaxed You

WebMD Live Events Transcript

Ohm. In this mellow discussion we looked at ways to live life as a "de-stressed" person. WebMD's in-house expert Patricia Farrell, PhD, author of 'How to Be Your Own Therapist', joined us with tips for making the most of striving for stress-buster status. She joined us on Nov. 16, 2004.

The opinions expressed herein are the guests' alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Dr. Farrell, is stress like weight loss? Sometimes it's harder to keep it off than to lose it?

Very true, and sometimes we have the best intentions regarding making changes in our lives, and we have to remember that just like weight, a little bit of stress will come back and we have to work at it again to get rid of it. It really is a constant effort. Or perhaps I should say we have to just be aware of our stress and allow ourselves to backslide a little bit and then pull ourselves up again.

Which culture is more stressed, and which culture seems the least stressed?

That's a very difficult question to answer. I've seen some studies which talk about specific cultures and the stresses within that culture, but we can't judge cultures one against the other, there are just too many factors.

We do know that several cultures, for instance, Germany, Japan, and France, place a great emphasis on achievement in school as a young person, and this, unfortunately, brings about more stress than young people can handle. As a matter of fact, I remember reading that the suicide rate among young children in Germany is quite high.

I know that in Japan, if a high school student is not accepted into university, that can result in a tragedy, because their life, as they would like to have it, is over. The opportunities for them are very limited.

So while some cultures may seem not to have stress, they still do, but we haven't measured the stress level there. I would suppose that we could look at one indicator to try to find out if there was a great deal of stress in a society, and that indicator would be wellness or the incidence of illness.

The problem there becomes access to medical services, as well as sanitation and whether or not people seek out available services. So while there might be a lot of people who are suffering stress-related illnesses, they may not seek help, and therefore any numbers we would collect would have very little meaning regarding a culture and its stress level.

If stress comes back, should you keep using the same stress-reduction methods you used before or try something else?

I believe you use whatever works for you. Usually you wouldn't confine yourself to one thing, but I think the key here is not the technique that you use to reduce stress, but the way you allow stress to build up in your life. In other words, it calls for life change.
Stress is inevitable, but life change is something over which you have control. And that truly may be where you need to look.

"Stress is inevitable, but life change is something over which you have control. And that truly may be where you need to look."

Do you think all the freedom of choice we have actually causes more stress?

Very good question. Years ago there was a very famous psychologist who wrote a book called, Escape From Freedom , and the whole idea was that choice and the number of choices you have produce incredible amounts of stress and anxiety.

We do have a consumer-driven society, and we find ourselves bombarded by many, many commercials, television shows, and films regarding what we "should" have or "should" want. And many times it's extremely stressful, because we compare ourselves and what people have and then we make decisions about our own self-esteem, our self-worth, and that can be very upsetting.

I think the main thing is to be happy with yourself and to be able to say, "I don't need things to tell people who or what I am, I am who I am, and they can tell that just by knowing me and not by the things that I either wear or have in my home."

Do you have tips for reframing stressful events to be able to "re-enter" the stress-buster status?

I believe anything that happens to you, no matter how bad it seems, has a good side. The trick becomes to allow yourself to, as you say, reframe and see the good side.

So if you didn't get a promotion, maybe that was good, because the job might have been too demanding and taken you away form the people or things you love. So I say always look for the good in anything that you perceive as bad and you will find it. That is truly putting reframing to use.

I always read books to de-stress, but lately I can't read more than ten minutes without feeling like I'm falling asleep. Does this mean I'm de-stressed, or is it a symptom of some kind of sleep problem? I'd like to read again without falling asleep!

Reading is a wonderful activity and does allow us a great escape from our stressful lives. I don't believe that you have a sleep disorder, but you probably are suffering from what a great number of us do, and that is, that you have built up a tremendous amount of "sleep debt."

