Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Set goals, not resolutions
Stress for Success
December 26, 2006

Are you considering New Year’s resolutions? If you’re historically unsuccessful at this annual tradition consider setting goals, even small ones that become part of a bigger picture of where you want to be in the next few years.

“Start with the end in mind”, said Steven Covey, author of “7 Habits of Highly Successful People”. When you see how immediate effort can begin the movement toward a larger and more important destination it creates energy and motivation to accomplish your present goal.

So figure out where you want to be in the next three - five years and then create New Year’s goals to nudge you in that direction. If you don’t know where you want to be, answer the two magic questions repeatedly over several weeks, “What do I want more of?” and “What do I want less of?” in my personal and professional life. Whatever repetitively appears on successive lists paints a picture of your desired destination around which you form your smaller New Year’s goals.

For instance, with semi-retirement approaching in the next few years, I’d like to spend additional time on more economical vacations and seeking more adventure.

To have more economical vacations my New Year’s goal is to contact cruise ships (which I’ve considered doing for ten years) to exchange workshops for free passage for my husband and me.

To satisfy my life-long need for adventure (which has become my husband’s, too), we’re considering numerous volunteer efforts. One is with Encore, an organization that connects returned Peace Corps volunteers with international projects requiring our kind of talents. These commitments last three weeks to three months; perfect for us.

Don’t assume you have to accomplish your objective in one big step. My goal with Encore is to simply contact them and explore the possibilities. If interested, I’d then learn more about them and research safety and practical concerns regarding working overseas again.

By keeping our end in mind, spending semi-retirement time seeking adventure and travel, even if working with Encore and the cruise ships don’t pan out, there are other possibilities. In other words, we don’t have to give up on our end, we’d just have to come up with new ways, new goals, to get there.

Once you’ve defined your New Year’s goal and steps to achieve it, keep it visually in mind by making a colorful, visually appealing flyer of your action plan. Post it around your house, office and/or car to keep you focused on what you need to do daily to accomplish it. And reward yourself for each successful step you take.

In addition to your specific New Year’s goal, there are stress reduction goals, also beneficial for your longer-term destination:
• Strengthen relationships with family/friends
• Self-care through regular exercise and healthier eating
• Life balance
• Spiritual growth
• Effective goal setting and attainment

Making progress in these areas limits the damage stress does to you physically and emotionally so you arrive at your destination in better shape to enjoy it more.

These will be the topics for the next weeks. Happy New Year!

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com or call 239-693-8111 for information about her workshops on this and other topics or to invite her to speak to your organization.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Holidays can bring on blues
Learn about the common stressors and how to cope
Stress for Success
December 19, 2006
According to Madison Avenue, Christmas is always 100% happy, loving and generous. Your holidays can be very stressful if your reality falls short of this ideal.

Even if you measure up well, it’s a time of frenetic cleaning, decorating, baking, shopping, wrapping, going to and hosting parties, all leading to exhaustion.

A key to coping is to know that we’re all more vulnerable to stress right now and to keep the increased activity, overindulgences, and unrealistic expectations from overwhelming you.

The most common holiday stressors include:
• Relationships: historically tumultuous ones can be particularly toxic, especially if you’re with your family of origin where reverting back to childhood roles triggers each other’s hot buttons.
– If you’ve lost a loved-one the holidays probably leave you very lonely and depressed.
• Finances: money stress can occur any time but takes on new dimensions if you overspend on gifts, travel, etc.
• Exhaustion: the vicious cycle of stress causing fatigue, leaving you less likely to exercise and meditate, increasing stress. Overindulgence of food and liquor can push you overboard.

Here are some holiday stress coping tips:
• Treat yourself kindly: accept your imperfections. Do something you find special. Focus on the importance of Christmas vs. buying stuff. Appreciate the efforts you make to create a positive experience for your loved ones.
• Put your mind into neutral: commit to not letting other’s irritating behaviors upset you. Avoid difficult people, if possible. Save any confrontations for the New Year. If someone else gets easily upset, give him a break; he’s probably over-stressed, too. An excellent holiday mantra is, "This too shall pass."
– Instead of picturing everything things going wrong, picture them going well. Prepare yourself mentally to positively handle what could go wrong and appreciate the positive.
• Be realistic: let go of Hallmark expectations that everything must be perfect. If there's a spot on your tablecloth, put something over it vs. fuss about it. Virtually no one cares. And if someone does, don’t invite her next year.
• Stick to your budget: decide how much you can afford and stick to it. To avoid over-spending leave your credit cards at home and take only the cash you've budgeted. You can’t buy love or friendship. Explain to your kids if you can’t afford something they want. Knowing there are limits is good for them.
• Set appropriate limits: prioritize invitations, requests and responsibilities; commit only to what’s realistically achievable.
• Plan ahead: include your family in making a list of and dividing additional responsibilities. Decide who will do what. (If you do it all yourself you’ll teach them to do nothing.)
• Self-care: over-eat and -drink on Christmas if you must, but not for the next two weeks. Take daily 15-minute breaks to refresh each day. Get plenty of exercise and drink lots of water to keep up your energy.
• Be grateful: help those who are less fortunate; catch your loved ones doing something right; as you prepare everything remember your love for those for whom you’re doing it.

If you still have the holiday blues talk to someone you trust. Keep up your normal routine and know that this too shall pass.

Merry Christmas!

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com or call 239-693-8111 for information about her workshops on this and other topics or to invite her to speak to your organization.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

When enthusiasm’s at a low it’s in employers’ best interest to help
Stress for Success
December 12, 2006

Not all stress is bad. So how can a manager tell when employees have too much?

Your optimal stress level is the amount that makes you feel motivated to tackle the day's challenges. As a manager, when you notice an employee losing enthusiasm, stress may be the culprit.

Too much stress causes everything from physical illness and increased health care costs to resistance to change and high turnover, negatively affecting your bottom line. Too little stress can be just as damaging.

Everybody has it. Stress doesn't happen to only those who are weaker. According to 2006 surveys from ComPsyche and the Anxiety Disorder Association of America (ADAA), employees cite their top work stressors:
• Deadlines, 55%
• Management, 50%
• Workload, 46%
• People issues, 28%
• Juggling work/personal lives, 20%
• Lack of job security, 6%

The ADAA’s 2006 Stress and Anxiety Disorders Survey found the most common ways employees react to stress:
• Caffeine, 31%
• Exercise, 25%
• OTC medications, 23%
• Alcohol, 20%
• Smoking, 27%
• Eat (46% of women, 27% of men)
• Talk to family/friends (44%, 21%)
• Sex (19% for men, 10% for women)
• Illegal drugs (12% for men, 2% for women)

Fewer than 40% of employees whose stress interferes with their work have spoken to their employer about it mainly because they fear:
• It would be perceived as lack of interest or unwillingness to do something
• Being labeled “weak”
• It would affect promotion opportunities
• Being laughed at or not taken seriously
Of those who did mention their stress, 40% were offered some type of help, usually a mental health referral or a stress management class. Both of these can be helpful but only to those who speak up.

