In 2001 I co-presented a Stress Management Seminar at INSTEAD (Singapore), an international business school with campuses in France and Singapore. Since stress affects us all and seems to be a part of daily living, we wanted to share some of this seminar with others as well.
Just what is stress?
A simple definition: stress is any change to which we must adapt. Thus, we are all under some sort of stress almost all the time. Stress can be perceived as positive or negative. Examples of positive stress are falling in love, having a baby, starting a new job; examples of negative stress are moving to a foreign land, losing a loved one, or financial pressures. There are four basic sources of stress: environmental (weather, noise, traffic…), social (deadlines, job interviews, presentations, relationship misunderstandings), physiological (aging, illness, injuries, lack of proper exercise or nutrition), and internal (thoughts of worry, negative perceptions, irrational beliefs).
A certain amount of stress is actually necessary to keep us motivated and driven to achieve personal goals. Facing challenges and difficulties helps us grow and reach our potential. Thus, stress management does not mean eliminating stress; it does mean reducing the amount and intensity of stress so that we are left with the optimal amount of stress with which to excel.
Stress leads to the Stress Response, which is an alarm reaction—the fight or flight response in which the heart rate increases, muscles tense, blood pressure raises. When this alarm reaction stays turned on due to chronic stress, the body can suffer adverse consequences throughout its many systems and organs leading to illnesses such as certain cancers, ulcers, insomnia, headaches, and heart disease. Some statistics indicate that 95% of visits to health-care professionals are in some way stress-related. Stress also affects us psychologically with depression, substance abuse, panic attacks, irritability, poor judgment and accidents. It also affects our personal lives, interfering with relationships at home and at work.
Stress can be turned around. We can dramatically strengthen our body’s ability to adapt to stress so that it does not undermine our physical and mental health. Controlling stress may require reorganization of your lifestyle. The key is to give your body the tools with which to respond to stress in a healthier manner. A balanced approach combining nutrition, exercise, and relaxation techniques is what works for many.
For environmental stress, we may be able to arrange it so that external stressors are minimized, such as lighting or noise. If stress comes from a hectic schedule, time management and goal setting skills could probably help reduce. These goals need to be SMART—-that is, Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Reasonable, and Time-limited. Using a day planner to organize time and tasks better can be very helpful or perhaps just learning to say no to that one extra request.
Our thoughts can be one of the greatest sources of stress. These include perceptions of a situation, worry, and negative thinking/self-talk. Irrational ideas may be based on outright misperceptions or perfectionistic shoulds, oughts, and musts. Worry can be of a problem solving nature, but often is more like the mountain-out-of-a molehill type. “Worry does not empty tomorrow of its troubles, it only empties today of its strength.” Self-talk is directly related to emotions, that is, if you are angry, then you must be having angry thoughts. The same applies to the emotions of happiness, depression, etc. The mind and body are in constant communication with each other in profound ways. A recent study was done with 200 executives undergoing difficult corporate changes, which caused huge stress in their jobs. It was found that half the men were able to escape negative effects of stress – they handled the stress by looking at it as a stepping-stone to a desired goal. The other half was devastated and experienced many stress-related illnesses. The difference was in how they perceived the experience, not the experience itself. So change your thinking and your attitude to something positive and you will benefit in many ways. Sometimes just simply saying, “I can do this” can make a big difference.
One of the best ways to reduce stress is through physical exercise. Exercise may work better than tranquilizers for releasing tension. Just 30 minutes of exercise eases nerves and increases feelings of self-confidence. This can be as simple as a brisk 10-15 minute walk or more organized like aerobics, toning and stretching exercises, or yoga. Some simple exercises for a quick break can go a long way to de-stressing the day as well. For example: swing your arms like a windmill (10 forward, 10 back), bend down and touch your hands to the floor, shoulder rolls, gentle neck bends, stand on tiptoes and stretch your hands as high in the air as you can, hands on hips and bend (both sides 5 times). Proper nutrition and enough water are very important in combating stress. Avoid excessive amounts of caffeine and alcohol, reduce smoking, take a multivitamin, limit sodium and sugar intake, and eat low fat foods. Healthy sources of protein are also important, such as seafood, brown rice, soy foods, nuts, seeds, poultry, eggs and cheese. Dehydration contributes to stress, especially in this climate. So drink lots of water, preferably 8 glasses a day.
Relaxation techniques, including progressive muscle relaxation, visualizations, and deep breathing exercises all help to reduce stress and are easy, quick and fun to do. A simple breathing exercise: as you breathe in through the nose imagine that the in-coming breath is filling a balloon in your belly, torso, and entire upper body. When you are completely filled with air, exhale, let go and feel the balloon empty. A few of these and relaxation is only a breath away. Stop and smell the roses. Appreciate the beauty around you.
Get a massage.
Start the day with some quiet time.