If You're Feeling A Little Pinched...
By Donald D. Hensrud, M.D. Director of the Mayo Clinic Executive Health Program

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Stress has become part of everyday life--40% of U.S. workers feel it on the job--but not all stress is bad. Most of my patients would be bored to tears without stressful challenges in their lives. On the other hand, I have elderly patients who get anxious over a trip to the grocery store. The wrong response to stress can express itself in many different ways: back pain, fatigue, decreased concentration, insomnia, irritable bowel, sexual dysfunction, anxiety, depression.

The key to dealing with it is identifying the cause, which isn't always obvious. It might be lack of time, an unrealistic workload, personality conflicts, a health problem, or dozens of other things. Once you know the cause, the trick is to put it in perspective. Will whatever is bothering you be important a year from now? Is your reaction really appropriate for the situation?

I urge my patients to engage in a daily stress-reduction activity. It could be meditation, exercise, a walk, reading, listening to music, or deep breathing--almost anything that gets you to focus on something other than what you're doing. What matters is that it's a part of the day that no one can intrude upon. Try shutting your office door and closing your eyes for 15 minutes. Lean back and breathe deeply. You'll be surprised how this can change your perspective. Exercise, another winner, gives your mind a brief vacation while sending a surge of endorphins through your body. The time it takes to exercise can make up for itself in increased energy and efficiency, not to mention improved health down the road.

Time management is crucial to stress reduction. Think of your day as a pie chart, and realize there are only so many slices; divide them carefully and keep some balance among the different pieces. Now prioritize. Take care of the things that are important and urgent first, and then scratch the unimportant stuff altogether. Set realistic time lines. Make an agenda for the day, and follow through with it.

It's also important to set limits. Successful people take on projects, do a good job, and get more projects. The better the job you do, the more people ask you to do. It's okay to say no, and it can be done in a positive manner with an honest explanation rather than an excuse. Or delegate: Although we like to think we're the only one who can do the job exactly right, no one is irreplaceable. It's tempting to try to work your way out of a stressful situation, but keep in mind that others care and want to help.

Finally, a couple of don'ts. Don't get caught up in unhealthy coping strategies. Too much alcohol, for example, will add to stress sooner or later. And don't lose your sense of humor. Ever notice how relaxing a good laugh can be?

FOR MORE INFORMATION ON THIS TOPIC: Go to mayoclinic.com. Mayo Clinic offers Executive Health programs at Mayo Clinics in Jacksonville, Fla.; Rochester, Minn.; and Scottsdale, Ariz.