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Stress is a part of life. Some stress is beneficial, but prolonged chronic stress is harmful. Take a holistic approach to changing the basis of your stress, not its symptoms. Rather than “managing” stress, you can identify its causes and reframe your thinking. Your thought patterns may be winding you up and stressing you out. Your internal reactions – not external circumstances – often generate most of your stress. This is good news, because it means you can learn to “unwind” and take charge of your reaction to stress.
Short-term stress helps by serving as a motivator and alerting you when something is wrong. Stress keeps you alive in hazardous situations by increasing your heart and breathing rates, the blood flow to your muscles, and your sensory awareness. These physiological mechanisms make up the fight-or-flight response to stress. Your body responds to a perceived threat, takes 30 to 90 seconds to consider whether to flee or fight, and then returns to a natural state of homeostasis. Your body can’t function well in a chronic state of stress.
To see if you suffer chronic stress, complete this assessment. Sit and relax a while, then find your pulse. Calculate your resting heart rate by counting the number of beats for one minute. Next, sit up straight and place one hand on your chest and the other one on your stomach. Note how you’re breathing by identifying which hand moves more. Write down your heart rate and breathing patterns. A relaxed healthy person generally has a resting heart rate of 55 to 70 beats per minute and an average of 12 to 16 breaths per minute, falling to four to ten breaths per minute when relaxed. Write down your stress symptoms, like headaches, fatigue, anxiety, anger or boredom.
If you constantly replay negative thoughts, press the “Stop” button in your mind. Tune into your senses. Try not to be judgmental. Shift from negative “self-talk” to a more positive frame of mind by eliminating such negative words as “no, can’t, won’t, maybe, never…I should, I need to” and the like, and replacing them with positive words, such as “I am, I can, I will” and “I do.”
Psychiatrist Dr. Peter Johnston runs the University of Chicago’s student mental health clinic. A student once called him to cancel his counseling session because his father had died. The student was also facing a major exam. Johnston suggested that he reschedule the exam and take time to grieve. Agreeing, the student said, “I need time to grieve, but it’s not right now.” He used a critical stress control mechanism: You can decide how to cope after a stressor occurs but before your body reacts physically, during the “gap” between the “stimulus” and your “response.”
Choosing your response allows you to take control of your stress. To select a process for responding to a stressful event, try the following “Stressbuster.” Take a deep breath before acting, visualize the consequences of your actions and follow the “golden rule” to treat others the way you’d like them to treat you. Learn to analyze your body’s stress signals. Physically, your body should react only to actual, physical danger. However, your brain interprets many emotional situations as threatening and triggers the stress response.
People fill the gap between a stimulus and their response by reacting to the stimulus in their own way – their paradigm. Your paradigm is how you perceive and interpret the world. If your “lens” is distorted, it will warp your views. A man who feared dogs would change his walking route if he saw one. If an unleashed dog ran toward him, he’d scream at the owner. But his daughter begged for a dog, so he finally got her a small English Spaniel. When it became affectionate toward him, he saw that his paradigm, his reaction to dogs, was the problem, not dogs themselves.
Shift Paradigms and Eliminate Stress
To travel “from stress to tranquility,” change seven pressure-filled paradigms into less punishing, alternative approaches. Move from:
1. “Reactive to Proactive”
Shifting the first paradigm means taking control of your stress instead of reacting to it. You can’t avoid stress, but you can minimize it. For example, proactive people avoid having to worry about their finances by saving money and following a budget. They exercise, eat right and get regular checkups to ease their stress about their health. They avoid relationship problems by being respectful, kind and forgiving. Research shows that a lack of control builds a sense of stress, while having a sense of control lessens anxieties.
2. “Unmotivated to Inspired”
If you’re not enthusiastic about your job, your lack of drive could provoke stress or could be a reaction to stress. The antidote to being unmotivated is to get inspired. Create a mission statement that compels you. List your values. Rank them from most to least important. Write about each aspect of your work that relates to your values, principles or ideas. Rephrase each value into a positive “clarifying paragraph,” a series of present tense, first-person declarations, such as: “I am healthy and strong…I treat myself with respect” and “manage my stress in excellent ways.” Consider these purposeful statements as you make choices all day; put “every decision…no matter how small, through that filter.” Using your values to shape your actions decreases stress.
3. “Pressure to Priorities”
Many people feel overworked. They cope with pressure by “multitasking” – trying to do several things at the same time. But no one can truly multitask because the human brain can focus on only one thing at a time. Trying to multitask actually causes more stress. When you attempt several tasks simultaneously, none of them gets your full focus and attention. Instead, shift your paradigm from pressure to priorities by scheduling what you need to do, one thing at a time. List two or three of the most important steps you need to accomplish in a day, and forget the rest for that day. When you write out your priorities, you will feel less stress about trying to “do it all.”
4. “Hassle to Harmony”
Everyday workplace annoyances may include “turf wars, territoriality, ego issues and plain old fear,” being afraid of not moving up, or not getting a contract, or just fear of “losing” out in general. Instead of thinking of life as a battle with a winner and a loser, consider of how both sides can win. For example, the retail giant Costco carries a variety of goods, offers customers a generous return policy for customers and pays employees well. Some retail executives might think these policies post a risk of losing money, but Costco knows how to keep its customers loyal. And, by paying good salaries, it minimizes turnover and saves money in the long run.