This problem is so great that the United States government has a commission on sleep, chaired by Dr. Dement from Stanford University. If you're not getting enough sleep, and it sounds like you're not, I'm not surprised that the relaxation of reading is sending you off to slumber.

I don't have a solution for this, I just think that when you can, you should try to get a little more sleep or even take some catnaps. There are several sites on the internet where you can get information on getting better sleep and I do have some links on my web site's self-help and stress pages at I think you'll find them very helpful.

We need siestas at work! And to stop treating sleep like a sign of weakness in this country. Never going to happen, though. Agree?

I agree with you 1,000 percent. There are companies that, as a matter of fact, have provided employees with spaces to take lunchtime catnaps. As I recall, back as early as the 1950s, the original Bell Telephone company made this available to their employees.

They had large lounge areas with comfortable overstuffed chairs and couches and a very quiet subdued atmosphere. I do think that American corporations are beginning to realize that catnaps, just as coffee breaks, can increase not only productivity, but employee health.

Has anyone ever done a study of the lowest-stress jobs? I want to know who is the mellowest while they work, because I want that kind of job. I don't want to be rich, just comfortable and happy.

It really depends on the personality. I think every job, depending on your makeup, has a certain level of stress. And I really don't know that anybody has provided us with research on low-stress jobs.

As a matter of fact, you would think that a job that was not demanding might be quite low stressed; however, that's not necessarily so. Having very little to do and very little being demanded of you, can be very stressful, because as we know, we need to be active or stress actually builds up. So it almost sounds like a no-win situation. There are no low-stress jobs.

Can't stress be a good thing?

Well, it really depends on how you define stress. You can say that stress is really motivation to do something. Now, whether it's to do something to get away from something or reach a goal, it is energizing.

You can decide what avenue you will select. I remember taking a course as a graduate student where my professor believed:

  • No stress is bad.
  • Medium stress is good, because that's motivating.
  • High stress is bad because that causes you not to be able to function.

So yes, stress can be a motivator; it can be something that will promote growth. It depends on how you perceive it.

If you perceive yourself as helpless in the fact of the situation, that will be detrimental to your health, both emotional and physical. As a matter of fact, I just read about a piece of research today that talked about training people to look at stress in their lives in totally different ways and to learn to be more proactive in their lives. On a three-year follow-up, those individuals were healthier and happier than people who had not received that training.

"Stress can be a motivator; it can be something that will promote growth. It depends on how you perceive it."

You mentioned personality, and I think that plays a huge role in stress. Some people are just so cool under pressure. Is there a stress gene?

I believe there is a genetic predisposition to be more sensitive to stress and to be taxed in terms of your ability to cope with stress, but I don't believe that it's impossible to help yourself to handle stress better. Because it is not just genes alone, it is a combination of genetics and environment, and you control your environment.

As far as environment goes, what can we parents do to help raise confident, stress-free kids?

At about three or four we need to begin teaching our children that they can engage in creative coping to handle situations that upset them. I think we need to help build their self-esteem; and we need to be role models, because don't forget, children model their behavior after the adults around them. They also model their behavior after children around them, so we need to discuss with our kids how to handle situations better than the group of children they may know.

So it starts early and it's a constant ongoing dialogue we can have with our kids every day about anything which causes them distress. If we don't engage in these conversations with them, it increases their level of stress and does nothing to build their self-esteem, or their belief that they can overcome or cope with difficulties.

What do you think is the number one cause of stress -- time, money, relationships?

Well, as one very famous American writer once said, the rich are different from you or I, they have more money. Money can present problems, and the lack of it can present major problems.

Certainly relationships can be taxing, however, here it is within your control to decide the type of relationships you will have. If they are unfulfilling and confrontational, you need to ask yourself "How did this happen?" Relationships don't fall from the sky like leaves, we create them and we make them what they are. So there are many sources of stress for anyone. One area may be more stressful than the other. Sometimes, unfortunately, one will affect all the other areas of our life.

