Coping with Thanksgiving Stress

Question: How do I approach a major positive event that I know will be stressful -- such as a wedding?

Answer: Well I think anytime that we can anticipate what's going to be stressful for us, we're ahead of the game because we can plan for it, we can try to predict what those challenges are going to be and put strategies into place to try to handle them. I think it's reasonable to think about seeking advice from others who have been there.

I think it's reasonable to try to be organized and have a sense about what things need to be done when, because there's an awful lot of stress that comes from the worry that we've forgotten something or that something's going to be left undone.

Perhaps the most important issue though to remember about the stress of a positive event, like a wedding, is that that stress can come from the contrast between our expectations of the positive event and how that event actually plays out. We need to work to make our expectations realistic. So if we have dreamed of a particular kind of wedding and that's a scenario in our minds is that everyone's going to get along and be happy and celebrate with us on our joyous day, and we forget about the fact that uncle Harry doesn't really get along too well with cousin Nancy. And that if we don't take care to seat them separately we're going to be in trouble. We fail to take a realistic approach to something that otherwise should be joyful, and we run the risk that that very positive stress will actually create even more stress than we might have liked.

How Do I Approach A Major Negative Event That I Know Will Be Stressful -- Such As A Court Appearance?

Answer: Well ironically it's much the same process with which we'd approach and anticipate a positive event. We have to plan ahead. We are always better off if we can prepare ourselves in advance -- if we can anticipate the challenges that are coming our way, if we can use organization on our behalf to make sure that we're handling those things, leaving enough time to handle those things that are going to be challenging to us. The importance of delegating responsibility is never more clear than when you're involved in a legal situation in which you have to delegate responsibility to a good attorney who can handle your case and in whom you can put your trust.

So the process, I guess I would argue, is much the same as it is for positive event. We have to plan ahead, we have to strategize, we have to delegate, we have to find people we can trust, and we have to make sure that our expectations aren't too negative. Like the positive event where we're concerned that our expectations may be too positive, we also don't want to bombard our self with sort of catastrophic thoughts about how negative an event this can be. Because that's not necessarily going to be accurate any more than it's going to be accurate to think that your wedding's going to be perfect.

What Are Some Good Ways To Cope With The Stress That Comes When A Loved One Is Sick Or Passes Away?

Answer: Well I think it's important to recognize that sickness and death in our family ranks very high on the list of possible stressors we can experience. When researchers have created hierarchies of stress from least to most, death or illness in a loved one ranks right at the top of that list.

And again we've got to be mindful of the fact that the stress of that kind of illness or death can take an enormous toll on our bodies, and we've got to be mindful of the buildup of stress hormones that can take both a physical and an emotional toll. And when we talk with people who are experiencing illness or death in their families, the example that I often use is that of the flight attendant who urges passengers first in the case of an emergency landing and the oxygen masks come down. The admonition is to first place the oxygen mask on yourself before you take care of someone who is incapacitated, or young or elderly in the seat next to you.

It's an important example because it relates to the importance of taking care of ourselves first in order to be optimally able to take care of others who are depending on us. To take care of our self by being sure that we are exercising, we're getting adequate nutrition, we're getting good rest, so that our resources are such that we can handle the demands that the death or illness of a loved one brings with it.

When Should I Consider Big LifeStyle Changes Because I Cannot Cope With My Stress?

Answer: Well, I would first simply say that one of the rules of thumb is that we don't want to make big life decisions when we're under stress, because frankly we just don't tend to make good decisions under stress. So we first I think have to start with learning about ourselves and trying to find ways in which we can modify our stress response to those stressors.

I think we take our own personal inventory, we understand how we're responding and why, we come to understand the ways in which we're thinking through these situations. And learn about whether about we're making misassumptions or hold faulty beliefs about those stressors, working often in the context of the help that a psychologist or psychiatrist can bring who is expert at these issues.

And if we've exhausted those resources and if we still feel as though we're under stress, then and only then I think do we consider making big wholesale life changes -- changing jobs, moving, pulling our child out of one school and sending her to another. Those are the kinds of changes that I think that we delay until we've exhausted the possibility that the stress issue is really within ourselves, more than it is a part of the external environment in which we find ourselves.

Can A Positive Mental Attitude Really Help Me Cope With Stress?

Answer: It is very clear from research that's emerging that in general, a positive mental attitude is in fact a huge protector: A. against feeling unhappy when one is stressed out; but may also protect people from the physical damages that occur in the body as a result of stress. And this is probably because what a positive attitude does is it allows us to perceive stressful situations in ways that seem less threatening or less dangerous. And when that happens, our brain doesn't tell our body to activate all these stress and inflammatory pathways that damage health. So yes, there's a lot of evidence that a positive outlook is in fact good for health.

The only caveat to that is there are some studies suggesting that if people have unrealistically positive attitudes and then reality doesn't live up to those expectations, sometimes people can then flip the other direction and become overly pessimistic -- so there's a little bit of a caution there. But in general, realistic positive attitude is one of the best things we can do for our health.

Can Exercise Help Me Cope With Stress, And Does It Matter What Kind Of Exercise?

Answer: You know, if you were to ask me, "What, of all the sort of behavioral -- in other words, activities that you could do that help you cope with stress, help prevent depression, and help improve physical health?"; the answer's very clear, that we know more about exercise than anything else. And a regular program of moderate exercise is bar none the best thing that one can do for one's physical and emotional health in my opinion, and there's tons of studies to back that up.

