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1-on-1: Healthy Habits for Combating Stress

The Experts Up Close

Dan Strutzel has worked for Nightingale-Conant for 17 years and is the vice president of publishing. He is the best-selling author of Yes You Can!

Martha Beck is a life coach with a doctorate in sociology from Harvard University. Beck is a columnist for O, The Oprah Magazine and a best-selling author of several titles, including Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live.

Mary Byers is a speaker and author of How to Say No… and Live to Tell About It, and the more recent Making Work at Home Work.

Q: I have a frenetic schedule. For those days with nonstop appointments, how can I make healthy food choices and not resort to fast food?

Mary Byers: There’s only one way to do this—plan ahead! Keep healthy fruits, vegetables and snacks on hand. The night before a nonstop day, pack several items to help get you through the day, including a midmorning snack (such as nuts or sugar snap peas, which you can buy prepackaged), along with a healthy sandwich and a piece of fruit for the afternoon. A little extra time at the grocery store saves time in the drive-thru lane.

Martha Beck: There are two parts of the autonomic nervous system: sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic part of the nervous system involves the fight or flight response, and the parasympathetic part is about rest and relaxation. When one system is on, the other is off. When you are busy, your fight or flight mode—or your sympathetic nervous system—has basically taken over. It wants cheap, fast food or high-calorie foods quickly, and it will store them as fat. This is why people go on binges. It’s what your fight or flight reflex wants for comfort.

There are a number of ways you can break the cycle. Get five minutes by yourself. Get out of your office. Turn off your fight or flight mode, and let the other side of your nervous system take over. Remember times when you were at peace. Bring back a memory from when you were on vacation. We really create our environments in our heads. You can be in a panic or freaking out, or you can be in your coconut grove paradise. Your heart will beat more slowly. You will breathe. Slower breathing is a huge sign that you have broken the cycle, because it’s a relaxation response. Once you do that, you are back in the driver’s seat.

Q: Sometimes I have days where my stress level runs high. What are some ways to mitigate stress and feel more relaxed?

Dan Strutzel: One of my favorite ways to manage my stress level is a lesson I learned from Ken Blanchard many years ago: Enter my day slowly. From the moment our three kids get up until the moment their heads hit the pillow at night, our house is a frantic hotbed of activity. I’ve learned that the very best way to reduce my stress level is to get up well before my children do. Since my kids arise at around 6:15 a.m., I wake up at 4:45 a.m. This hour and a half is precious to me! I begin the morning by brewing a pot of gourmet coffee, reading a book or the newspaper, and generally relaxing. At about 5:30 a.m., I either go for a run or prepare my schedule for the day. At 6:15 a.m., I wake the kids up, and, by then, I am feeling fully awake and energetic and ready to take on the day. If getting up an hour and a half early is too much for you, start with a half-hour. That extra time to allow your body to awaken slowly, in a quiet house with no immediate time pressure alone will make a huge difference in your life.

Mary Byers: Prevention is one of the best tools to minimize stress. Sit down with both your work and personal calendars on Sunday night to find out where your stress points of the week are likely to be. If you can see that Thursday is going to be bad because you’re in meetings all day, the kids have piano lessons and your son’s basketball tournament starts, you can reduce the potential for stress by throwing something in the Crock Pot that morning or preparing a meal ahead of time that can be easily heated up for dinner. Also, be willing to ask for help. Spouses and children are often willing to pitch in—but they are not mind readers and have to be asked.

Q: I have trouble sleeping when I have a lot on my mind. What are some strategies to get back to sleep?

Martha Beck: People are creating a mental predator. Now it is the economy, before it was terrorism. Has it helped the economy that you didn’t sleep well last night? You are not helping yourself. Look at the reasons it might be OK to let go for the night. Watch yourself create the emergency in your head. You can’t just force those thoughts away. Actually, if you try to push away anxiety, it gets stronger. Observe your own anxiety like you are watching it as a play. As a compassionate witness, you regain your sanity. Don’t stay in the same position. Sit up cross-legged on your bed, and start watching your fears. The only real truth is the person sitting in bed. Your thoughts are the crawl line on CNN. It’s the part of the brain that’s always afraid, but you can control it.

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