Since an estimated 40% of turnover is due to stress it’s in your best interest to determine what your employees perceive to be their main stressors before jumping in with a plan. Employee surveys, exit interviews and having them write about what bothers them the most at work (probably mostly about situations over which they have little or no control) can help you more accurately identify their major stressors.

Once identified, then put the requisite amount of energy into the goal of preventing or decreasing future stress. Your options range from an occasional brownbag lunch series (but don’t expect much benefit) to individualized plans to help them relax, improve their diet, coping, etc.

Also, educate yourself on what your competitors are doing to help their employees. Some provide concierge services to reduce employee stress while others pay for on-site yoga classes.

One of the most important things to do for all employees, over-stressed or not, is to give them more control over their biggest work frustrations. For example, an employee who’s very distracted by a coworker’s habits (including cracking gum and talking to himself) requested and received the right to work in a different part of the building when necessary.

Next week I’ll share other ideas that organizations are finding successful in reducing workplace stress.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com or call 239-693-8111 for information about her workshops on this and other topics or to invite her to speak to your organization.
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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Workplace stress can hurt an organization’s bottom line
Stress for Success
December 5, 2006

As an employer, whatever decreases staff turnover would positively affect your bottom line, right? Well, consider this:
• 40% of all job turnover is due to stress!

This is huge, especially when you consider the looming employee shortage due to millions of Baby Boomers retiring and so many fewer Gen Xers to take their place.

Companies that weigh the consequences of not addressing worker well-being compared to the payoff of doing so are included in Robert Levering’s book, “The 100 Best Companies to Work for in America.” They have more than twice the earnings per share and more than twice the rate of stock appreciation as the average Standard & Poor’s 500 company.

To help you reduce employee turnover, here is general information about workplace stress. To reduce your specific problems you’ll need to get accurate information from your employees.

Stress leads to an increase in accidents as well as to illness and disease, therefore higher health care costs. When stressed your attention narrows, you become preoccupied, which leads to more injuries.
• Jonathan Torres, M.D., of Workmed Occupational Health Services, ME: workers with high stress are 30% more likely to have accidents than those with low stress. Sixty to 80% of on-the-job accidents are attributed to stress!
• Harvard Business Review reported on average, stress-related accident claims are two times more costly than nonstressed related ones.
• A study of 3,020 aircraft employees: those who “hardly ever” enjoy their jobs were 2½ times more likely to report back injury.

Stress also creates “tunnel vision”, which can cause errors of judgment decreasing creativity and the ability to cope with change. When stressed, humans revert back to familiar behaviors, not something that allows us to adapt in today’s environment of never-ending organizational change.

Other workplace problems created by or at least exacerbated by stress include:
• Interpersonal conflict: the St. Paul Insurance report found the main causes of burnout were interpersonal demands from working with teams and supervisors.
• Violence accounts for 17% of all deaths in the workplace according to a Northwestern National Life study.
• Customer service problems: stressed-out and tired employees don’t treat your customers well enough.
- A Harvard Business Review study by Reichheld & Sasser found a 5% reduction in customer defection translates into a 30% - 85% increase in corporate profitability.
• Loss of intellectual capital: to thrive organizations must be perceptive, agile and responsive to market and customer needs. Stressed-out employees don’t focus on excellence and innovation.
- Jack Quirk of Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Maine: “Organization’s ability to make process improvements nearly always stops due to resistance. With overwhelming workloads … and going so fast, (employees) don’t have time to make the process better. It creates a terrible cycle of trying to work harder … because the volume you have to put out is increasing, but you aren’t doing anything to make the process more effective and efficient.”
- High-stress jobs with low control cause employees thought processes to become more rigid, simplistic and superficial, not a great mindset for innovation.
- Dr. Martin Seligman’s (University of Pennsylvania) research on “learned helplessness” has shown that the more helpless a person feels, the less likely she is to come up with effective coping responses.

For a happier, healthier workforce:
• How can you identify and relieve your employees’ main stressors?
• What can you do to give them more control, therefore less stress, over their day-to-day activities?
• How can you help your employees enjoy their jobs more?

Your answers – and more importantly your actions – that reduce their stress will improve your bottom line.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com or call 239-693-8111 for information about her workshops on this and other topics or to invite her to speak to your organization.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Workplace strain prevalent
Statistics point to employers’ need to make changes
Stress for Success

At a personal level, stress related problems are the new plague of our nonstop, hyper, 21st Century lifestyle. Ignore the negative consequences at your own peril.

At an organizational level, your bottom line is being eaten away by escalating health insurance premiums and workers compensation costs for many ailments that could be prevented by following stress management advice. For example, it’s estimated that occupational pressures are responsible for 30% of workers’ back pain. Eighty percent of workers feel stress on the job and nearly half say that they need help learning how to manage it. Forty-two percent say their coworkers need such help.

Whether or not your organization supplies you with any, part or all of your health care coverage, they should take note. Not only are most employees feeling stretched too thin, but there’s also the looming retirement of Baby Boomers, which will make it harder to fill their vacancies from the next and much smaller Generation X. More than ever, organizations need to make their work environments less stressful and more appealing to retain valued workers.

What follows is research regarding workplace stress. As you read through it, answer these two questions about your employees:
• What can you do to make your workplace less stressful?
• What can you do to give your employees more control (therefore less stress) over their day-to-day activities?

