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Can Living the Simple Life Reduce Stress?
In her interesting article in Loyola Magazine, Karen J. Egenes, R.N., Ed.D. discusses this important topic. We want to share it with you in the hope that you will have a more stress-free life as well.
JAN is an MBA Graduate Student, a junior executive in an advertising firm, and a mother of two preschool-age children. She is confident in her management skills at home as well as at her workplace. Jan believes she keeps her life "on an even keel," except for weekdays when her kids are ill, weeks when she has a paper due in class or a major presentation due at work. Then, there are afternoons when the children's sports activities and music lessons conflict or the minivan breaks down. Today, as she sips her morning coffee, she ponders the price of "having it all." She wonders if there could possibly be a connection between her fast-track lifestyle and her recent barrage of migraine headaches and episodes of immobilizing anxiety.
Jan has little time to pursue this thought, however, because the day-care center calls to announce it will not open until noon due to a power outage. She has a major presentation to a potential client scheduled in less than an hour, and her husband is 600 miles from home on one of his frequent business trips. As she puts down the phone, Jan feels, "totally stressed out."
Webster's dictionary defines stress as "a physical, chemical or emotional factor that causes mental or bodily tension." In fact, it "may be a factor in disease causation," or "a state of bodily or mental tension resulting from factors that tend to alter an existent equilibrium." These definitions reflect the confusion that often results when we discuss stress. The same word, "stress," is used to describe both the event and circumstance that cause us discomfort and the physical and emotional uneasiness we feel as a result of that situation.
Stress most often occurs when we are confronted with a situation that we perceive as a challenge to our coping mechanisms. Most people believe their jobs are their greatest source of stress, followed closely by family responsibilities, financial concerns and worries about health.
Researcher Robert Karasek believes job-related stress occurs when a person with an ordinary job is confronted with additional pressures to perform, coupled with LACK OF CONTROL over the work process. Modern concerns about corporate mergers, downsizing, and early retirement add to the list of job-related stressors.
In his book, Future Shock, Alvin Toffler writes that people are most susceptible to stress when they are subjected to major changes in a short period of time. Technological advances have made our lives easier, but have also ushered in a new source of stress. For example, cellular phones and e-mail allow us to conduct business on the expressway or at the airport, but effectively prevent any respite from our office routines. Beepers keep us in touch with the office but also prevent any escape from work whether we remain at home or just try to relax.
IS STRESS BAD?
The stress (arousal) response is automatic. Whenever you face a challenging situation, the muscles tense, heart rate and blood pressure increase, hands become cold and clammy and the stomach feels tense and upset. Other physical symptoms of stress include fatigue, shakiness, rashes, nail biting, sleep difficulties, overeating or loss of appetite, increased urination and increased use of alcohol.
Psychological effects of stress include anger, irritability, worry, panic, mood swings, sadness, memory lapses, poor concentration and feeling of being overwhelmed. If the stressful event is of short duration, as soon as the challenge has been met, the body automatically relaxes and the blood pressure, heart rate and other physical functions all return to their normal, pre-stressed state. However, constant stress over a long period can cause or exacerbate the symptoms of a wide range of disorders. Sources of long-term stress include a lengthy project at work, family care/provider responsibilities or taking a difficult class. In chronic stress, the body remains geared up. The resultant physical and emotional strain can play a role in muscle spasms, coronary heart disease, strokes, increased cholesterol levels, irritable bowel syndrome, colitis and headaches.
Research over the past decade shows that stress adversely affects the immune system. Studies, in this new field, called "psycho-neuroimmunology," examine relationships between emotional states and changes in the immune system. Evidence indicates that chronic stress can compromise the immune system, making it less able to resist bacteria and viruses. Research also shows that stress might exacerbate immune system disorders, such as AIDS, herpes, metastasized cancer and rheumatoid arthritis.
Clearly, the state of physiological arousal and accompanying psychological discomfort engendered by stress harms physical and psychological health.
CAN STRESS BE HELPFUL?
Stress can also result from good things that happen in your life, such as a promotion at work, a move to a new neighborhood, or increased community involvement. As stressful as these situations might be, they can be positive forces in your life because of the enjoyment and satisfaction they bring. Hans Selye, a leader in research on stress, labeled positive stress as "eustress" to distinguish it from negative stress, or "distress."
The stress-related state of physiological arousal can actually improve concentration, performance and efficiency. Some people actually do their best work when they are under pressure. They relax when they have met the challenge, take pride in their accomplishment, and gear up for the next project. Thus, they view "achievement under pressure" as a kind of positive stress that is satisfying and rewarding.
Other researchers, however, argue that the positive outcomes of stressful events are examples of our abilities to cope rather than examples of positive stress. They believe that individuals use a process of reappraisal to convert stressful events into experiences they perceive as health and growth-promoting.
WHAT CAN I DO?
Psychologist Albert Ellis formulated an "ABC Model" to explain a stressful event. In this model, "A" is the "Activating " event, or potentially stressful situation. "B" is your individual "Beliefs," or thoughts and perceptions about the event. And "C" is the emotional "Consequence," or stress that results from holding these beliefs.
