24 Ways to Smile Through Life’s Stress
Into each life, chaos comes: missed deadlines, loaded nappies, skipped workouts, blown chances. Use our simple strategies to chill without the pill. Around 1935, when rat studies began to connect environmental pressures to health problems, people never used the expression “stressed out”. Instead, they’d talk about being “hungry” or “overworked” or “sick and tired of wearing this stupid fedora”– all problems with specific solutions.
And that’s really the best way to think of stress now: not as a mountain too high to climb, but as a series of smaller hurdles that you can take on individually. We went looking for science-driven solutions to life’s biggest stressors. Ready to make your life calmer and easier?
Your drive to work is so infuriating that you show up in a bad mood almost every day.
You’re not alone: the average car commuter in SA wastes about 90 hours a year in rush-hour traffic, according to the Tom Tom Traffic Index (TTTI). Your best option is cycling to work: according to a study in the journal Preventive Medicine, car commuters are 13% more likely to report trouble concentrating than people who walk or bike to their jobs.
If pedal pushing isn’t an option, then you’ll have to become a road scholar: the (relatively new in SA) trafficmapping capabilities of Google Maps and Waze (free, iOS and Android) can help you determine your best times to travel in order to beat the road congestion. Bonus: start showing up at work early, and you just might raise your odds of pulling off the stress-busting tip to your immediate right.
You’re working your ass off, but the pile never seems to shrink.
The problem: you suck at multitasking. That might be because you have a penis – women tend to be better at juggling duties. So stop trying to defy your DNA and prioritise the jobs on your to-do list from most to least important. Then work on the top job exclusively until it’s done, says Mark Cropley, a professor of health psychology at the University of Surrey.
Nonstop emails make you want to shoot your computer.
Stop treating email like a chatroom: constantly checking your inbox may lower your functional IQ by nearly 20 points, a British study found. So turn off the dings and check in four to five specific times daily, says David Posen, author of Is Work Killing You? Each time, knock your unread emails down to zero – either answering them or filing them for later – and then go back to work. You’ll do more and worry less: UC Irvine research found that working without the ability to check email equalled less stress.
You can’t stop thinking about work when you leave.
Clothes make the man… stress out. In a Northwestern University study, people wearing lab coats were more attentive to their work than those dressed in sloppy painters’ coats. The same thing may happen to you when you put on your job uniform. “You’re stuck in work mode,” says Cropley. So starting tomorrow, leave the office and change into an after-hours uniform, one that’s better suited to the gym, garden work or playtime with the kids. That simple change will help you mentally enter a new phase of your day.
You didn’t save enough to get your kid to varsity.
Or maybe you saved just the right amount: students who get financial help from parents for their education have lower GPAs, according to research from UC Merced. Suggest a funding strategy that begins with local scholarships; these generally pay less but have hundreds of thousands of fewer applicants. Then have the kid fill out a NSFAS form at nsfas.org.za. That’s how the government determines who receives education assistance and who’s eligible for campus work-study jobs to help cover tuition.
Your credit card bill inches up faster than you can pay it.
Here’s your four-step plan for escaping the interest trap, courtesy of finance coach Gregg Sneddon. Do a stock-take of how much you owe; draw up a plan to pay them off, and pay the smallest one first; cut up your cards and make a decision to only spend cash; and once you’re in the clear, use your debit card only (just beware of the overdraft). If you have to use a credit card, pay it off in full each month and never draw cash from it (unless it’s in the black) as you’ll pay interest from day one. Go to thefinancialcoach.co.za
You put in the longest hours at your office, but nobody even notices
We bet the cleaning guy notices – and wishes you’d get the hell out of his way. Sure, being seen working a little late sometimes can be good for your career. But the hardworking strategy can backfire: your productivity starts to plummet when you hit 50 hours a week, according to Stanford research. If you clock out at a reasonable time, you may end up accomplishing the same amount of work – and have more time to drink cocktails with beautiful women.
There’s this guy you know who seems to be getting older, rounder and a little slower…
Your “friend” should admit that he’s lost a step and gained some kilos. “Accepting that you naturally lose muscle mass and fast-twitch muscle fibres as you age is an important step towards setting new goals,” says sports psychologist Barbara Walker. “Those who embrace a lifestyle of fitness – recognising that the value lies in enjoying the activity and feeling good afterwards – are more likely to stick to a programme.” Maybe that’s why races and lifting competitions have age groups. Whether your sport is cycling or CrossFit, sign up for a competition. Then, instead of trying to hit your old times (or squeeze into your old suits), just try to win in your age group. And if something starts to hurt, see a PT. Your body can’t take the abuse like it used to, old man.