Large surveys done during the 1990s by Northwestern National Life Insurance Co., St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Co., Yale University, among others found:
• 40% of workers reported their jobs were very or extremely stressful
• 25% viewed their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives
• 26% said they were "often or very often burned out or stressed by their work"
• Job stress is more strongly associated with health complaints than financial or family problems

With the increased pressure from living lives that are spinning faster and faster, one of the obvious consequences is increased workplace anger and even violence. The 2000 survey, "Attitudes in the American Workplace VI” and the 2000 Integra Survey found:
• 42% said yelling and other verbal abuse is common
• 18% had experienced some sort of threat or verbal intimidation in the past year
• 14% said they work where equipment has been damaged due to workplace rage • 14% have felt like striking a coworker in the past year but didn't
• 10% are concerned about someone at work they fear could become violent
• 9% are aware of an assault or violent act in their workplace
• 2% admitted to actually personally striking someone
• Additionally they found that 60.2% routinely have work-related neck pain; 44% stressed-out eyes; 38% with hurting hands; 34% with difficulty in sleeping

All of this job stress adds up to a price tag for the United States of over $300 billion every year, with stress causing:
• 40% of job turnover!
• 60 to 80% of on-the-job accidents!
• Annual double-digit increases in workers compensation premiums!
• Repetitive musculoskeletal injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome, the nation's leading workplace health cost accounting for almost one third of workers compensation awards

If all this doesn't convince you of the importance of helping your employees manage their stress better, I don't know what will. The week after Thanksgiving I’ll share more of the research on other negative consequences of job stress, such as increased accidents and resistance to change.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com or call 239-693-8111 for information about her workshops on this and other topics or to invite her to speak to your organization.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

People around the world share the need to be thankful
Stress for Success, November 21, 2006
For who-knows-how-long people around the world have celebrated their annual harvests. Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving in October, the British have Harvest Festival in the fall, Jewish people celebrate Sukkot, the festival of thanksgiving that lasts nine days, and the Chinese have an equivalent celebration during the eighth month of their calendar. Whatever a culture calls it, a day of thanks is a wonderful opportunity to reflect upon your blessings and to be grateful for them.

The first recognized American Thanksgiving meal took place in 1621 with the Plimouth colonists and the Wampanoag Indians celebrating their autumn harvest. The pilgrims continued with this annual celebration thereafter. Or did they?

According to James W. Baker, senior historian at Plimouth Plantation, the first feast was not even called Thanksgiving and wasn’t repeated so it wasn’t the beginning of a tradition. To them, a “thanksgiving” was a religious holiday to thank God for specific blessings. At this first feast the Pilgrims and their new neighbors participated in dancing, singing and playing games, which would never have been allowed at a religious event, making the original feast a secular celebration.

The Pilgrims shared this initial feast with the Wampanoags who had taught them how to survive in their new land. Without them the Pilgrims may not have had successful harvests or endured the harsh winter.

The original feast in 1621 was based on English harvest festivals and lasted three days. After the Plimouth colonists’ first harvest, Governor William Bradford declared a day of thanksgiving shared by the colonists and Indians. Then in 1623 a day of fasting and prayer during a period of drought was changed to one of Thanksgiving because the rain came during the prayers. Gradually the custom of annually celebrating the fall harvest took root in New England.

The Continental Congress during the American Revolution suggested an annual day of national Thanksgiving. In 1817 New York State adopted Thanksgiving Day as a yearly tradition, and by the middle of the 19th century many other states followed. In 1863 President Lincoln appointed Thanksgiving as the last Thursday in November, which he may have associated with the November 21, 1621 landing of the Mayflower at Cape Cod. President Franklin D. Roosevelt set the date for Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday of November in 1939, which was approved by Congress in 1941.

It’s a wonderful tradition and given its pervasiveness in cultures around the world it seems to speak to the human need to acknowledge our blessings. It connects us with family and community in a way that can help us to appreciate the importance of each other in bringing in our harvests, even the modern-day harvest for most Americans, which is through our jobs.

So enjoy your Thanksgiving week. Put your mind into a thankful place with even the craziness that sometimes can accompany such a busy holiday. Give your co-workers, customers and bosses a break. Be grateful you have a job. Forgive your family members or friends whose habits aggravate you. Be thankful you have them in your life instead. Look at life in general this week through grateful eyes. How does that change things? What would happen if we did it 365 days a year?

Happy Thanksgiving!

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com or call 239-693-8111 for information about her workshops on this and other topics or to invite her to speak to your organization.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Limit lifestyle weight gain by dealing with your stress
Stress for Success
October 24, 2006

Cortisol, a fight/flight hormone released whenever you’re stressed, has become the newest excuse for packing on the pounds. However, the research jury is still out on whether high levels of cortisol actually cause weight gain. The minimum that seems to be true is that since the role of cortisol during stress is to provide your body with energy, it can cause an increase in appetite. In other words, stress might lead you to eat more.

"During the first couple of days following a stressful event, cortisol is giving you a cue to eat high-carbohydrate foods," says endocrinologist Ricardo Dr. Perfetti, M.D., Ph.D., of Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. "Once you comply, you quickly learn a behavioral response that you can feel almost destined to repeat anytime you feel stressed."

Another unresolved research question is whether elevated cortisol causes fat to deposit in your abdominal area. Some research shows that abdominal fat causes specific chemical changes that can lead to lower metabolism and cravings for sweets, possibly leading to even more weight gain. Additionally, with more stress and cortisol and less exercise you have a proven recipe for heart disease.

Whether your eating is driven by stress hormones, by habits or a combination of both, research shows that there are ways to interrupt the cycle and stop the weight gain.
Notice how the advice is the same as it is for living a healthier lifestyle.
• Solve your stressors or cope more effectively with them.
• Exercise is always one of the best ways to burn calories and to produce a variety of biochemicals that counter the negative effects of the stress hormones. Exercise helps control your insulin and sugar levels with as little as 20 minutes a day three to five days a week. Be careful, though, because too much exercise can raise your cortisol levels and increase your stress.
• Eat a balanced diet and never skip a meal. Eat six small vs. three large meals a day and include foods from all the food groups. This helps to balance your blood sugar levels inhibiting insulin production and reducing cortisol levels, all helping to control appetite and weight.
• Get enough sleep because when you don't, cortisol levels rise, increasing your hunger.
• Relaxation, much like exercise, produces brain chemicals that counter the effects of stress, whether you do yoga, deep breathing, or meditation, multiple times a week do whatever reaches that sea of calm that’s within you.
• Snack on whole-grain, high-fiber foods vs. the typical American habit of high sugar and simple-carbohydrates like cookies, crackers, chips, which increase insulin levels increasing stress hormones and making you feel hungrier. Cereals like oatmeal or multi-grain flakes, along with fruits, help keep your insulin levels in check, which help control blood sugar levels and ultimately, hunger, according to Pamela Peek, MD, MPH, author of “Fight Fat after Forty.”
• Avoid caffeine, cigarettes and alcohol because these can cause stress and cortisol levels to increase, and blood sugar to drop, which spurs hunger.
• Take vitamins regularly since stress depletes the B complex and Vitamin C, and possibly calcium and magnesium. These nutrients help balance the effects of cortisol and may even play a role in burning fat so take a good multi-vitamin supplement.