In the example given earlier, Jan's "A" was the telephone call from the day-care center announcing its delay in opening. Jan's "B," or thoughts, were probably, "Oh, no! My presentation! What will I do?" These thoughts were critical in determining "C," the amount of stress Jan consequently experienced.
This model also provides a guide for stress management by suggesting changes in "A," "B" and/or "C." A change in "A" means a change in Jan's environment. Perhaps she could make other arrangements for childcare, such as the employment of a live-in nanny. She and her husband might be able to better coordinate their work schedules. Jan might decide to take a leave of absence from her graduate studies during a semester when her work and home schedules are particularly frenzied. Jan might also decide to eliminate some of her children's scheduled activities and classes, opting instead for more quality family time together.
Even if Jan is unable to change situations that provoke stress, she is still able to change the way she perceives them. A change in "B" is a change to a positive mental outlook in which a stress-provoking situation is reappraised as a challenge to be met rather than a prelude to defeat. Such a change creates a positive mind-set, an attitude of commitment and control toward the inevitable changes in life. Jan should work to maintain her self-esteem by repeatedly complimenting herself on her ability to balance her many responsibilities. Positive self-talk includes saying, "I can do this," then setting her mind to meet the challenge at hand.
Development of an alternative plan of action can help Jan turn a stressful situation into a new opportunity. Because Jan knows a breakdown in her usual plan for childcare provokes stress, she should have alternate plans available. She might keep telephone numbers of emergency care providers or backup day care centers she can access sporadically.
Through advanced rehearsals, Jan can decrease stress related to her work and classroom presentations. Before a presentation, Jan can think through the situation, go over the details and then visualize herself proceeding successfully. Often adequate support systems are helpful to maintain a positive mental attitude. Participation in a support group for working mothers or even occasional lunches with colleagues who have similar work and family responsibilities could offer Jan the opportunity to share her experiences with others. Then, she might learn new ways to cope that remind her that she is not alone.
What can you do when you cannot change the situation and cannot change the way you view the situation? For one thing, you can still use stress-reduction skills to manage your anxiety. Because stress is a physical and emotional reaction, development of a healthy lifestyle can improve feelings of self-worth and reduce the chance of developing a stress-related illness. People who are physically active are better able to handle stress than those with more sedentary lifestyles. A regular exercise program, consisting of walking, running, swimming, or bicycling, can relieve muscle tension and improve overall flexibility. Jan might consider daily walks with her children or the family dog.
Good nutrition can also help you deal more effectively with stressful events. Jan should plan healthy family meals that include vegetables, fruits and whole grains. Limits on the use of saturated fat, salt, sugar, caffeine and alcohol increase feelings of well-being and reduce stress.
Rest and relaxation are key to effective stress management. The ability to "slow down," schedule some leisure time each day and then truly enjoy this time can help you deal better with stressful events.
Time management techniques can help free more time. Jan should avoid overbooking her days with endless chores and tasks and instead focus on the priorities she sets each morning. She should become aware of her physical limitations. Skills in assertive communication and the ability to say "no" without feeling guilty can be invaluable in stress management. Jan should also plan to get enough sleep at night to give her body time to refresh itself.
As a first step in effective stress-management, you must first become aware of situations that provoke stress and "tune in" to your body's symptoms of stress, such as headaches, tensed muscles or upset stomach. Stress need not be harmful when it is balanced with relaxation. Through practice of simple relaxation techniques on a regular basis, you can create the opportunity to unwind and prepare for the next of life's challenges.
Deep breathing is one of the simplest and most effective ways to relieve tension and promote relaxation. To practice deep breathing, sit in an erect position. Inhale slowly through your nose and allow your abdomen to expand as much as possible. Hold your breath for five seconds before exhaling slowly through your mouth. When your lungs feel "empty," begin the cycle again. For the best results, repeat this cycle three times whenever you feel tense.
Another technique to relieve tension is called progressive relaxation. This technique allows you to actually feel the difference between tension and relaxation. First, tense a muscle. For example, tighten a hand muscle to make a fist. Hold the fist for a few seconds, and concentrate on how it feels. Next, release the tension in your hand and relax your fist. Notice the feeling that results from the release of pressure. Finally, concentrate on the difference between the two sensations. Progress to other major muscle groups and use the same technique for each group. Sometimes it is helpful to progress from head to toe, alternately tensing and relaxing the muscles in your face, shoulders, arms, hands, chest, back, abdomen, legs and feet.
Another way to promote relaxation is to clear your mind of disturbing thoughts. A technique called "guided imagery" allows you to replace a stress producing thought or image for one that is relaxing. First, find a place where you will not be disturbed for 5 to 10 minutes, then mentally focus on a tranquil setting that appeals to you. Try to imagine all of the details: a warm sandy beach, the gentle breeze, the sound of waves lapping on the shore - even your scented suntan lotion. After a few minutes, you will feel relaxed and calm. This technique is the equivalent to giving yourself a brief mental "vacation."
