Stress in cup: Cutting back caffeine, and other hints for stress relief

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Coffee is "stress in a cup," writes stress expert and family physician Dr. David Posen in his latest book, The Little Book of Stress Relief.

Not only can too much of the coveted bean wreak havoc with your sleeping patterns, a couple of espresso shooters on an empty stomach will turn you into a nervous, hand-wringing wreck.

The remedy? Calculate your daily caffeine intake from all sources (even chocolate) and slowly wean yourself from the craved stimulant. Stay caffeine-free for three weeks and see how you feel. Likely you'll be calmer, more relaxed, says Posen.

His easy-to-read handbook identifies other common stressors - from lack of sleep to work worries - and sets forth "prescriptions" (in a helpful Rx format) for managing them to achieve a better work- life balance.

"I want people to get out of this book that there are really all kinds of options and coping strategies and so on that they can use" to combat stress, Posen said in a telephone interview.

"A lot of people have a pretty limited repertoire."

Many of the ways people deal with stress, such as smoking, eating chips in front of the TV or binge drinking, are detrimental and run the risk of compounding stress by harming health.

Some people combat anxiety by jogging or meditating, which are positive measures, but Posen's book suggests a complete overhaul and encourages the burned-out to get more sleep, develop a strong support system, make time for leisure and holidays, leave work at work and eat healthfully - in addition to exercising and relaxing.

"These are the things that will help and that work, especially if you do them in concert with other things."

The Little Book of Stress Relief identifies stress as the one vexing issue everyone has in common. The book cites statistics that may surprise you.

A 2000 study for the Heart and Stroke Foundation found more than 40 per cent of Canadians over the age of 30 often or almost ways felt overwhelmed by stress at work, home or due to finances; but only a quarter of them said they know how to effectively cope with it.

Statistics Canada estimates the annual cost of work time lost to stress-related absences to be around $12 billion.

"I think the level of stress is going up," Posen said. "I think what's happening now . . . work-life balance is still an issue, rapid change (in the workplace) is still an issue, economic downturn and uncertainty is an issue.

"People feel overloaded and often overwhelmed."

Add external stressors such as terrorism, SARS and rolling blackouts, and it's no wonder people are feeling a loss of control.

But, while you can't control the world you live in, Posen says you can determine how you live in the world and how you react to world, or local, events.

That is possibly one of the best ideas in The Little Book of Stress Relief: changing the way you think. According to Posen, events or other people aren't the source of your stress, but your reactions to them are. By panicking over the threat of West Nile virus or choosing to curse at a driver that cuts you off, for example, you trigger anxiety and a stress reaction in your body.

Posen knows how hard it is to break established negative thought patterns.

"It can be difficult to break habits. I want people to know that this isn't easy."

But, he advises, "Instead of predicting it will be hard, keep an open mind about it."

Then you can work toward living a less-stressful, anxiety-ridden life.

Stress manifests itself in physical, mental, emotional and behavioural symptoms, including:

- Nausea, indigestion, cramps, diarrhea, trembling/agitation, fatigue, sleep disturbances (among others).

- Decreased ability to concentrate; loss of decisiveness; mind racing, drawing blanks or confusion.

- Nervousness, depression, pessimism, irritability/impatience, apathy/indifference.

- Restlessness/fidgeting; nail-biting or knee-jiggling; compulsive smoking, drinking or eating; yelling; frequently feeling as if you're on the verge of tears.

If those symptoms sound familiar, perhaps it's time to put down that coffee and take a walk with a friend.