5. “Anxiety to Empathy”
To manage anxiety, be more empathetic. Empathy is not sympathy. “Empathy is understanding what others feel. Sympathy is feeling sorry for others and comforting them.” Practice empathy by listening to people with the intent of understanding them rather than listening to respond. Although technology makes it easier to communicate, you may be having fewer face-to-face interactions; that can increase social anxiety. Empathy declines when people isolate themselves. They hesitate to invest emotionally in others and don’t realize how isolation generates stress. Empathy requires mindfulness, focusing on the present – a major tactic in stress relief. Consider what you’re seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching or thinking at this moment. Like exercising your physical muscles, building mindfulness becomes easier with time. Try this exercise: Go to your favorite restaurant alone, and relish the experience. Instead of eating quickly, savor each bite of a dish you love. Focus on how each spoonful tastes as you eat it.
6. “Defensive to Diverse”
Feeling defensive often leads to “job strain.” Constantly guarding your territory can exhaust you and shut you off from different viewpoints. For example, Blockbuster maintained a defensive stance when Netflix founder Reed Hastings approached company leaders about working with his firm, which offered video rentals without hefty late fees. Blockbuster declined his offer and went bankrupt while Netflix flourished. Such organizational “group think” – or even stubborn adherence to a popular, single point of view – can lead to missed opportunities and lost profits. Challenge defensiveness by being open to diversity. Welcome different kinds of people, opinions and attitudes. Be open to travel, especially to places where you’ve never been.
7. “Tense to Tranquil”
Sometimes, despite your efforts, stress “happens anyway.” Co-author Sam Bracken had a difficult childhood, but he turned his life around. He was conceived from rape and his mother “dumped” him at an orphanage when he was four. At age five, a boy who later became his stepbrother lit him on fire. His stepbrother and stepfather continually abused him. However, he got out at age 18, earning a football scholarship to the Georgia Institute of Technology. When a shoulder injury sidelined him in his sophomore year. Sam nearly lost hope. His coach encouraged him to take stock by recording his feelings in a binder with four tabs: “Mental, Physical, Emotional” and “Spiritual.” Following his lead, improve these aspects of your life with the following exercises:
- “Mental tranquility” – Use mantra meditation, guided imagery (visualization plus relaxed breathing) or breathing in rhythm with the ocean to achieve mental tranquility. Visualization involves picturing something calming and trying to engage all of your senses around that image. Visualization can alleviate a variety of symptoms and situations, including chronic pain, headaches, asthma and substance abuse, and it can improve athletic performance. To practice mantra meditation, sit in a chair with your eyes closed and silently repeat a word such as “one, relax, peace” or “calm” over and over for four to five seconds. Let your mind wash over your mantra and pull your thoughts back to it when they drift. Try this for 10 to 20 minutes daily at least three or four times a week. Don’t be worried if your mind wanders as you repeat your mantra or if you fall asleep. Allow yourself enough time – at least two minutes – to return to your previous state.
- “Physical tranquility” – Use exercise and relaxation to become more physically tranquil. Reduce stress with 30 to 60 minutes of cardiovascular exercise, especially after a stressful event. Notice how you feel afterward. Relaxation techniques may include breathing exercises, meditation, or yoga, which also can improve muscle strength, flexibility and balance. Practice these methods in a quiet room with no distractions for 10 to 20 minutes a day. Getting more sleep also relieves stress. To improve your sleep quality, go to bed earlier, let food digest for three to four hours before going to bed, keep your room dark and don’t use electronic devices in bed. Short naps of 15 minutes or less during the day can provide a quick recharge. Or try this method: Lying on the floor; put your feet up on a chair. Feel your breath moving through your midsection. Move your neck from side to side; focus on your muscles for 10 minutes. Take your feet down, slowly roll into a fetal position and slowly rise.
- “Emotional tranquility” – Seek “nonstressful connections with other people.” Reach out to those who help you feel relaxed; get together with friends. Service is another way to reduce stress. Helping others doesn’t have to be complex: Assist a neighbor, spend time with friends, run errands for someone in need, or give donations or gifts.
- “Spiritual tranquility” – The effort to cultivate inner peace may incorporate religious worship or time alone to reflect. According to an English university study by Dr. David Lewis, people felt a 68% decrease in stress after only six minutes of reading a “good book.” While popular novels offer a good way to unwind, classical literature lets you ponder bigger questions. “Listening to music drops stress levels 61% on average.” Classical music, especially Baroque music that has a slower beat and New Age instrumental music, are more relaxing and reduce stress effectively.
Hugely stressful events, or “crucible experiences,” such as a natural disaster, financial ruin or a major illness give people the opportunity to reflect on their lives and make changes. Many people report a renewed perspective after undergoing a difficult time. Before she became famous for writing the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling was a poor, depressed, divorced single mom. In a commencement speech she gave at Harvard, titled “The Fringe Benefits of Failure,” she said three things helped her see what mattered: her daughter, an old typewriter and a big idea.[/text_block]