Other people feel calmed by soothing the senses. Baroque music, especially works composed by Bach, Handel, and Mozart, are known to produce physiological changes in the body, including decreased pulse, respiration and blood pressure rates.
Compact discs are available with soothing sounds, such as falling rain, gentle waves and babbling brooks. Aromatherapy can also lead to mental relaxation by promoting feelings of serenity. Of the scents, vanilla and floral fragrances are the most relaxing, but any scents that trigger relaxing personal memories can be effective. When a scented burning candle transmits the aroma, the flickering flame adds to the sense of tranquility.
A belief in GOD and a religious system of beliefs can promote an inner peace that helps you to cope with stress. Faith helps to bring meaning and purpose to the daily joys and struggles of life and offers promise that things really can work out for the best. Participation in a faith community can provide supportive relationships and offer multiple opportunities to reach out to others. Acts of kindness produce feelings of satisfaction that decrease stress. In the modern world, you will undoubtedly encounter stress on a daily basis. Although you are unable to control most of the stress-producing events in life, you can manage your reaction to these events in your life that trigger stress and the physical and emotional symptoms you experience when you feel stressed.
Through development of a positive mental outlook and use of techniques to decrease stress, you can cope and feel in control of your life.
Have A Great Month!
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Jerry Houston, founder and president of Houston Associates, is a certified behavioral and values analyst, with a background in quality management. With over 100 clients nationwide, Jerry stands ready to assist organizations in management development, strategic planning, one-on-one coaching, sales coaching, supervisory development and behavioral analysis. Other processes offered through Houston Associates include sexual harassment, communications, and assertiveness workshops, plus an array of others which can be tailored to meet the needs of your organization. For more information or to receive a complimentary behavioral report, CLICK HERE for their new WEB SITE, CALL 708-418-5844, E-mail them at Houstongm@aol.com or fax them at 708-418-5834.
By Jim Elsener
(Reprinted with the persission of the publisher from The Business Ledger)
A few months ago Oak Brook Bank invited me to a seminar conducted by Wheaton CPA Mark Cantey which featured a video interview with an entrepreneurial Australian chap by the name of Wally.
Wally had achieved success in the business of raising and selling rare birds. His particular business was inconsequential. What was important about the interview was Wally's outlook on life and business - or on business and life. To an entrepreneur it's sometimes difficult to decide where one ends and the other begins.
The bank had sponsored this program to provide some value added for its current and potential customers. Each person in attendance had been invited because he or she was involved in entrepreneurial companies either as a founder-owner or as a key executive.
At first, I was a bit skeptical about what I might learn from Wally. My reaction was that it was pretty corny and I questioned how I was supposed to related to this chubby, ponytailed guy from "down under."
During several breaks the business executives in attendance were invited to discuss their reactions and personal experiences vis a vis Wally's. None of us had known each other previously and as a result our exchanges were somewhat stilted. We were obviously uncomfortable sharing our feelings among a group of strangers.
It wasn't until the next few days...and weeks, when I found myself thinking about Wally, and quoting him, that I realized the impact he had on me.
Wally may have worked on the opposite side of the world in a business totally different than mine, but his challenges and goals are no different. His biggest problem had once been that his business had completely absorbed his life.
"I own a red Lamborghini," he said. "My pleasure in life is to drive it. But what's the sense of owning a Lamborghini if I never take the time to drive it?"
Entrepreneurs particularly have a need to find balance in their lives. Their companies become an extension of their personalities. Their financial fortunes and challenges are directly related to the health of their business. They need to remember the axiom that "we work to live, not live to work."
"I realized that I was working in the business, not on the business," Wally said. He hadn't created his business to have a job. He created his business to fulfill a vision and to have fun at work.
Instead, the business relied entirely on Wally's skill. He decided that this function should be to develop systems to make things easy for his people so that they could do without him and he could then "go drive his Lamborghini."
What he did to achieve this was simple, but it took time, planning and commitment.
- "Most people aim at nothing and hit it with tremendous accuracy," he said. To provide a goal, Wally created a retirement plan with a specific date in mind.
- He then developed an organization chart so everyone knew his or her job.
- Knowing that every business runs on 90 percent of the same things over and over - in essence, repetitive work - he systematized the routine so that teenagers could handle the day-to-day business. It's important that you remember to systematize the routine things so that you can humanize the exceptions.
- He had to accept things being done 80 percent as well as he could have done them. So training and trusting his team was the key. Once he did that, his staff grew exponentially and his business exploded as a result.
There's a kicker to this story. Wally died from cancer at age 48 just a few weeks after his interview. He knew he was terminal and though he had shed many tears he felt totally at peace with himself. His life and afterlife was well planned. His family was taken care of financially and he had sold his company to his employees who knew how to continue its success.
I learned a lot from Wally. Most important was to make time "to drive the Lamborghini."
You can e-mail your comments to Jim Elsener at:
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