Simple steps can lead to a less-stressed life

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Do you live a balanced life? Is your life rewarding? Do you enjoy work and have time for leisure, family, social activities? Or do you feel overwhelmed, feel one more item on your personal or professional agenda will bring a breakdown? Are you stressed?

Stress is an increasing North American phenomenon. Stress leads to illnesses such as hypertension and heart disease, domestic and workplace violence, accidents and low productivity. Stress in one life area spills into other areas. Stress is preventable and treatable, and can be a catalyst for growth.

To determine your stress level, identify which of the following apply to you. Assign each statement a "yes" or "no."

- I'm always tired.

- I have too much responsibility.

- I'm critical, cynical, irritable.

- I have many worries.

- I have frequent headaches.

- I've gained or lost weight.

- I have difficulty sleeping.

- I'm having relationship problems.

- I'm unemployed.

- There's been a death or illness in my family.

- I haven't had a vacation for several years.

- I've had a major illness or injury in the past year.

- I've changed jobs, residence or marital status in the past year.

- I feel helpless.

- I set high standards.

- I'm dissatisfied with work.

- I have little time for personal needs.

- I have difficulty expressing feelings.

- I handle most things alone.

- I have little say in decisions that affect me.

- My personal needs are incompatible with those of my family or organization.

- I'm short of money.

- I take tranquillizers or drink to "wind down."

- I don't exercise.

- I smoke.

- I'd like to make changes, but don't know where to start.

Scoring. Add your "yes" responses. Under 6: Congratulations. You're in great shape. 7 -- 12: Average. You could lower your stress level. 13 -- 18: Think seriously about making changes. 19 or higher: Act now to reduce stress.

Creating a balanced lifestyle

Stress is an everyday fact of life. Stress can be positive, energizing or overwhelming, debilitating. Stress can be a motivator for peak performance. To counteract harmful stress, develop and sustain a sense of control over your life and feelings. Here are suggestions:

- Identify major stressors and symptoms.

- Keep a stress awareness diary. Record stressful events and symptoms that are stress reactions. Note the time a stressful event occurs and the time you notice a related physical or emotional symptom. For example, at 7 a.m., the alarm failed to ring, a stressful event. This caused you to rush, be late for work. At 9 a.m., you noted a slight headache, the symptom.

- Practise relaxation after each stressful event. Record feelings after relaxing.

- Categorize major stressors. Use the following.

Work: unrealistic deadlines, poor communication, interpersonal conflicts, too much or too little responsibility, poor physical conditions, other.

Personal: poor eating or exercise habits, money problems, perfectionism, inadequate living conditions, negative perceptions, other.

Social: hassles with family or friends, difficulties with aggressive people, excessive expectations, other.

Environmental: excessive noise, inadequate housing, bad weather, incongruent political beliefs, heavy traffic, other.

- Recognize whether your major stressors belong to one or several categories. Observe those that are relatively free of stress. Note areas in which you feel the most control, and indicate why.

- Describe your five greatest stressors. Indicate why you feel stressed.

- Take positive action to minimize stress.

- Refute irrational ideas. We all engage in internal self-talk. If the self-talk is accurate, we function well. If it's irrational, we experience stress.

- Select a situation that generates stressful emotions. Write down the facts of the event. Note your self-talk. Include subjective assumptions and worries. Note your emotional response such as anger, fear. Dispute and change the irrational self-talk. Determine what evidence exists for the false assumption.