Don’t Let Stress Get You Down

dlsgydDo you know how to be good to yourself? Here, 43 little lifts that will improve your mood when you need it most.

Last Saturday, my life descended into a bad sitcom: My husband was at work, and I invited my friend Gina to have lunch with me and my infant daughter. Before Gina arrived, however, FedEx delivered an enormous box containing a stroller that I had ordered–along with 11 other boxes that held high chairs mistakenly shipped to me. Gina, who is nine months pregnant, had to squeeze through a mountain of cardboard to get in the door. So did the visitor who arrived two minutes later–a baby-sitter whom I had wanted to meet and whose appointment I had forgotten.

By 4:00 p.m.–after a lunch during which my daughter wailed and Gina began having contractions–I was a wreck. When my husband walked in the door, I knew I needed first aid. An enlightened soul, he gave me a foot massage, fixed me some scrambled eggs, and looked after the baby. Then, I turned to a routine that has helped me survive many a disaster: I retreated to a steaming tub, dug out a nightshirt I’ve had since college, and fell asleep to a videotape of The Women.

Most of us, of course, have developed our own comfort prescriptions for a draining workweek, a spat with a friend, or a day with a stubborn toddler. One woman I know decompresses by leaving the credit cards at home and drifting through the hushed, anonymous aisles of an expensive department store. My college roommate ducks into a storefront salon for a ten-dollar manicure, and my sister-in-law takes a top-speed hike around her neighborhood.

Too often, however, we ignore distress. We turn without thinking to food, sex, or chardonnay. We seek comfort in cashmere we can’t afford. We lean on friends or spouses (who, of course, have their own troubles), or we refuse to ask for help for fear of sounding like whiners. And for moms who barely have time to go to the bathroom, it’s a thousand times more difficult to justify time to take care of ourselves.

Unforturnately, this neglect isn’t helping anyone. As the wives and mothers who are called upon to comfort others, we often feel guilty about tending to our own bodies and souls. And we forget to respect our own instincts. Infants learn to soothe themselves by sucking their thumbs, later, children find solace in teddy bears and favorite blankets. But by the time we reach puberty, we often lose touch with childhood comforts. Peer pressure begins. We want to fit in and we end up doing what others think is fun. As adults, we automatically become caretakers for others but think of our own needs as indulgences.

Although some women claim to be restored by spas, grand gestures (and big bucks) are optional. Some of the best comfort solutions are also the simplest. Comfort is intensely personal, suggests Sarah Ban Breathnach, best-selling author of Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy. “Think about the things you loved when you were ten. What foods did you find comforting? Did you have a favorite place to read? Remember how you were taken care of when you got sick–was it a cool washcloth on your head?”

Women skilled at comforting themselves say that daily doses are a must, and that small pleasures can be surprisingly effective. For my part, little luxuries like bringing flowers to the office on Mondays, keeping a small coffeemaker to brew Starbucks, and diving into the 64-count box of Crayolas for some inspired doodling can make a difference at work. When traveling alone, I stave off anxiety with a T-shirt that my husband has worn for several days and a small bottle of Shalimar (useful in musty hotel rooms or jammed shuttle buses). At home, I stock a basket with trinkets I love–photos from memorable trips, favorite letters from friends, a bag of M&Ms, and a stack of glossy British fashion magazines–to dig into when I’m cranky. For times when a change of scenery is the only;solution, I have a “comfort file” of ideas. for field trips and time-outs, including reviews of posh restaurants I want to visit for drinks, and a list of CDs and books recommended by friends.

Part of the trick, it seems, is learning how to decide between a trip to the bookstore, a good cry, or a half hour of The Bullwinkle Show. Psychologist Charlotte Davis Kasl, author of Finding Joy, suggests pausing to “breathe deeply and really think about what would make you feel good. Don’t think about what you should do.”

Taking stock for a few moments in the morning can set you on the right track for the day. “Let yourself dream,” says Jennifer Louden, author of The Woman’s Comfort Book. “If you could plan three small things to look forward to every day, your life would be different.” A vicarious taste of what you crave can be sustaining–if you’re longing for the beach, she says, find a fountain to sit beside at lunchtime.

Identifying healthy ways to comfort ourselves (as opposed to binging on a double order of onion rings) isn’t always easy. But something nurturing leaves you feeling better. “Take a hard look at what you’re doing,” says Louden, “to see if it makes you feel bloated or tired or more stressed.” Consider other solutions–and remember that comfort comes in many forms.

Scent, of course, is a wonderful mood elevator; when I’m winter weary, lavender sachets can foster sweet dreams, and eucalyptus or geranium oils are proven energizers. Certain foods make us all feel snug: kidfare like cinnamon toast or risotto cooked until it’s a little soupy. Foot massages, belly rubs, even a free makeover at the mall are other soothers. One sensualist I know breaks out her thickest towels and flannel sheets when she’s stressed. Music, too, can dilute anger and frustration; Gregorian chants help me focus when I’m distracted. My friend Mara is cheered by audiotapes of local musicians bought in cities she loves. And consider the power of art: A lunch-hour museum visit can be like a vacation to a hen fed city worker.

Reaching out to comfort others is another source of solace. When a friend was going through a divorce, she joined a group that delivered meals to people with AIDS. “I felt helpless,” she says, “but this way I could make a difference for someone else.”

Even something as simple as planting a window box or watching a thunderstorm can sustain us when we’re low. Seasonal rituals are a special comfort; in 1975, at friend dragged me out at midnight watch the Perseid meteor showers, repeat the custom every August.

In the end, it seems, what’s important is not so much the ways we nurture ourselves, but making a place for comfort in our daily lives. “What it really means is learning to savor the small moments,” says Ban Breathnach. “It’s about learning to cherish the things you love. You love them for a reason.”

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