Are people who actively participate in a religion less stressed than those who don't?

I think religion has a place in many lives and can be a source of great comfort. That is not to say I believe you don't have power over your life, nor to say that people who don't participate in a religion are more stressed.

But religion is helpful, and believing in some higher power is certainly helpful, and we find that people who do have some beliefs of these types tend to help them through difficult times because of the communal ties formed.

These individuals may not feel they are truly alone in trying to handle any situation, and that of course is very helpful. I was told recently by a physician -- who is not particularly religious, but believes there must be a power that will help when you ask for help -- he told me he was diagnosed with a terminal liver problem and he began not only to pray a bit, but to talk to his liver and to his immune system and to tell both of them to start working together.

Incredibly, within two weeks he was told by his doctors that his illness had improved to the point where it was almost absent. Everyone was shocked. So there are powers that we probably have access to and certainly we cannot deny.

Are people with nearby family who are involved in their lives less stressed than those without? Is living alone in a far away city more stressful?

> I think you make the assumption that living alone in a city and far from your family is lonely, and I don't think that's so. Because people -- I can speak for Manhattan or New York City -- people in large cities tend to form groups around holiday time and they ensure that everyone has a feeling of belonging to some group or family unit and I know that people go out of their way to involve them.

Having said that, I can also say that that could be very stressful, because you don't always want to take people up on their invitations, and it's sometimes difficult to get out of them. So if you're with a family it can be wonderful or extremely stressful. The same is true if you are in a city without a family.

As the sounding board for my wife, who has a very stressful job, is it my job just to nod and sympathize, or should I be offering suggestions or goals for her to find a way to ease her bad situations and relationships at work?

Well, I don't believe you want to play the wise mentor to an adult, unless they are actively asking for it. So my thought would be that you sound your wife out on what she needs and would prefer, and then follow that lead.

"Remember, life presents us with many opportunities. The problem is, we see them as obstacles. Put on your rose-colored glasses."

Dr. Farrell, can you come up with ten ways to stay stress-free once you've faced and managed your stressors?

Yes I can.

  • Number one, learn to say no and feel comfortable with it.
  • Two, allow yourself nonsense time and don't feel guilty.
  • Three, if you want to do something that kids do, like jump rope, skate, do it, it's good for you.
  • Four, don't assume you have to do everything that's reasonable. You can give in to impulses. Just don't go out and buy a Lamborghini.
  • Five, take vacations, absolutely!
  • Six, don't pride yourself on the lack of sleep you rack up every day.
  • Seven, every once in a while, unless you're diabetic, have a little ice cream.
  • Eight, no matter what job you have, always know that you will be learning as long as you are capable, and that's a very good thing.
  • Nine, cherish your friends and let them know it.
  • Ten, get up in the morning and say, "I'm terrific," and try to mean it.
  • Bonus tip: whenever anyone offers you Godiva chocolate, take it immediately!

What can we learn from people who have tackled their stress and now lead a more peaceful life?

They provide a great example for us, and I believe that they are heroes in their own right, and we do need heroes. So take a look at them, see what they've done and how they've accomplished it and then see how this might be worked into your own life. Remember, life presents us with many opportunities. The problem is, we see them as obstacles. Put on your rose-colored glasses.

Dr. Farrell, do you have any final words for us?

I've enjoyed this chat, and I hope you've found it helpful. Remember one thing, and this is what I tell myself whenever I go to a seminar: If I only pick up one tiny grain that will be helpful for me, that's all I need.

I hope I've provided more than one tiny grain, but if I've only provided one, I think I've done a good job. So please stop by my website,, where I continue to add new information on the self-help and stress pages, as well as the ones on pain and sleep, and a variety of other topics.

If you'd like a little bit more of my wit and wisdom, consider my book, How to be Your Own Therapist. I hope everyone has a wonderful holiday season and a truly wonderful New Year.

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Reviewed on 12/28/2004 12:52:47 AM

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