If you’re experiencing chronic stress don’t go on a strict diet. Canadian researchers found that severely limiting calorie intake can kick off a series of biochemical events that ultimately increase stress and can make you feel hungrier.

Here’s the bottom line about weight loss. It always has been the bottom line, which suggests it always will be --- until a miracle weight loss treatment is invented. There are two ways to lose weight, eat fewer (and better) calories and burn more of those calories by moving your body more. It’s truly that simple.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com or call 239-693-8111 for information about her workshops on this and other topics or to invite her to speak to your organization.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Take sting out of political differences to reduce conflict
Stress for Success
November 7, 2006

Today is Election Day. I hope you’re planning to vote.

And thank goodness the campaigning is almost over! I’m tired of how too many politicians and much news coverage highlight the wide and deep polarization of our country. Do you ever wonder who or what could possibly unite us short of another 9/11?

I’m old enough to remember the ‘60s’ and ‘70s’ anti-war, civil rights and women’s movements. Does it seem to you (if you’re old enough to remember), as it seems to me, that the political environment of today is much more volatile, polarized and downright hostile than during those raucous decades? There’s even a new TV drama, “Studio 60”, that’s building this relatively new American social schism between the religious conservatives and the more secular population into its plot line.

Like many families, mine has hotly debated countless contemporary political issues. It used to be fun until we started to take it too personally. Since we know we’ll never change each other’s minds we virtually never have those discussions (read arguments) any more.

We’ve also taken an important step. We’ve learned to accept that we all come to our beliefs with good intentions so we don’t demonize each other as ignorant or crazy (not often anyway). This is what I wish for our divided American culture.

It’s perfectly human to have disagreements with others. To take these differences to a much higher, more stressful and polarizing level all you have to do is negatively label each other. “You’re so ignorant, blind, uninformed, self-centered, etc.”

When you label another person negatively it’s like spreading fertilizer on the ground to grow a conflict. When you disapprovingly label another person you’re giving off negative nonverbal signals. The other person picks up on them and reacts more guardedly and defensively toward you and probably joins you in the negative labeling game. You pick up on that person’s resistance and label her even more. All of this leads to an escalating cycle that pits one against the other. The chance for rational discussion, or even emotional discussion that’s tempered, diminishes with each negative judgment.

To reduce political polarization and conflict escalation, counter every negative assumption you make about someone with the facts and behaviors of the situation that you believe justify your negative judgments.

For example, if you believe someone is “naïve” for a belief he has, challenge yourself to identify what he has “done” (factual behavior) that validates your label of naïve. Perhaps he (factually) does not follow the news and argues his position with statements that are clearly inaccurate. You’d get much further if you gathered the facts that dispute his arguments. Let go of labeling him “naïve” and simply present the “facts” to him, (not that this will do much good at changing his mind but it can take the sting out of the encounter).

There’s nothing wrong with political arguments. Discussions would probably be more productive but given how passionately many feel about their positions, argument is most likely a better description of what typically goes on. If you at least want to explore each other’s beliefs in search of common ground or if you insist on trying to convince him (good luck!) drop all negative judgments of him and address only his behaviors and the facts of the situation. Defenses go down and more actual listening to understand can take place. Tiny little bridges of trust begin to develop; slowly but surely respect grows. Be still my heart!
Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com or call 239-693-8111 for information about her workshops on this and other topics or to invite her to speak to your organization.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Cortisol and weight gain ties debated
Stress for Success
October 17, 2006

We Americans, always looking for the quick fix for whatever ails us, want so badly for products such as Cortislim to get rid of excess weight. My advice --- don't hold your breath, at least not yet.

Here’s the theory of the connection between weight gain and cortisol released into your system from stress.

Stress hormones, including adrenaline, which gives you instant energy, along with corticotrophin releasing hormone (CRH) and cortisol, provide the biochemical energy you need to fight or flee your stressors. High levels of adrenaline and CRH decrease appetite at first and for a short time. Cortisol helps replenish your body after the stress has passed, and lasts longer.

The problem, according to Sean Talbot, Ph.D., associate professor with the University of Utah’s Department of Nutrition and the author of the "Cortisol Connection”, is that, "too often today’s response to stress is to sit and stew in our frustration and anger, without expending any of the calories that we would if we were physically fighting our way out of stress or danger (as our ancestors did)."

Your neuroendocrine system doesn't know that you’re not physically fighting or fleeing, so it still responds to stress with the hormonal signal to replenish nutritional stores making you feel hungry. This can lead to weight gain and a tendency to store "visceral fat" around the midsection.

To complicate matters, the "fuel" your muscles need during the fight/flight response is sugar, a reason you crave carbohydrates when stressed, says endocrinologist Ricardo Perfetti, M.D., Ph.D., of Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. "To move the sugar from our blood to our muscles requires insulin, the hormone that opens the gates to the cells and lets the sugar in," says Perfetti, who directs the outpatient diabetes program. And high levels of sugar and insulin set the stage for the body to store fat. "So people who are under stress, metabolically speaking, will gain weight for that very reason."

But according to Mayo Clinic dietitian, Jennifer Nelson, R. D., and physician Dr. Berge Kenneth, there is no reliable evidence that cortisol blockers such as CortiSlim, CortiStress, and Cortistat lead to weight loss. The manufacturers of these products tell you that stress creates high levels of cortisol in your system causing you to accumulate excess fat. Ms. Nelson says what they don't tell you is that this occurs only when your body produces large amounts of cortisol due to side effects of medication or an underlying medical condition like Cushing's syndrome. There's no evidence that the amount of cortisol produced by a healthy person under stress is enough to cause weight gain.

Others, like Dr. Caroline Cederquist, board certified family physician and bariatric physician (the medical specialty of weight management), the majority of whose patients have abdominal weight issues, believes our high stress lifestyles create cortisol-induced symptoms, including the abdominal weight gain. This can also lead to higher cholesterol and blood sugar levels and elevated blood pressure, all factors for heart disease.

The research on the role of cortisol in obesity is still speculative. Blaming your weight gain on stress neglects the fact that you may have developed a habit of eating in response to stress, which is a learned habit, encouraged by brain chemistry. Next week we’ll look at advice from the experts for how to deal with excess weight whether your urge to eat is driven by hormones or habits.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com or call 239-693-8111 for information about her workshops on this and other topics or to invite her to speak to your organization.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Limit cortisol in your body to protect your health
Stress for Success

We’ve known for over a decade that your run-of-the-mill acute stress is not what you need to worry about. You're incredibly resilient to life’s daily challenges. If you care about your health, however, you should be concerned with chronic stress.