Your knees creak like a door in American Horror Story
Knee pain relief may begin with improved hip flexibility, says San Diego exercise physiologist Pete McCall. So do this workout two or three times a week:
- High Plank with Spider-Man Alteration: From a high plank position, bring your knee to the outside of your elbow. Pause, return to a plank and repeat with the other leg. That’s 1 rep; do 3 sets of 6.
- Glute Bridge: Push through your heels to raise your hips so your body forms a straight line from knees to shoulders. Pause; slowly lower. Do 3 sets of 12, resting 30 seconds between each.
- Lateral Lunge with Trunk Rotation: Step right, bending your right knee, and sink into a side lunge. Pause, rotate your torso to the right, and return to the start. That’s 1 rep. Do 8; repeat on your left side.
You want to exercise and eat healthy, but you feel like you lack the discipline.
Get your bed examined. “When men are sleep deprived, they are biologically driven to put as much food as possible into their bodies to keep going,” says Daniel Neides, medical director of the Cleveland Clinical Wellness Institute. “And they don’t have as much energy to move.” In a Mayo Clinic study, sleep-deprived people took in nearly 2 350 extra kJs a day (probably while they were yawning). Aim for seven to nine hours of shuteye each night. Want to crash but can’t? Keep reading.
Your bed is where you lie awake and stare at the ceiling.
Life-changing shuteye begins an hour before bedtime, says sleep expert Christopher Winter. Starting tonight, that’s when you’ll shut off your TV, computer, tablet and phone. The blue light emitted by these slumber saboteurs can lower your body’s levels of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep, says Winter.
If you can’t (or won’t) power down entirely, then dim the screens to their lowest setting and keep them at least 35cm from your face. That may temper the sleepstifling effect, a Mayo Clinic study suggests. Then, when you hit the sack, forget about the objective at hand – slumber, that is – and focus on deep breathing. “If you try too hard to fall asleep, you never will,” says Winter. Use the 7-7-7 pattern: inhale for seven, hold for seven and exhale for seven until you drop off. Still suffering in the land of the conscious? Well, what’s on your mind, chief? If it’s a specific task – like a rent EFT you forgot to make or an email you need to send – get out of bed and tackle it right now.
Sure, it’ll interrupt your time in bed, but by the time you return to the sack, you’ll have acquired some sleep-inducing peace of mind.
Alzheimer’s has claimed one relative, and now you’re freaked it’ll hit you too.
“Your genes are not your destiny,” says Richard Isaacson, director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medicine. But you need a defence plan. First, learn a new language or instrument. In a 2014 Mayo Clinic study, people at risk for Alzheimer’s who challenged their brain delayed its onset by nearly nine years.
Next, eat fatty fish and have your vitamin D level checked. If it’s not up to par, take a supplement. Research links low D levels with increased Alzheimer’s risk, and higher omega-3 fat intake with decreased risk. Finally, sweat: cardio and weightlifting can help clear amyloids – proteins implicated in Alzheimer’s – from your brain, and a slim waist offers cognitive protection.
“The bigger your belly, the smaller the memory centre in your brain,” says Isaacson.
Working out doesn’t bust stress like before.
Mix it up with Tai chi. Here’s why: this martial art’s slow, deliberate movements can bestow a monklike zen, say researchers in Switzerland. In the study, beginners who attended two hour-long tai chi sessions a week for 12 weeks were calmer and 41% less stressed after a mock job interview than those who didn’t take the class. (Nunchuks optional.)
You and your wife argue about basic household chores.
In a Pew survey, equal division of chores fell just behind fidelity and good sex on the list of things that make marriage work. Discuss it over dinner; people may be more aggressive when their blood-sugar levels are low, say Ohio State researchers. Draft a clear set of expectations. It ain’t sexy, but over time, it can lead to more sex.
Your wife hates her job, and you hate hearing her gripe about it every night.
Dude, your gameplan is simple: make sure she knows you support her fury, says Pittsburgh psychologist Nancy Mramor Kajuth. When she’s under stress, she’s going to vent. But in a Harvard study, women reported feeling more relationship satisfaction (read: less stress) when their partners empathised with their negative emotions. It doesn’t matter if her gripes are reality-based or not. Let her vent; then say, “Babe, your boss sucks.” Now move on and enjoy your evening.
