Reducing your stress can be stress-free

Most of us simply dismiss little things as "just the way life is" but those little things are, in fact, major causes of potentially harmful stress. Here are a few surprising reasons you may be stressed, and what you can do to fix it.

1. People who say yes when they mean no

You have friends or colleagues who say yes to your requests (a movie, a project, a walk) and then, as often as not, they show up late or cancel at the last minute. These same people can be fun and even reliable sometimes. This can really raise your stress level. Research shows that ambiguous relationships where you can't predict whether an encounter will be positive or negative from one day to the next can take a greater toll on you than a relationship with someone you consciously dislike.

Stress buster: Next time you ask one of these people to do something, offer a choice, adding that "no" is an option. The key is not to make someone feel defensive but to be clear about what you're not willing to accept.

2. My husband drives me crazy

They say opposites attract, and it's true that many of us look for someone who has qualities we lack. However, the key to a successful relationship is not having the same personality traits, but having similar attitudes about major issues. What once may have attracted you (his generosity, his sense of humor) is now a major irritant after years of being together.

Stress buster: Is the trait that bugs you just your own issue, or does it violate a value you hold dear? If it's your own sore point, try to look at it more kindly. He's entitled to his personality quirks just as you are. Allow him to be who he is maybe even help him channel his energy; if he tells jokes endlessly, suggest he try out a local comedy club.

3. Packing in too many to-dos

Even if you don't mind all the activity you do each day, and you have the energy for it, the real question is: Are your days so packed that one small hiccup throws you into a tizzy, both physically and emotionally? Everyone needs breathing space so that small things don't feel like major disasters. Start your day rushing and you trigger that stress response which can stay with you all day.

Stress buster: Think categories. Are there certain types of activity that you can cut out altogether or reduce significantly: your volunteer work, your two book clubs, the kids' extracurriculars? Fewer activities mean more downtime. You can also factor some of that time into your errands, so even if you run into traffic, you won't be late for the dentist.

4. Is anyone listening?

Your kids can talk about every detail of MTV but don't recall you telling them to come home right after school. Your husband goes to the store for milk and comes back with juice instead. You think, I've been talking to a wall!

Stress buster: If you need your hubby or your kids to listen to you about something really important, say "I am going to talk for 3 minutes and I need your attention." Keep your word; the message should be short, simple and direct. Likewise, tell them you'll give them your full attention when they ask for it.

5. Eating too few calories

You want to lose weight, so you cut back on calories, even skipping a meal or two. Naturally, your body goes into craving mode and you find yourself irritable. You can either stay irritable, or eat and then blast yourself for breaking your diet.

Stress buster: Forget counting calories; instead, focus on making healthy food choices. Eat a diet that is rich in fruits, veggies, beans and whole grains, so you won't have to watch what you eat. These foods are high in water content and fiber, so you'll feel full and be less inclined to overeat or eat unhealthy foods. And in turn, this will reduce the stress connected with weight gain and self-blame.