Researchers define chronic stress as elevated stress for four to six months or longer. Common examples of people with chronic stress are those whose lives have been disrupted after a traumatic event like a hurricane, long-term caregivers, hot headed people, and those caught up in the runaway American lifestyle multitasking their way through each day getting entirely too little rest.

Chronic stress is a health concern due to the damage done to your body from the ongoing release of your fight/flight hormones, including cortisol. Remember that the fight/flight hormones were intended to protect our ancestors from physical harm giving them the energy to either physically fight or physically run away from wild animals or people. But our ancestors physically acted upon their fight/flight far more often than we do today in our incredibly sedentary lifestyle.

Today most of our stress is mental, not physical, requiring mental solutions not physical attacks or retreats. Today it's inappropriate to punch somebody out or run away from them so when your fight/flight response is triggered you have to slam on the brakes. Over time this energy takes its toll on you physically.

The trick, according to Duke University research, is to balance your stress with rest. Your rest habits strongly influence the negative consequences of your stress. Rest away from your stress could be time out to work on a hobby or literal rest like a nap. The more stressed you are, and the more you’re already paying a physical price for your stress, the more important to your health it is to schedule multiple stress breaks throughout every day. They can be seconds worth of deep breathing to a full eight hours of sleep.

Last week I mentioned three stress breaks that release or relax your fight/flight:
• Deep relaxation
• Physical exercise
• Deep breathing

Here are some additional stress breaks, all of which can reduce your stress, thereby reducing your fight/flight response, including cortisol.

• Tense/relax your muscles: tighten every muscle in your entire body head to toe for about 15 seconds then relax. Repeat two or three times. This physically channels your stress hormones. If you have trouble sleeping at night because you're physically hyper do this nightly before going to sleep. Unless you're drinking 22 cups of coffee daily it should help you sleep better. Or, to avoid the instinct of flying across the table and choking your least favorite person or running away from her, repetitively tense and relax your muscles (just the ones that are hidden from view, of course). This creates greater physical balance therefore mental balance allowing you to think more clearly about how to handle her.
• Yoga: for stress reduction in general, this is one of the best things you can do for yourself. Doing yoga exercises throughout your day relieves the stress you hold in specific parts of your body while channeling your fight/flight energy.
• Laughter: a great way to reduce stress is to find humor in taxing situations. This isn’t always possible or appropriate but usually it is. There’s another benefit to laughter. Humorous thinking is basically the same as creative thinking. So when you’re unable to resolve a stressor, find the humor in it and you'll be closer to finding a creative solution.
• Journal: dump out your deepest thoughts and feelings into a journal.
• Hobby: throw yourself into a hobby that you love.

Anything that reduces your stress in a healthy way reduces your fight/flight response, therefore your cortisol. Next week we’ll take a different look at cortisol; its connection (or not) to weight gain.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com or call 239-693-8111 for information about her workshops on this and other topics or to invite her to speak to your organization.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Stress breaks help the body
October 3, 2006

Did you know that how you rate your own health predicts your future regarding disease and longevity more accurately than the most thorough medical records of you? It makes sense since you live with yourself 24/7. Just as when you drive the same car for a long time and know when something’s off, you also know when you’re not sleeping well or when your digestion is off.

This finding is from fascinating research that recently appeared in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine.

The researchers found that people who consider themselves healthy were found to experience a wider fluctuation of the fight/flight response, including the hormone, cortisol. This means that they aren’t normally stressed so when the fight/flight kicks in, it's noticeable.

Those who feel unhealthy have a higher level of cortisol all of the time, a symptom of chronic stress. In other words, due to their higher level of on going stress they don't notice when the fight/flight kicks in because it's not significantly different from how they typically feel.

Cortisol and other stress-related hormones weaken your health over time when your body isn’t able to relax and recover often enough from your stress.

In both acute and chronic stress over 17 different hormones are released. Acute stress is generally a short-term response by the body to stress and lasts from a few minutes to a few weeks.

Chronic stress occurs when stress is ongoing keeping the body on high alert and is the main cause of stress-related health problems. The hypothalamus and pituitary gland release a chemical known as ACTH, which stimulates the adrenal gland, to produce and release cortisol.

In my most requested keynote, “Slow Down You Move Too Fast”, I identify three groups of people who are at greater risk of illness and disease from the havoc stress plays on your body:
• People with chronic stress
• Hotheads
• Those who are caught up in the runaway American

Monday, October 09, 2006

Local vacations on a budget can lower your stress, too
Stress for Success
September 26, 2006

For the past two weeks I’ve addressed how vital vacations -- whether multi-week or long weekends -- are to reducing your stress and burnout, increasing your productivity, and protecting your health. But not everyone can afford to take time away for financial or scheduling reasons.

Not to worry, there are ways you can and should create time for yourself at home on a minimal budget. To make these local vacations work:
• Develop a vacation mindset. Choose activities that you enjoy. The more different they are from your norm, the better. Pamper yourself.
• Tell people that you’re taking off a specific amount of time and will be unavailable. Carving out and sticking to that specific timeframe allows you to enjoy it more and be conscious that you deserve it.
• Disconnect electronically from everything! Don’t answer the phone or check emails. Spend the day(s) away from your normal pressures and from all that’s typical in your life.
• Eliminate responsibilities and interruptions by arranging for pet care and even child-care if this is a private get-away.

Here are some ideas for local and inexpensive vacations.

Become a local tourist. To discover what there is to do right here in your own backyard, go to the Internet and type in the keywords, “Fodor’s Guide (your home town area).” You’ll discover things to do that you had no idea even existed.
• In planning your itinerary, avoid everything you typically do. So, if you choose to eat out a few times, avoid your usual restaurants. Go to new places with new flavors. Develop an adventurous and exploratory attitude.
• To really get away if you can afford it, check into a nearby hotel that offers some luxury and tranquility; one with a swimming pool and other relaxing amenities. Staying in a hotel keeps you from being reminded of all the work you have at home. Let others do your laundry, cook and deliver your food, and clean up afterwards. It's more self-indulgent.

