The Secret Signs of Stress
Problems are best solved by avoiding them in
the first place. Leave the bar before a fight, apologize before she cries,
sneak out before they pass the collection plate. But thereís one problem we
canít avoid, simply because we canít see it. Itís invisible. Itís stress. It
may be all around us, but where exactly is it?
Itís true that stress makes itself known in a number of explicit ways.
But when we notice it, itís often too late to do anything. By then weíve
already snapped at our boss or yelled at our girlfriend. Or both, depending
on their state of undress when we walked in on them.
You can avoid all that if you detect stress before it grows real claws. By
spotting these hidden signs of growing anxiety, you can cut the tension
before it cuts you.
YOU DONíT WORK OUT, BUT YOUíRE
Why itís happening: When youíre stressed, certain hormones, such as
adrenaline (epinephrine), tighten all your muscles, not just your neck and
shoulders, which are the ones we normally associate with stress.
When your muscles remain tense for extended periods of time, you feel
soreness, says Allen Elkin, Ph.D., director of the Stress Management and
Counseling Center in New York.
What to do about it: Flex. Tighten and contract your muscles, starting
with your calves and moving up to your shoulders and neck. The contracting
and relaxing should help relieve soreness, says Steven Edwards, Ph.D.,
professor of health psychology at Oklahoma State University. If youíre in a
jam at work, try squeezing your thumb and index finger together. This move
wonít solve any problems, but it may ease your tension enough to let you see
whatís stressing you in a much better light.
YOU SLEEP 8 HOURS BUT ARE STILL TIRED
Why itís happening: Getting enough sleep doesnít mean youíre getting
enough rest. Stress keeps your mind wide awake and unable to relax, even
while youíre sleeping. Thatís because it keeps you from attaining your most
restful state during sleep, which can leave you feeling groggy even after a
full night in bed.
What to do about it: Get hot. A shower or hot bath before bed will raise
your bodyís temperature. Your temperature will then fall faster when you
crawl into bed, so youíll have a deeper sleep, says Ed Stepanski, Ph.D., a
sleep expert at Rush-Presbyterian St. Lukeís medical center in Chicago. Soak
30 minutes for maximum effectiveness, and donít eat anything afterward. Your
body wonít rest for the first half of the night if itís trying to digest
YOUíVE LOST YOUR DESIRE TO MASTURBATE
Why itís happening: A loss of libido especially quickie, on-your-own-time
libido could be a psychological reaction to stress. When youíre
subconsciously worried about other things, you donít have the desire to seek
out pleasure in any form, Elkin says. Oddly, itís when youíre stressed out
that sex is needed most itís one of the bodyís best methods of releasing
endorphins and reducing tension.
What to do about it: Give your body what it needs, even if it takes a
little effort. Creating a fantasy in your mind when itís not possible to act
on it builds up stimulation throughout the day, says Joel Block, Ph.D., a
psychologist and the author of Secrets of Better Sex. Heís telling you to
think about sex at work. That builds up sexual tension, so when you arrive
home the urge will be strong enough to overpower any stress that was
initially blocking its path. Then find your partner, or a Spanish soap
The Secret Signs of Stress - Part 2
YOU BOUNCED 2 CHECKS LAST MONTH
Why itís happening: Stress can affect your concentration, and it can also
make you clumsy, lazy and all-around cement-headed. Stress often manifests
itself in mathematical mistakes or transposition of numbers, says Herbert
Benson, M.D., professor of behavioral medicine at Harvard medical school.
If youíre making more mistakes than usual, donít worry. Benson says.
Youíre not getting dumber, youíre probably not developing Alzheimerís, and
itís not the beer, either. Itís your brain telling you to slow the hell
What to do about it: As soon as you receive a work assignment, make a
schedule. One of the biggest reasons people make mistakes at work is that
they procrastinate, then work too quickly, says Kenneth De Meuse, Ph.D.,
professor of management at the University of Wisconsin. You learned this
hazardous practice in college (it was called cramming), and back then it
worked out fine. But that was when you were 18, when staying up all night
eating pizza and reading Balzac was kind of fun. Youíre a grown-up now. Buy
a day planner.
YOU CHEW A PACK OF GUM EVERY MORNING
Why itís happening: Nail biting and foot tapping may be the telltale
habits of anxious men, but any kind of repetitive motion chewing gum, biting
your pen, picking your nose is your bodyís subconscious way of trying to
What to do about it: Your body wants repetition? Give it repetition. Go
to a driving range, shoot 100 free throws or climb some stairs. Activities
that involve repetition relieve tension better than those that require more
varied activities a round of golf or a game of one-on-one. The repetition
relaxes your body, stops the production of stress-causing hormones, and
returns your body to normal, Benson says.
YOU IGNORE YOUR HOBBIES
Why itís happening: When youíre stressed, itís completely normal and
sensible to spend most of your time focused on whatís causing the stress.
But what if thatís at the expense of activities that might actually help you
relax? Handling all the perceived negatives in your life leaves little room
for interacting with people or enjoying outside activities, says Louise
Holt, Ph.D., a California psychologist.
What to do about it: Free up time by doing jobs once and only once. The
biggest waste of time in peopleís lives is retracing steps, says Carol
Goldberg, Ph.D., a stress-management specialist. If you have to go to the
barber, pick up dry cleaning and hit the store, do it all in one trip. This
keeps you from repeating routes and wasting time. At work, do the same.
Break projects down to their simplest components and move from one step to
the next, or youíll simply repeat the steps youíve already completed. This
leaves room to return to your favorite hobby, whether itís playing poker,
shooting pool or robbing convenience stores.
YOU WATCH TV MORE AND READ LESS
Why itís happening: Television requires little of what reading demands:
concentration. Stress hinders your ability to focus, so itís no wonder
youíre watching other people do things instead of doing something yourself.
Staring passively at images is much more soothing than processing words, and
when your mind is taxed, it needs to relax. So youíll watch anything, even
What to do about it: Weíre not going to knock television. Television is
one of the greatest stress reducers known to man, second only to skeet
shooting. But at some point you have to ask yourself whether youíre watching
television to relax or to escape some nagging anxiety. If itís the latter,
forcing yourself to read your usual novels instead of staring at the tube
wonít do you any good, says Daniel Alkon, M.D., of the National Institutes
Youíll only have a harder time concentrating because youíll be distracted,
Alkon says. You need to rebuild your concentration levels. Instead of
tackling Tolstoy, start with something simple, like newspaper articles or
pro athletesí autobiographies.