Got stress? Most of us do. And you’re probably already aware of the usual suspects, like money, kids, work, rocky relationships and your health. But maybe you haven’t considered the lesser-known stressors in your life. Without us even knowing it, there are plenty of unexpected causes of day-to-day worry and anxiety. Here, our experts discuss some sneaky sources of stress and exactly how to deal with them.
Rufus the dog or Fluffy the cat may be your loyal best friend, but pets are a source of stress, too. (Anyone who’s ever had to take their dog to the emergency animal hospital at 2 a.m. or has been awakened by their cat’s whining at 4 a.m. knows about that!) There is such a thing as pet-induced anxiety, says Rosemary Lichtman, PhD, a relationship and family expert in Marina Del Ray, California. If you find that your pet is interfering with your sleep, destroying your house and generally causing you anxiety—it’s time to take action, whether it’s hiring a dog trainer, speaking to your vet about your cat’s destructive habits or even finding your pooch a new home. Your pet should enhance your life, not make it worse. But Dr. Lichtman reminds us that, despite all the hard work, “the benefits do outweigh the costs.” She adds, “Studies have shown that people with pets are happier, have less stress and live longer. So keep that in mind during those midnight wakeup calls."
Most people assume that in a work environment it’s the boss who will be the most anxiety-producing personality, but that’s not always the case, says Linnda Durré, PhD, a Florida-based psychotherapist. You spend the most time, she says, with your professional peers—and it may be that your stress at the office is more about your coworkers than your boss. Just because you’re at the same place in the office hierarchy doesn’t mean that you won’t clash on certain issues. In Dr. Durré’s new book, Surviving the Toxic Workplace, she offers the following way to conquer coworker conflicts. “Use the ‘sandwich technique,’” she says. “Start out with a compliment about the person, then go directly to the problems. Be specific, give feedback, stating it clearly and giving examples of the toxic or faulty behavior and how you want it to change. Then end on a positive note with what you’d like to have happen.”
You go to visit the doctor to feel better, right? But many women may find that certain doctors’ interpersonal skills and lack of “bedside manner” can leave them feeling agitated and anxious. In fact, many women may leave the doctor’s office feeling more stressed out than when they arrived. If this sounds familiar, it’s time to find a new physician, says Phyllis Goldberg, PhD, a family and relationship expert practicing in Marina Del Ray, California. “This is a partnership, and the relationship has to work for you,” she says. “So get in the driver's seat—talk to your friends, look online, make a list of what you want and interview until you find the doctor that you know is right for you."
It’s supposed to be the most restful, calming room in your house. Is that true of yours? If there’s unfolded laundry piled high on your bed and clutter on your bedside table, it may not only be interfering with your sleep—it could also be increasing your stress levels. Past studies have found a correlation between messy homes and unhappiness, mild depression and elevated anxiety. "With a busy life, things can pile up before you know it,” says Dr. Goldberg. “But you're in charge here, and you really can get a handle on this. It's hard to clean up a huge mess, so take it one step at a time. And if you're feeling overwhelmed, you can even bring in a professional organizer.”
Research has indicated that alarm clocks illuminated with blue light may interfere with circadian rhythms, possibly interrupting your sleep, which can sap you of energy and leave you underprepared to deal with daily stress. Alarm clocks with a loud, shrill pitch may also produce a jarring effect that can jolt the body with stress upon waking. While it’s not likely that the ring of your alarm clock will cause serious health problems, researchers have linked the morning hours to a higher incident of heart attacks, and some have questioned whether our bodies may be better suited to peaceful, slower wakeups. “Find an alarm clock with a soothing chime,” says Dr. Durré. Better yet, she adds: “Get a good night’s sleep so you don’t even need an alarm.”
You love taking a midday break from work and finding out what your pals are up to, but could everyone else’s status updates be stressing you out? Maybe, says Dr. Lichtman. "Social networking, like any relationship, can have an impact on your emotions,” she says, adding that online news bites can sometimes, inadvertently, make others feel inadequate. (For instance: the status update from your old friend from high school who announced that she’s just met Prince Charming, who’s taking her on a two-week Mediterranean cruise, just as you’ve signed your divorce papers.) “Notice how you're feeling when you spend time on Facebook and pay attention to why,” she says. “If it makes you feel bad, trust your instincts and log off. Call a friend, curl up with a good book, go for a walk—do something that genuinely brings you pleasure."
Have you ever lost your keys? Your cell phone? Or—gasp—your wallet? Your heart probably started racing as stress hormones pumped through your body. This kind of stress is normal, but if you’re constantly losing your most important belongings, it may be time to make some changes. “When I was in graduate school, I used to lock myself out of my house and my car all the time because I wasn’t concentrating and was always rushed and in a hurry,” says Dr. Durré. “I bought a long neck chain and put one car key and one house key on it, and tucked it in the middle of my bra, so I was always protected from lockouts. It worked!” Try making a few duplicate house and car keys, she says. Also set your cell phone, keys, wallet and other essentials in one consistent place every day when you walk into your home.
If you take your work laptop home on the weekends, maybe you should reconsider—or at least designate one day during which you don’t think about work or feel tempted to turn on your computer. Here’s why: Studies have indicated that when people are in front of a computer they often exhibit stress responses, such as increased breathing rates and tense arms and shoulders. "Information overload is stressful and affects you physically,” says Dr. Goldberg. “You can break the habit and set boundaries for yourself. Limit your screen time, don't check your e-mail so often and take frequent breaks.”
Is the light in your bathroom flattering, or does it illuminate every wrinkle, enlarged pore and blemish on your face? The answer is important, says Dr. Durré. How you see yourself when you start your day may play a role in your self-image and stress levels. “Research has shown that fluorescent lights increase ADD and ADHD symptoms in children because of how they affect their brain,” she says. While it’s not clear whether glaring fluorescent lights have a similar impact on adults, if the light in your house is bothering you, it may be time to make a change. A simple investment in a dimmer switch or a new bulb may be a small way to make you feel better about yourself each morning.
Sure, it can be fun to stay up to date on Brad and Angelina—and did you see Jennifer Aniston’s new house?! But experts have always warned that celebrity ogling may come at a cost to your happiness and stress levels. “Comparing yourself to celebrities and movie stars is difficult at best,” says Dr. Durré. “They have personal trainers, beauticians, housekeepers, maids, butlers, gardeners, chauffeurs, nannies and cooks.” Instead of fixating on such lifestyles, “accept yourself for who and what you are,” she adds. Try this: Only allow yourself to sink into celebrity gossip, whether it’s in print, on TV or on the Web, when you’re doing something to better your own health and happiness, like running on a treadmill or cooking a healthy meal.