Other things to relax you:
• Get massages. There’s much research reporting their stress reduction benefits.
• Read a book that you’ve been longing to find time to read.
• Stay in your pajamas all day long; an obvious reminder throughout the day that today is for you to do whatever you want. If you want to "waste" the entire day watching movie after movie, then do it! Do what ever would refresh you.
If you’re in need of rest vs. activity, consider an at-home spa (typically more for women but doesn’t need to be):
• Block out a generous amount of time with no interruptions. Privacy is very important.
• Play soothing music and light scented candles (lavender scents relax you more). There's nothing quite like music you love and candle light to put you in a peaceful frame of mind. They create an ambiance that’s totally different from the typical rat race existence.
• Pamper yourself with a lavender scented bath and soak until your body is relaxed. Use a pumice stone on your feet. Deep clean your face with a masque. And while you're at it deep condition your hair. After, use your favorite scented skin cream and take care of your nails to complete the picture.
Use these ideas throughout the year. Designate at least one day every month to do whatever you find the most restorative. Be nobody’s employee, parent or spouse. As long as it's a defined amount of time, you’re unavailable to others’ demands, disconnected electronically, and you do it with a sense of enjoyment, it’ll lower your stress.
So toss out your guilt for taking care of yourself and enjoy a break from your norm.
Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com or call 239-693-8111 for information about her workshops on this and other topics or to invite her to speak to your organization.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Time off work increases creativity, productivity
Stress for Success
September 19, 2006

"Every now and then go away, have a little relaxation, since to remain constantly at work will cause you to lose power of judgment. Go some distance away because a lack of harmony or proportion is more readily seen."

This is even truer for today's hyper-lifestyle than it was 500 years ago when spoken by Leonardo da Vinci. He understood that getting away from work enhances your productivity and improves your perspective.

He’d probably be horrified with the fatigued, vacation-deficit American; and even more so with the workaholics who participate in a sick competition to see who can take off the least time!

The consequences of the average American working 47.1 hours a week with 26% having no vacation at all include burnout, exhaustion, stress, illness, conflicts, lower productivity and job satisfaction and increased job-hopping.

The more exhausted and burned-out you are, the more you need a variety of breaks.

If you’re an employer who discourages vacation time think again. According to Joanne Chan, over-tired employees’ MRI scans of their fatigued brains look nearly identical to those of sleeping brains! (Vogue, 2003)

I know of what I speak. In the late ‘90s I was burning-out professionally while at the same time taking care of my failing parents. The year-and-a-half of care-giving led to a point that even a month-long vacation wouldn’t have been enough. Additionally, my husband had been burned-out for a few years with his business.

So what cured us? We took off an entire year and traveled the U. S. and western Canada in a huge motor home. Even though our biggest task of any given day was to determine what to explore, it still took me a few months to notice my energy returning. It was an expensive choice but worth it because it restored our mental and physical health.

This isn’t a viable choice for many but if you fail to create time off you’ll pay the emotional, mental and physical consequences some day.

Convince yourself that vacations are simply very good for you. They:
• Promote creativity since changing what you focus on increases your creative juices; the more different your vacation from your normal life, the better.
• Shield you from burnout
• Keep you healthier by lowering your stress and recharging your batteries.
• Strengthen relationships by spending quality time with loved ones and hopefully having fun together.

To take advantage of a vacation’s benefits:
• Leave behind your work, laptop, cell phone, work worries and co-worker conflicts.
• Disconnect electronically completely! (Take a deep breath. Your gadgets will be there when you return.)
• Leave behind any guilt, too. Remind yourself that you’ll be more efficient and effective after a healthy rest away from the normal.
• Leave behind your work/productivity mentality. Some vacations are as structured as a military campaign. Your family may not find your military precision as relaxing as you do. Compromise.
• Have fun planning your vacation. Get into your child mode.
• Do things you love to do. So everybody has fun, plan your get away with your family.
• Wander around wherever you go. Open your mind to adventure and exploring new places.

Go ahead. Request the vacation days you’re due. Be armed with the researched benefits of time off: increased productivity, decreased absenteeism, sick days, employee turnover, medical claims and health insurance premiums. Bring out the big guns if your boss isn’t convinced. Tell him an exhausted employee is like a sleeping employee. Is that what he really wants?

Next week, we’ll look at some ideas of how you can have a great vacation without leaving home and spending lots of money.
Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com or call 239-693-8111 for information about her workshops on this and other topics or to invite her to speak to your organization.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Americans need more vacation to rest, recoup
Stress for Success
September 5, 2006

Va-ca-tion: a time set aside from work, study, etc., for recreation or rest; a holiday.

When's the last time you took a real vacation? If you're like many Americans it's been awhile. We take far too few and the vacations we do take are far too short. The average American takes a dismal three to four days off, according to Joe Robinson author of "Work to Live: The Guide to Getting a Life". One in seven of us takes no vacation at all!

According to Expedia.com’s annual vacation deprivation survey, Americans are leaving an average of four vacation days unclaimed per year.

This lack of leisure and vacation time is a growing problem in America. We’re desperate for time to relax and renew. More than 65% of Americans say they’re stressed and under pressure, in need of more fun, a long vacation, or just simply a break.

No wonder we feel this way. Our obsession with work is unmatched in the industrialized world. Until quite recently only the Japanese worked more weeks per year than Americans. No longer! We now work two and one-half weeks a year more than they and -- hold onto your hats -- 12 1/2 weeks more per year than the Germans! We’re the only industrialized country that doesn’t mandate paid vacation leave. Even China mandates three weeks per year.

A workshop participant said recently that if Americans had as much vacation as the Germans most would probably get part-time jobs to catch up on paying their bills. (It doesn’t seem to occur to them to simply spend less money. I digress.)

Why have we gotten ourselves into this vacation pickle?

According to Robinson, this American vacation deficit began with the recession of the early 1980s and accelerated in the late 1980s with technological advances such as fax machines, desktop computers, cell phones, and subsequently e-mail, blackberries, laptops, etc. These technological "advances" create a growing sense of urgency and impatience, called techno-stress. In the old days you could tell a customer that you'd “get it in the mail today”. It was even okay if it was sent tomorrow. But today people want everything now!

Additionally, organizations have dramatically downsized, leaving most employees doing more work and putting in more hours to get it all done. Between being overworked and dominated by high-tech devices the boundary between work and home has quickly eroded so you may find yourself never completely "off work". This leads to greater stress, irritability, exhaustion and inefficiency.

To add insult to injury our ubiquitous technological gadgets are often taken along on vacations keeping you from totally disengaging, minimizing a vacation’s positive effects on you.

American management also has an unfounded fear that if employees get too much time off they’ll fall behind on their work. But that misses the point: employees who work too much with too few breaks are operating off of too little sleep and tired brains so they’re making more mistakes and having more accidents and conflicts at work. A well-rested (a well-vacationed) employee conversely is more productive, creative and makes fewer mistakes.

