Cool It

Prevention Magazine . August, 2006
Summer is time to stop the stress and just do less

It’s August. Do you know where your vacation is? I used to, but leisure time seems to be getting harder to find. When I was a working mom back in the 1980s, many families actually relaxed and vacationed together, even on weekends. There were long, indolent Sunday dinners at Grandma’s house. We rode bikes, packed picnics, went to the beach, and didn’t give work a second thought. This was leisure, which my dictionary defines as the “use of free time for enjoyment.” But free time seems to be going the way of the pterodactyl. And unless we take back our right to relax, we might end up extinct as well.

A recent study by the Families and Work Institute found that 1 in 3 US employees feels chronically overworked. Cell phones, BlackBerries, and e-mail are partly to blame: “Better technology hasn’t meant that we can work from anywhere, anytime,” says Ellen Galinsky, president and cofounder of the institute. “It’s meant that we can work everywhere, every time.” Amen, Ms. Galinsky. And that’s particularly problematic when you’re on the cell phone and need to flush.

A comedienne once quipped that even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat. As a former stress researcher, I can assure you that your physiology isn’t a whole lot different from that of the average rodent. When a rat isn’t allowed to relax, its immune system falters, heart rate and blood pressure rise, and health deteriorates. New research from the University of Michigan and Georgetown University adds that overly pressured rats have stronger cravings than relaxed rodents, thanks to high levels in their brains of the stress hormone corticotropin—releasing factor. The study authors suggest that being lightly stressed may trigger binge eating and drug addictions in humans.

And though I can’t speak for rats, human beings under chronic stress are also prone to toxic emotions linked to both poor health and ragged relationships.

Fortunately, we’re not rats, and that means that we can make more conscious choices. So why do we persist in turning up the heat? Maybe because being busy has become a status symbol (notice all those people at the beach on their cell phones). Working hard equates to being a good person, too—it’s a leftover from our country’s Puritan roots. But hard work produces good results only up to a point. After that, our capacity for creativity and efficiency dries up. So if you’re losing yourself to overwork, here are a few simple ways to take a break and come back home to yourself.

Set Your Clock to Summer Time

If your office allows half-day Fridays or if you still have personal time coming, take advantage of it—now. And don’t fret if you didn’t get around to renting a beach house or planning a trip to Europe; a stroll on a public beach or a weekend trip to see friends may actually be better. “People view their vacations as stress relievers, but that’s not always the way it works out,” says Joan A. Lang, MD, chair of the department of psychiatry at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. Big, ambitious vacation plans can backfire and cause more worry than work itself, she says.

Go on Mini-Vacations—Daily

Taking 5 minutes every hour to get up and stretch while you’re working can be a lifesaver. A few months ago, I moved my trusty rowing machine to a spot outside my office. Several times a day, I work out on it for 5-minute spurts. It’s amazing how flexing your muscles can sweep the cobwebs out of your brain! For less sweaty breaks, I gaze at my tropical-fish tank; research has shown that watching fish reduces stress and lowers blood pressure. No rowing machine or aquarium within reach? A quick walk around the block or a short meditation can transform your day.

Observe the Sabbath

You don’t have to keep it holy, but do keep it. That’s the advice I gave a woman named Dale who attended one of my seminars on Inner Peace for Busy Women. A high-powered assistant manager of an investment fund, she worked all hours of the day and night and burnout was setting in. The prescription? A full day of rest every week. A Sabbath day doesn’t have to have any religious connotation. It can just be a time to rest and reflect, read a good book, take a walk, and cancel all work-related obligations. Put a message on your voice mail that you’re out, turn off the PC, and reboot your soul. In a month of Sundays, Dale was feeling more refreshed—another case where doing less amounted to a lot more.

Get Away from It All

The word vacation comes from the Latin vacare, “to be unoccupied,” the same root as vacuum or vacant. The idea is to leave the world entirely behind. Tell your friends that you won’t be answering your cell phone while you’re away. If you absolutely need to check for messages for your peace of mind, do it only once, at night, when the temptation to dive back into life-as-usual is weaker than in the morning.

If you’re a parent vacationing sans offspring, you can buy a cell phone with prepaid minutes just for emergencies; that will cut down on the tendency to call about minor problems. Recreation (read: re-creation) is the whole point of taking a vacation, so make sure you safeguard your time to recharge. Small stuff—and it’s mostly small stuff—can wait until you return.

Giving yourself permission to relax isn’t about being a goof-off. It’s the smartest strategy for living to your highest potential. Even if you are swept back into a crazy, too-busy life after a week at the beach, you’ll bring along a little feeling of peace and a lot of creative energy.

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