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Kathy Kastan

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Avoiding the Bah-Humbug Blues This Holiday Season

Posted: 12/15/10 02:51 PM ET

Skyrocketing unemployment rates, economic hardship, terrorism, extremely partisan politics, distasteful reality shows and dire forecasts for the country can leave anyone with a "bah humbug" taste in their mouths this holiday season.

To add a bit of salt to the wound, a recent study published by Harvard Medical School researchers, lead by Michelle Albert, M.D., shows that women who experience chronic job strain are 40 percent more likely to have cardiovascular disease, heart attacks and a need for invasive procedures done to unblock vessels than their less job-strained peers. This timely study also shows that a woman's job insecurity puts her at increased risk for cardiovascular problems.

For years studies have shown that work-related stress isn't good for your health, but most of the studies have been done on men. This is a long-term study following over 17,000 women who are mostly in health professions. Job strain is a form of psychological stress that has been linked to high blood pressure, a release of stress hormones into the bloodstream, an increase in heart rate, and changes in size of the left ventricle of the heart.

Elizabeth of Plymouth, Minn. could have been a study participant. She had a heart attack in her early 40s and made some difficult decisions about her stressful job:

A year and a half after my diagnosis, I left corporate America and all the stress behind that came with raising a family of four children while traveling for work. Now my focus is on the family. Being with, and for, the kids is the greatest job in my life -- not stress-free by any means, as you know, but still the most wonderful days I've lived.

Tami from Hot Springs, Ark. had a massive heart attack after turning 40 that she attributed to job strain: "No job, the stress of it or the money you make is worth it! Not to mention what it puts your family and friends through. I felt like such a loser at the time, like a failure that couldn't handle a day of work. Now I know that changing jobs saved my life."

Karen from Beverly Hills, Mich. had this experience as well: "The results of this study fit me to a T. No other risk factors before my heart attack other than huge amounts of stress at work."

For a woman who is in a job that is highly demanding and gives little control, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is the path I'm on satisfying and fulfilling? Is this path leading me to some specific end that's worth the stress now?
  • Does the job I do increase the overall stress in my life? Have I shared my feelings with others especially my family?
  • Have I brainstormed my options with my loved ones, friends and work peers or sought the help of a career counselor?
  • Is there a job change I've been thinking of but haven't taken steps to make it happen? What is my wish list for a job?
  • Is it possible for me to change jobs? If so, what steps do I need to take to make it happen? Have I started to network and get my name and interests out there to perspective employers?
  • What are my financial constraints? Can I afford to reduce my hours or switch to a part-time job?

Linda of Dekalb, Ill. can also relate to the study: "I had a heart attack after just turning 50. This is why I am now a substitute teacher -- I take the jobs I want and leave the others... I am lucky I can do this and can afford to do this."

So if you can't change or modify your job and are stressed out with life and the holidays, what can you do? Stress happens; it's part of living. But the good news is that studies show it's how you manage and react to your stress (even at work) that matters for your overall health. Here are some proven techniques that work to reduce stress:

  • Carve out time for yourself as a priority. For you to be there for all of those people who depend on you, you need to stay healthy. That means taking time to care for your body and soul.
  • Exercise at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week.
  • Learn yoga and practice at home.
  • Learn to meditate. You can do this quickly even on a lunch break.
  • Use deep breathing techniques, which can be done anywhere; it takes no time. Close your eyes, inhale through your nose and exhale slowly through your mouth. Do this 10 times or more if needed to soothe you.
  • Surround yourself with people whom you love and care about. Relationships that are reciprocal are the most satisfying. Eliminate toxic people from your life.
  • Find moderation and balance, including in relationships, gift-buying and partying.
  • Learn to say "no"; set boundaries and limits with others.
  • Communicate your needs or concerns. But remember, it's not just what you say; it's how you say it.
  • Laugh. People who find a way to laugh and find joy in the direst situations live more satisfying lives and avoid "bah humbug" feelings for their holiday season.

Wishing you a peaceful and enjoyable holiday season!