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Trying to balance career and family can take its toll: Women's stress hormones and blood pressure, unlike those of men, tend to stay elevated when the workday is over. These stress levels not only make you feel tense, but they also may put your heart at risk. How can you stay healthy and sane? We asked six women in high-stress jobs to share their tricks for managing it all.
Trust yourself. Robin Walukonis, 39, an air traffic controller in the Jacksonville, Florida, Air Route Traffic Control Center, handles arrivals and departures for the busy Orlando area. Last fall, she received a distress call from a plane with a cracked windshield. The plane needed to descend immediately or the cabin would lose pressure, threatening everyone onboard. Walukonis had to redirect more than a dozen flights out of the way. Her quick maneuvering ensured a safe landing. "In the heat of the moment, you rely on your training," she says. "You have to be confident in what you do. Later on you can freak out." Walukonis also relies on faith. "On the way to work, I'll say something like, 'God, I need your wisdom. Make sure I see everything I need to see today,'" she says. "It's reassuring to realize that there's someone else helping to watch out for that big sky."
Take a time-out. Last spring, Audrey Friedman, a 39-year-old oncology nurse, waited for a doctor to explain biopsy results to a patient. Friedman finally went into the exam room and asked, "Do you have questions about your cancer diagnosis?" The patient was terrified and exclaimed, "Oh, my God! I have cancer?" Friedman was shocked: The doctor had used such difficult medical terminology that the woman hadn't understood her diagnosis.
Friedman's job is filled with emotional moments like this. At the Rocky Mountain Cancer Center at the Rose Medical Center, in Denver, where she works, Friedman handles the stress by scheduling occasional "mental health days" away from the job. (Her employer allows her to bank vacation and sick days and use them as she sees fit.) She doesn't follow a strict schedule; she might go hiking or spend time in her garden. One of her favorite activities: antiques shopping. "Imagining how these beautiful items were used by another family is comforting to me," she says.
Even short getaways help Friedman keep a positive attitude. "This job has helped me to realize that life and our bodies are amazing," she says. "They should never be taken for granted."
As a sergeant in the Naperville, Illinois, police department, Elizabeth Brantner, 41, has worked as a youth-abuse investigator and an undercover narcotics officer. Twice she was involved in standoffs with gunfire. Off the job, she's a single mom to 6-year-old Alexa.
Although she's no longer a beat cop, Brantner uses her experience to train female officers to use detailed visualization techniques to deal with stress. For example, Brantner asks them to visualize the beginning of an armed conflict, taking cover once they spot a suspect, resolving the situation and returning home safely.
The technique, which Brantner uses often, also helps her through other stressful moments, including high-pressure meetings with her bosses. It's important to visualize the event exactly as you want it to happen, from start to finish, she says. "If you worry that something bad will happen, that can cause stress and create a self-fulfilling prophecy. But with practice, visualization can help replace your fears with positive images," says Brantner.Try a new hobby.
As a violinist with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, in North Carolina, Emily Chatham's typical weekend includes two rehearsals on Friday, a practice session, three wedding performances and a concert on Saturday, and a rehearsal and another performance on Sunday.
Chatham, 41, a mother of two with another baby on the way, used to ride horses to release the tension. Then she found a hobby that was easier to fit in her schedule: belly dancing. "Every time I saw it, I thought, 'It's so beautiful and graceful and erotic,'" she says. "It has become very empowering."
Chatham has now been taking lessons for four years and has kept with it even through her pregnancy. "Symphony musicians have a lack of control over their work," she says. "We are told what and where to play, and even how and when to play it. Belly dancing is very freeing."
"All Things Considered" is one of National Public Radio's best-known programs and airs on more than five hundred radio stations nationwide. As executive producer, Ellen Weiss, 41, must make constant decisions about which stories to cover and how to beat a 4 p.m. deadline. If the program ever makes an error, Weiss takes the blame. "Even if it wasn't my mistake, if it got on the air, I'm responsible," she says. Weiss always has a back-up plan so that if one story doesn't pan out, she's still prepared. But when several events happen at once, or if a story is as unpredictable as the presidential election, Weiss uses one strategy to cut through the chaos: "You have to have the confidence to make a decision and stand by it," she says.
Outside of work, Weiss, a mother of two, relaxes by focusing on her family. "Playing and hanging out with my sons is a great destressor," she says. "You can't obsess about work when you're with your kids. It doesn't matter if you're an executive or a brain surgeon. They make you focus on the moment, so you forget what happened that day." That's why she has strict rules about her time off. "I don't work weekends -- those days belong to my kids," she says. "And vacations are sacred."Ask for help.
With five teenagers in the house -- quintuplets Ben, Samantha, Meredith, Shannon and Bevin -- Roz Helms knows the next several years will be challenging. Even so, Helms, 41, an elementary- and a Sunday-school teacher, ran for a local public office last spring, and the family has hosted foreign exchange students for the last eight years.
How does Helms stay sane? She relies on two essentials: organization and support. A huge wall calendar tracks all the children's activities -- which, during the school year, include basketball, choir, Girl Scouts, soccer and youth group -- and keeps her mentally prepared and helps her prioritize. In the summer, Helms keeps the list to a minimum by signing the kids up on the same swim team. "Summers are my downtime, too," she says. "I can spend time with them and watch practice, and not have to drive to dozens of activities."
Friends and family also help. Her husband, Ron, a restaurant manager, tackles the morning routine so that she can start the day without rushing. Her parents and neighbors help carpool and root for the kids when sports events conflict. The extra support gives Helms an emotional boost. "There's nothing wrong with asking for help," she says. "It's like recruiting your own cheering section."