If Americans are so desperate for more R & R, why don't we do something about it? Today’s business climate certainly doesn’t encourage plentiful nor lengthy vacations. Plus our own spending habits get us into the bind of having to work more to make more money. To get a much- needed rest, those with a vacation deficit need to make different choices.

Next week, we’ll explore some choices and ideas on how to make better use of vacation time, even if you can’t afford to go anywhere.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com or call 239-693-8111 for information about her workshops on this and other topics or to invite her to speak to your organization.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Avoid boredom on the job to lower your stress
Stress for Success
August 22, 2006

How does this sound: most days at work there’s nothing much to do so you surf the Internet, read a book, or take a nap?

To the overworked and harried this may sound like the ideal job. Think again. According to research boredom with too little to do is one of the biggest contributors to work-related stress. Regardless of your job, boredom can be more stressful and damaging than overwork.

Curt Coffman of the Gallup Organization, which measured employee engagement, said, "We know that 55% of all US employees are not engaged at work. They’re basically in a holding pattern. They feel like their capabilities aren't being tapped into and utilized and therefore, they really don't have a psychological connection to the organization."

Additionally, if your work has little or no meaning, burnout is just around the corner.

According to a survey by Sirota Consulting LLC, based in Purchase, New York, of more than 800,000 employees at 61 organizations worldwide, those with "too little work" gave an overall job satisfaction rating of 49 out of 100, while those with "too much work" had a rating of 57.

"Those who are saying their workload is heavier rather than lighter are more positive," said Jeffrey Saltzman, chief executive of Sirota. "When you say you have too much work to do other things are happening in your head: ‘I'm valued by the organization. They're giving me responsibility.’ That's better than being in the other place where you say I'm not valued in this place."

Bored employees are detached and have "checked out" from their work. Employers suffer as well when the boredom spreads and makes the entire organization feel dull and demoralized, undermining its creativity and competitiveness.

To minimize your own boredom:
• Look around to see who needs help and ask if you can provide it. Pay special attention to helping out in some way that would broaden your own skills and make you more valuable to your organization and more marketable should you decide to leave.
• Identify ongoing and repetitive problems either within the organization or with your customers and seek out creative solutions. Ask many questions about them. “What do we need more of and less of in relation to the problem?” are great questions to start with. Curious people get bored less often and asking lots of questions is an important key as to why.
• Then sell your ideas to management in a way that points out the benefit to them. Will your idea lighten your boss’ load? Will it solve a nagging problem giving her visibility? In other words, how will your idea make your boss look good?
• Ask yourself, “What changes are affecting my organization and our customers?” Areas of change represent fertile ground for unmet needs just waiting for someone to spot and satisfy.

If you're an employer with bored employees the last thing to do is give them busy work, which would make matters worse. Instead:
• Ask your employees why they’re bored and what would make their work more interesting.
• Hire curious people in the first place.
• Enlist the employee’s ideas in solving some nagging problems; identify the changes around you for possibilities.
• Encourage bored employees to let their own curiosity guide them in finding something that needs attention and to make a recommendation for handling it.

Your stress goes up in direct proportion to your boredom. So, the next time at work when you’re feeling stretched entirely too thin say, “Thank you” to your boss for lowering your stress.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com or call 239-693-8111 for information about her workshops on this and other topics or to invite her to speak to your organization.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Make changing easier by using stage-appropriate strategies
Stress for Success
August 8, 2006

Since making changes is so difficult, we need all the help we can get. Increasing your awareness of the change process and the stages you must go through is an important first step.

Last week I wrote about the six stages of change that everyone goes through to successfully change anything, according to the authors of "Changing for Good", Drs. Prochaska, Norcross, and DiClemente.
• Precontemplation: you don't think you have a problem
• Contemplation: you know you have a problem and feel weighed down by it.
• Preparation: you've thought a lot about your problem and you're getting ready to act soon.
• Action: you put your change plan into action.
• Maintenance: continued vigilance and plans for dealing with the pitfalls are needed.
• Termination: your temptation no longer exists, your fight is over.

If you’re attempting to make a change in your life determine which stage you’re in by answering these questions:
• I solved my problem more than six months ago. (If so, you’re in the Maintenance stage.)
• I've taken action on my problem within the past six months. (If yes to this and no to the first question, you’re in the Action stage.)
• I'm intending to take action in the next month. (You’re in the Preparation stage if you answered yes to this and the next question and no to the others.)
• I'm intending to take action in the next six months. (If yes, you’re a Contemplator.)

If you answered no to all statements, you're in the Precontemplation stage.

Now that you know which the stage you’re in, the next step is to figure out which strategies to use. The authors discovered that successful completion of each stage was linked to the use of certain strategies. If you use an inappropriate strategy for a given stage you’ll be more unsuccessful in changing. (Some of these processes require professional help.)
• Consciousness Raising: increase knowledge about yourself and your problem through observation and research during the Precontemplation and Contemplation stages.
• Social Liberation: from the Precontemplation through Action stages pursue new alternatives in the external environment to help you change, for instance no- smoking areas, non-alcoholic beer or low-fat menus.
• Emotional Arousal: express your feelings about your problems and their solutions through psychodrama, grieving losses, and role-playing during the Contemplation and Preparation stages.
• Self-reevaluation: during the Contemplation and Preparation stages assess your feelings and thoughts about yourself with respect to your problem through values clarification, imagery, and challenging dysfunctional thoughts.
• Commitment: commit to act or believe in your ability to change through decision-making therapy for the Preparation, Action, and Maintenance stages.
• Reward: whether from yourself or from others get rewards for making your changes through contingency contracts (e.g., putting a designated amount of money into a shopping account for each pound you lose) and praise yourself for accomplishing even small steps during the Action and Maintenance stages.
• Countering: for the Action and Maintenance stages substitute alternatives for your problem behaviors such as relaxation, desensitization, assertiveness skills, and positive affirmations.
• Environmental Control: during the Action and Maintenance stages avoid stimuli that elicit your problem behaviors through restructuring your environment by removing alcohol or fattening foods from your home, and avoid high risk cues, such as going out with you the gang after work.
• Helping Relationships: enlist the help of those who care and create social support and self-help groups to successfully navigate the Action and Maintenance stages.

