How to Make Stress Work For You

Why we worry

S.W.'s story isn't unique, nor is the fact that her husband doesn't tend to fret about this stuff: Believe it or not, it's partly because of the way women's brains are wired. A woman's limbic cortex—the area responsible for emotional processing—is larger on average than a man's, leaving more potential space for worry to live. Guys' brains also tend to produce more of the soothing neurotransmitter serotonin. Then there's the psychological impact of society's expectations for women. While, over the years, husbands have certainly stepped up the domestic duties they perform, women often still feel that they're responsible for the household. And while men may consider it a job well done if they've made an effort, we often stress out if we don't do every little thing flawlessly—from getting a balanced meal on the table to making sure our kids' hair is combed—even though perfection isn't always under our control. One group of worriers I see growing, in fact, is the smart and successful woman. She's juggling a lot, and she understands not only how many balls she has in the air but how many can drop. She may also worry about worrying so much, which makes her feel worse.

Think yourself oh-so-calm

This kind of stressing is normal, but it's not inevitable: There are things you can do to take the wind out of worry's sails. First, note that anxiety tends to be future-oriented (What if something happens?) and quickly escalates to the most dire of consequences (Then I'll be broke, divorced, homeless, dead). But is there really any evidence for these outcomes? Challenging your fears before they get very far prevents them from blowing out of proportion and keeps new ones from cropping up. Ask yourself, "Is this something that's about to happen or something that might happen in a faraway, imaginary future? Do I have any control over the outcome?" Try to take steps to manage what you can—finally setting up your 401(k) so you don't go broke, spending more one-on-one time with your spouse to remind yourself of your solid relationship. When thoughts pop up about things that you can't control, whether it's being laid off or widowed, say to yourself, "That's just my mind doing its worry shtick again." Then move on. 19 Natural Remedies for Anxiety

You should also take advantage of the mind-body connection. When you perceive danger, adrenaline surges through your body, which causes you to breathe faster and sweat harder. This reaction in the body feeds back to your mind, making you nervous and often leading your brain to invent dire outcomes that are unlikely to occur. Breaking that cycle can interrupt the worrisome thoughts. To do that, try slow, deep breathing for a few minutes each day or whenever you're freaking out. Put your hand over your abdomen and breathe in for a count of five, then out for five. Muscle relaxation also calms the body. Sitting in a quiet place, tighten each muscle group in your body—starting with your feet and working your way up to your head—for a count of five, then release. Or use visual imagery: Picture a beautiful and relaxing place you've been to or seen.

The truth is, life will never be worry-free. But if you learn how to wrangle your fears, you'll feel happier in the here and now, instead of spending your energy trying to detect a bear far, far down the road.

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