Twenty-five ways to lead a stress-free life in 2011

1. Learn to identify what causes you stress and recognise the telltale signs that you are under pressure. These may be shallow breathing, increased headaches, a dry mouth, muscle tension, irritability, sleep disturbance, poor concentration, memory lapses, palpitations and panic attacks.

2. Recognise what you can change by avoiding, eliminating or reducing your exposure to stress. Change the areas in your life that you can change. Get up earlier if it makes life easier, give up something or alter your routine.

Situations over which we have no control can cause the greatest stress. Some stressful situations cannot be changed so all you can do is change your attitude to them.

3. Learn to chill out. Take up meditation, yoga, walking or get involved in charity work.

4. Shorten your “To do” list. Accept it does not matter if you fail to meet or exceed your personal targets each day. It is better and healthier to take things easier and leave some time for yourself.

5. Audit your resources and demands and identify what is really important to you, suggests Karen Belshaw, VHI Healthcare’s stress expert. Ask yourself what are the important things in your life. What are your strengths and weaknesses? What are you expecting of yourself and what can you do to achieve these objectives? Are you defined predominantly by money, work or relationships? It is important to make that distinction.

“Work out some realistic goals for yourself based on your abilities. Get your life priorities right - analyse what is actually important to you. Discriminate between the things that are important in your life and those that are relatively unimportant.”

6. Make time for yourself. Pencil in some “me time” in your diary no matter how busy your life is. Have gaps in your daily schedule in which you can call a friend or relative, practice deep breathing or stretching exercises, daydream or have a brief walk.

7. Avoid being a people pleaser. Say “no” and mean it, even if only occasionally to unreasonable requests and demands. It will be a welcome release from people and situations which sap your energy or heighten your stress levels.

8. Avoid isolation, especially if your mood is low. Seek out people who will gladden your heart and lighten your load.

9. Avoid nicotine, excessive caffeine, alcohol and other stimulants if you tend to turn to any of these to get you through difficult times. Remember, they will only offer you a temporary break from stress and may damage your health.

10. Connect with people. Friends and a good social life are important. Aim to cultivate at least one close confidante and plenty of friends. People with a strong and supportive social network of friends are strongly protected against the ill-effects of stress.

11. Make exercise part of your routine. Go for a walk, play tennis, sign up for a dance class. Exercise produces changes in the body which can elevate mood and relieve stress.

12. Sometimes doing nothing is doing something very important, says Karen Belshaw. A period of reflection reduces tension, enhances concentration and improves efficiency. Such time-out offers an antidote to the constant bombardment of information overload.

13. Pamper yourself and find ways to unwind. Get a new hairstyle, a facial, read a good book, play a game of golf or listen to music.

14. Ensure your self-talk is positive. Try not to fill your head with defeatist thoughts, such as “I can’t handle this”, “This can’t be happening to me” or “I’m useless”. Recall occasions when you coped well in difficult circumstances and congratulate yourself on any achievement, no matter how small.

15. Do not allow problems to multiply. This will only increase your stress. Try to keep on top of demands and do not take on new challenges unless you feel up to dealing with them.

16. Take a break from the children or any other caring duties. If you cannot afford to pay someone to step into your shoes for a few hours try trading duties with a friend or appeal to the good nature of a neighbour or relative.

17. Unclutter your life. This will not only free up your home and work space but will also help clear your head. (Imagine not having to spend 10 minutes looking for your keys/important telephone numbers/bills? ) Get rid of clothes you no longer wear, unloved ornaments which are gathering dust, or receipts for appliances which stopped working years ago.

18. Try to work with your body rhythms. If you are at your best late at night plan to do complicated tasks then.

19. Keep copies of important documents and store the originals in a safe place.

20. Be prepared to wait. This applies to traffic, the doctor’s surgery, the corner shop or the bathroom at your favourite restaurant. If you start off with this mindset you will then be pleasantly surprised if there is no delay.

21. Get rid of things which do not work properly. Alarm clocks which have bad days, pens which leak, radios with wavering sound or make-up tubes which steadfastly refuse to release their contents. These will only increase your stress levels and make you bad tempered.

22. Know and accept your strengths and weaknesses.

23. Give yourself permission to be less than perfect. Striving to meet exacting standards all the time can be a recipe for high stress levels. Aim to relax your standards. Do the best you can and be prepared to take shortcuts, if necessary.

24. Do not dramatise setbacks. View minor annoyances for what they are. Exaggerating their importance will only heighten your tension levels.

25. Look at the bigger picture. If you’ve made a mistake you may be able to rectify it now or in the future. If not, its effects may not be as earth-shattering as you imagine they will be. Many situations we fret and fume about are not hugely important in the greater scheme of things and in a year or so may well be forgotten about.

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