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Live with Less Stress in Four Steps

Balancing work and life is stressful. Here’s how to cope.

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A group of diverse women link arms and walk together with their backs facing the camera.

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Women in the tri-state area are most stressed about balancing work and their personal lives according to a new survey, which increasingly includes caring for aging or ailing parents. No matter your personal situation, chronic stress can erode your health, depressing the immune system, exacerbating chronic illnesses and increasing your risk of diabetes and heart disease.

“We’re making a concerted effort to make sure women are aware of the link between stress and their physical health,” says Dr. Jennifer H. Mieres, professor of cardiology and senior vice president of Northwell’s Center for Diversity, Inclusion and Health Equity. “As women, we think we should be able to handle everything. Our mothers did it. Other women are dealing with it, so we think we should too. Women need to know that it’s OK to ask for help.”

The good news: Chronic stress can be managed and its harmful effects mitigated. There are many practices that have been shown to reduce stress and improve our overall health, including yoga and meditation. But if those aren’t for you, there are other options.

“Stress is universal. It’s constant,” says Dr. Rachel Bond, associate director of the Women's Heart Health Program at Northwell Health, Lenox Hill Hospital. “Don’t try to eliminate all stress. Focus on healthy ways to cope. There is no one way to do this.”

Try these suggestions from Northwell Health’s team of physicians and health providers for managing chronic stress and taking great care of yourself:

Find a healthcare team you trust.

“Find a doctor who feels like a true partner,” Dr. Mieres advises. “You need to feel comfortable sharing details of your health and the changes in your life, at work and at home.” It’s also key to have nurses, pharmacists, social workers or therapists, and peers you can count on.

Ask for help.

Whether it’s delegating more household chores to a spouse and older children or outsourcing chores entirely, don’t feel guilty about accepting help, says Dr. Maria Torroella Carney, chief of geriatric and palliative medicine at Northwell Health. For caregivers in particular, the lesson is critical. “They’re taking care of everyone else at the expense of themselves,” she says. Recognize the signs of chronic stress including sleeplessness, anxiety, and feelings of anger or resentment, and eliminate the stressors that you can. Remember, your aging parent’s mental abilities and overall health may decline no matter what you do. If things don’t go the way you hope despite your best efforts, it’s not your fault. “Let go of the guilt,” Dr. Carney says. “This is hard, but don’t beat yourself up.”

Help others.

Barbara Vogel, LMSW, is a social work coordinator in Northwell’s Division of Geriatric and Palliative Medicine. She leads two support groups for people caring for their parents who have dementia. Vogel herself lost her father to dementia, with her mother dying two years later.

For people attending the meetings, she says knowing they’re not the only ones relieves the burden. But she also benefits from leading the support groups. “Doing this work helps me keep things in perspective. It’s incredibly powerful and invigorating.” People need peer support, Vogel says. You don’t have to be an expert—sharing your personal experiences can be informative and encouraging for others. “There is an army of adult children struggling to maintain their careers, raise their families and care for their parents,” she says. The network of support can be beneficial regardless of what’s stressing you. “Join a support group. Share your story. You might say something that saves someone’s life.”

Be kind to yourself.

Self-care doesn’t necessarily mean splurging on spa treatments or taking a long vacation. It might mean foregoing additional income to work less often, says Mieres. Spend time thinking about how you feel and what you can do in response to a stressful event rather than instantly reacting. “Hit the pause button,” she says. “Ask yourself if you can do anything about the event. If you can, should you? If you don’t, what are the ramifications? If it’s not truly deleterious, perhaps you just let it go.” In the end, whenever making a difficult decision, consider the impact on your own health. “If you collapse, then everyone depending on you will be stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

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Published February 27th, 2018
A group of diverse women link arms and walk together with their backs facing the camera.

Need to Find a Women's Health Specialist?