So we know that exercise is fantastic for improving your mood, reducing anxiety. It actually has antidepressant properties. In animals, exercise -- it grows new brain cells. It's remarkable the things that exercise can do.

People that exercise regularly tend to have less of a stress reaction to everything else in their life. So they've done studies where they've shown that people that exercise regularly, if you put them in a stressful situation, have less of a stress response than people that do not exercise. That's direct evidence that the benefits of exercise bleed over, not only just from being in better physical shape, but actually then translate over and allow you to be in better psychological shape.

Aerobic exercise is probably the best exercise one can do in terms of getting these types of effects although there's some evidence that things like weight-lifting, strength-building exercises also help people's mental attitude.

Question: Can laughing help me cope with stress?

Answer: We've known -- I think, anecdotally for years -- that laughter makes people feel better and makes them feel more relaxed. And given that we know that stress is a risk factor for illness, one would expect that laughter might have therapeutic benefits. And in the last 10 years or so, there have been a number of studies suggesting this, that indeed when people are ill, if they're exposed to comedy, if they're exposed to things that lighten their heart, it has beneficial effects on their immune system and beneficial effects on their stress system.

Laughter is also contagious. And so your laughter can actually probably benefit the health of other people. There was recently a study, for instance, done in Japan that showed that if you look at allergic children, when they listen to their mother laugh, they actually have less of an allergic response. So that the mother's laughter actually helps modulate the little child's immune system. So that not only do we probably benefit our own health when we laugh, but we're probably benefiting the health of people we love and care about.

Question: Can a pet help me cope with stress, and does it matter what kind of pet?

Answer: So another thing that people can do to help themselves cope with stress is have a pet. There's a lot of evidence that pets help people feel better about life. And there's a lot of reasons probably why this happens. An obvious one is that people do better in terms of their health if they feel that they're in relationship with other beings -- if they feel that they're part of a social network. And pets, you know, very much fulfill that purpose.

And there's good studies, for instance, that if you bring pets into hospital wards, a patient's blood pressure is lower, their immune systems improve. The body responds to that positive emotion by feeling that it's in a safer place. And that translates into change in physical activity in ways that are very helpful for health.

Which pet should one pick? I think that is totally in the eye of the beholder. The pet that works for you is the pet that you most care about. I'm a dog person, so for me it would be a dog. But I think that depends on what type of animal one feels a bond with.

Now I will tell you that some animals may be better than others in terms of health risks. So there's now very interesting data for instance that children that are raised with dogs have much lower rates of asthma and allergy than children that aren't raised with dogs. And that's specific to dogs -- you don't see that effect with cats for instance. So there may be specific benefits that certain pets bring, and that's an area that is just now being looked at scientifically.

Question: Can social interaction help me cope with stress?

Answer: You know, if you were to ask me, "What are the three or four main things I can do to help cope with stress in my life?" One would be exercise. But right up there with it, tied with number one would be social interactions, the quality of one's social relationships.

One of the few things, I think, that is absolutely clear in the world scientific literature in terms of things that promote health is this repeated finding that the more social connections a person has that are positive, the better their health is likely to be, the less illnesses they're likely to have, the less likely they are to get depressed, and the longer they are likely to live. And there's a couple of aspects of social connections that seem to confer this benefit.

One is just the depth and richness of one's relationships. So the more people one knows, and the more interesting and different types of people one knows, the better for one's health. And the other finding is that the more one has at least one close confidant, that one can be really transparently honest with, the more likely they are to have better health, the more likely they are to be less stressed, and the less likely they are to be depressed.

Question: Can having sexual intercourse help me deal with stress?

Answer: Can sexual intercourse help you deal with stress? There's two ways you can approach it.

First is you have to separate the stressor from the stress reaction. So can sexual intercourse help you deal with stressors in life: conflicts at work, traffic jams? Absolutely not. But can sexual intercourse help you to feel less stressed? There's good evidence to suggest that is the case.

Now that being said, there's nothing magic about sexual intercourse per se to relieve stress. It actually seems to be a combination of other factors that we use to create stress relief in general. Things like deeper breathing, physical exertion, touch, the release of endorphins, social connectedness. All of which can be found in other arenas, but all of which seem to come together in a sexual encounter.

Question: Can massages help me cope with stress?

Answer: Massage is also something that can be employed to combat stress. You know, people that get massage regularly know this -- you don't need to hear it from me to believe that. But there's been an emerging scientific literature on massage suggesting that-- or confirming really what many people already know or know and experience, which is massage seems to reduce physiologic stress response. It seems to turn down activity in these stress pathways which are chronically hyperactive in many of us in just trying to cope with the stresses and strains of daily life.

Now, why this should be the case is an interesting scientific question, but we know that humans from earliest times existed in groups where touch was a primary part of how they communicated with each other. And if you look at our closest relatives in the animal kingdom -- chimps and apes and monkeys -- they spend a huge amount of the day grooming each other, you know, picking out the little things from each other's fur. And most scientists feel that a lot of that has to do with soothing each other through touch.

So this is something that's very very ancient in human beings, this need for touch. And touch tells people that their world is safe, that they're part of a caring community. Massage incorporates all that and so it benefits from these hard-wired things in human nature to respond positively to touch.