Your best buddies live in other cities, and now you’re all starting to drift apart.
There’s a reason phone chats with old pals feel awkward: men bond best over shared goals. “It’s like how guys used to get together to work on a car,” says Ronald Levant, a professor of psychology at the University of Akron. So find your engine to rebuild: it could be a Tuesday night Xbox tournament or a fantasy league for just your high school pals. Now you have something serious to (trash) talk about.
Dating apps like Tinder are based on looks. And you’re no Ryan Reynolds.
Download the dating app Hinge. It puts the focus on your killer personality by pairing you with people you have mutual friends with on Facebook. “It shifts the emphasis from looks to common interests and goals,” says Zach Brittle, author of The Relationship Alphabet. Of course, you value brains and beauty. So update your profile pic so your gaze is pointed off-camera and you’re not smiling. OkCupid data suggests that this will make you more attractive to… your future wife?
The thought of lost baggage gives you anxiety.
Relax, pal. Read the fine print and you’ll be fine. All airlines in South Africa offer some form of insurance, though they might differ slightly in their categorisation of your stuff. For instance, while some will lump insurance for “baggage loss” under one heading – meaning you’ll pay more for insurance you might not feel you need – others will get more specific, providing separate options for valuables and devices. Don’t like planning? Agencies like Travelstart and Flight Centre will take care of it for you. Why the worry?
Delayed flight! Now you may miss your connection.
A long line of angry passengers will be waiting to rebook at the gate. Stay away from them. Instead, call the airline: You’ll cut in front of everyone in line and increase your odds of snagging the last available seat on a connecting flight, says Zach Honig, editor-in-chief of the travel site The Points Guy. Still stressed? Look for a spa in your terminal. A 45-minute massage can greatly reduce your levels of the stress hormone cortisol, according to research from Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre.
Holiday planning sucks. It feels like you’re just deciding between tourist traps.
Stop being a control freak. You’ll have a better time and more unique experiences if you keep your itinerary loose and flexible, says Mramor. Do this: pick one or two sightseeing spots, and once you’re there, ask around. Because who works at “tourist traps”? Locals! So after taking your cheesy Leaning Tower of Pisa picture on day one, ask the guys selling overpriced gelato where they hang out on the weekends. That’s where you’ll go tomorrow.
Your kitchen table has become a repository for mail, car keys and pocket lint.
You need a clutter interceptor, says Lisa Zaslow, CEO of Gotham Organisers. Just inside your front door, install three things: a box or tray for mail; a corkboard for bills and letters that need attention; and a small basket or tray for keys, earbuds, and other random items. Then, every time you’re about to take out the trash, toss the junk in the curb-bound bag. “You’ll be more likely to stick to your new clutter-free habit if you piggyback onto something you already do regularly,” Zaslow says.
Your neighbour likes to crank AC/DC right about the time you like to go to sleep.
Build some rapport so the guy starts thinking of you as a pal, says Marty Latz, author of Gain the Edge! Try this: knock on his door with a couple bottles of your favorite IPA and ask if he has time for a drink. Start with small talk (“You been having problems with garbage collection too?”) before moving to the real issue: “I wanted to chat because your music can be pretty loud sometimes.”
Let him know you’d like to figure out a music schedule that works – maybe earlier in the evening, or while you’re travelling. As long as you don’t lose your cool, says Latz, he’ll probably work with you.
You love your new kid and all, but now your once-serene home is a giant playpen.
Let us guess: the toy box is in your room. “The key is to spread storage all over the house,” Zaslow says. That way, you’ll actually use more of it. For the living room or den, use decorative baskets. In the front hall, hooks to hang a stroller and nappy bag. And in your bedroom – well, try to make that a toy-free sanctuary. The activity that makes babies is more likely to occur if you’re not stressed about the one you already have.
Your door sticks a lot. It’s difficult just to open and close the thing
- Identify the problem: Find where the door is rubbing against the frame. Big gap at the bottom? It’s probably touching at the top. The hinge you need to adjust is diagonal from the too-tight spot.
- Cut your shims: Unscrew the hinge and trace the outline onto the cardboard from a six-pack or tissue box. Use a box cutter to carve out the shape; repeat until you have 10 hinge-sized shims.
- Force the hinge out: Reattach the hinge to the door and frame, using three shims to push it out on each side. Repeat using two shims for the door’s centre hinge. If it still sticks, add more shims.