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Ever notice how these days, many women wear their stress like a badge of honor? "In our culture, being busy has come to equal having high status," says Jonathan C. Smith, Ph.D., a psychologist and founder of the Roosevelt University Stress Institute, in Chicago. Indeed, it's actually embarrassing to admit that we have free time. Although most of us know that relaxing is beneficial, we simply can't give ourselves permission to do so.
Smith, who has studied more than 10,000 people in his research on stress over the past three decades, calls this hurry sickness, and says it is the result of our culture's notion of success. "We're psychologically addicted to the idea that success equals busyness," he says. "And most people today live with high levels of stress hormones in their bodies, so when they relax, they feel anxious."
Women are especially prone to this anxiety, says Smith. "They're under much more pressure to do everything well -- be a good wife, mother and employee."
Not surprisingly, women who are employed outside the home are also more likely than men to feel overworked, because of the family responsibilities that await them at home, according to a new study by the New York City-based Families and Work Institute. As a result, they tend to feel stress more constantly than men do, says Alice Domar, Ph.D., director of the Mind/Body Institute for Women's Health at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, in Boston.
"Mothers are supposed to be selfless," adds Domar. "They have been trained to feel guilty about taking time for themselves."
The soft economy is making the stress even worse. Many of us find that slowing down is difficult because we feel we have to work longer hours to pay for our lifestyles-or to avoid being laid off. Not only that, we can't escape the office: We're tethered to it by e-mail, cell phones and computers. Even when women do take some down time, they feel compelled to spend it with their children. Domar says she once told an audience of mothers about a day she had a free hour and decided to spend it reading instead of picking up her toddler daughter from day care an hour earlier. "There were audible gasps," she recalls. "One woman asked, 'What kind of mother are you?'"
The bottom line is, taking time for yourself is essential -- not only for your own sanity but for that of the people closest to you.
Try these slow-down strategies:Enlist the help of friends.
If you think you're the only one staking out time to read a book, you're likely to feel as if the world is passing you by. But if a friend is doing it with you, you'll feel better about it. "We can foster relaxation for each other," says Ronald Nathan, Ph.D., co-author of Stress Management (Ballantine, 1985). "You can do it by taking turns relieving each other of some obligation, such as child care, or you can simply spend time doing nothing with a friend."Create cues that signal relaxation.
After you've been on the go, it can be difficult to force yourself to unwind. So send a signal to your body -- and mind -- that it's time to slow down. It could be something as simple as changing into jeans after work, or putting on some classical music.Turn off all electronics.
That includes the phone, fax machine, computer and TV -- anything that stimulates. Once you disconnect from the world, you'll be better able to enjoy dinner with your family or a compelling book.Let go of the guilt.
By giving yourself time to rejuvenate, you're actually doing your family a favor. "After I spent an hour reading a book, I was able to enjoy the time I had with my daughter, Sarah, more than usual because I was so relaxed," says Alice Domar, Ph.D., director of the Mind/Body Institute for Women's Health, in Boston. "I think she benefited from that." --Sandi Kahn Shelton