Change still won’t be easy, but knowing which stage you’re in and using the stage-appropriate strategies to speed up moving to the next level of change can increase your success rate for any change you want to make.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. Her mission is to inspire you to live a conscious life of personal responsibility in relations with yourself and with others. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com or call 239-693-8111 for information about her workshops on this and other topics or to invite her to speak to your organization.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

It helps to know which stage you’re in when making changes
Stress for Success
August 1, 2006

Do you or well-meaning friends and family pressure you to quit smoking, get more exercise, spend less money or to otherwise make changes that would make your life better? So why don’t you just snap your fingers and make it happen? Oh that we could!

Making changes is usually an arduous process. The path to a stated goal isn’t direct but rather is generally one step forward followed by one or two steps backward, three steps forward with one step back, etc.

Drs. Prochaska, Norcross, and DiClemente, authors of "Changing for Good", have discovered that no matter the change you want to make you must go through certain stages. Whether you make the change on your own or with a support group or a therapist, everyone goes through the same ones. Additionally they discovered that you cannot skip any of these six stages:
• Precontemplation: you don't think you have a problem, like the alcoholic with two DWIs who continues to think she's in control of her drinking. Denial is common in this stage. As a precontemplator you lack information about your problem so you have no intention of changing anything. In fact, if anyone needs to change it's the people around you. The only way precontemplators change is from great pressure from others. Once that lessens, however, they quickly return to their old ways.
• Contemplation: in this stage you’re beginning to feel the pain. You know you have a problem and feel weighed down and stressed by it. You struggle to understand your problem and its causes and to explore possible solutions. You know what your goal is but you're not ready to begin. It’s not uncommon to spend several years in this stage. If you habitually substitute thinking for action you’ll become a chronic contemplator. However, when you start focusing more on the solution than the problem, and thinking more about the future than the past, you’re beginning to push yourself into the next stage.
• Preparation: this is the stage before you take action. You've put a lot of thought into your problem and you're getting ready to act soon. You may have a detailed plan of action of how to make your change. It helps to tell others (public commitment) about your goal and your plans to give you added motivation.
• Action: you put your plan into action, which requires a lot of energy from you. It’s easy to fail in this stage, especially if your acceptance of yourself is very low. When self-acceptance is too low you become overly anxious to change, which can be self-defeating.
• Maintenance: now that you've taken action and you’ve accomplished your goal your problem is solved! Hooray! But you know it too often doesn’t work this way. Continued vigilance and plans for dealing with the pitfalls will increase your success.
• Termination: this is the point where your temptation no longer exists and your fight is over. As you can imagine, many problems never reach this stage.

Figuring out which stage you’re in helps you to move through them a bit more smoothly. If you try to make a change that you're not ready for you’ll probably fail. On the other hand, if you spend too much time working on something that you've already perfected, such as creating your action plan, you may delay action indefinitely.

What stage are you in for one of your desired and challenging changes?

Additionally, for each stage there are certain strategies that will help you move through them more efficiently. By using the stage-appropriate approaches you’ll significantly increase the likelihood of successful change. That’s the topic for next week.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. Her mission is to inspire people to live conscious lives of personal responsibility in relations with themselves and with others. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com or call 239-693-8111 for information about her workshops on this and other topics or to invite her to speak to your organization.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Seek balance in your beliefs to make necessary changes
Stress for Success
July 25, 2006

If you worry about the effects of stress on your mental and physical health but do nothing about them, you're in good company along with half of all Americans. The reason for your inaction might be that you have life-schemas that perpetuate your inertia.

All behavior is dictated by your beliefs. Life schemas are a way to organize your beliefs to more easily understand them and to change them where necessary.

According to the authors of “Why Can't I Get What I Want”, Drs. Kirby Lassen and Elliott, there are two maladaptive schemas and one adaptive one that fall along each continuum in the zones of self-worth, empowerment and relationships. For instance one schema deals with your level of desirability. This continuum runs from feeling undesirable to desirable to irresistible. The trick for your mental health is to have a balance between the extremes, which in this example means to see yourself as desirable.

Here’s the list of all the schemas, which influence your reactions to everything. The first and third of each continuum are the maladaptive ones. The center schema in each is the adaptive, or healthiest one. They're mostly self-explanatory so as you scan through these guess which ones might be keeping you in your unhealthy patterns. (To truly benefit from this concept you’ll need to read their book.)

The self-worth zone:
• Blameworthy - accepting - blameless
• Undesirable - desirable - irresistible
• Unworthy - worthy - entitled
• Inadequate - adequate - perfectionist

The empowerment zone:
• Acquiescent – assertive - domineering
• Dependent - capable - stubbornly independent
• Powerless - empowered - omnipotent
• Vulnerable - resilient - invulnerable

The relationship zone:
• Other-centered - centered - self-centered
• Abandonment - intimate - avoidant
• Undefined - defined - aggrandizing
• Distrusting – trusting – naïve

The trick, remember, is to seek balance between the two extremes.
Let's say that the schema that’s keeping you from making healthier routine choices is the dependent schema. This means that, “you often feel incapable of handling everyday decisions and responsibilities and usually seek help from others.” To become more capable, the authors encourage you to do a cost-benefit analysis for your maladaptive schema. Unless the costs are great enough you aren’t likely to change.

Benefits to being dependent:
• Having someone to depend upon keeps me from being alone.
• When something goes wrong someone will be there to help me.
• Life is easier when someone else handles the decisions.
• If something goes wrong it's not my fault.

Costs to being dependent:
• Some people may get tired of making decisions for me.
• Being dependent keeps me vulnerable and stunts my personal growth.
• My spouse, upon whom I depend, doesn’t encourage me to change my habits possibly because he doesn’t want to change his.
• Sometimes the people I depend upon don't really have my best interests in mind.
• Being dependent makes it more difficult for others and for me to respect me.

The first step in breaking a schema’s hold on you, is to be aware of not only which ones are operating but also their costs. When the cost becomes too great you’ll hopefully find more motivation to change.

The second step is to strive for balance between the extremes; in this example to become more capable and less dependent in making your own daily choices. Making healthier lifestyle choices, even if you start with one little decision at a time, will eventually make it easier for you to actually change your habits, turning your inertia into movement.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. Her mission is to inspire people to live conscious lives of personal responsibility in relations with themselves and with others. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com or call 239-693-8111 for information about her workshops on this and other topics or to invite her to speak to your organization.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Maladaptive schemas are normal reactions to abnormal situations
Stress for Success
July 18, 2006

Last week I addressed how “life-schemas” can explain why some of the 50 percent of Americans who worry that stress is wrecking their physical and mental health do nothing about it. Can a person’s mostly subconscious beliefs keep them in unhealthy lifestyle patterns decade after decade?

In short, the answer is a definite yes.

Everyone interprets life's events through their own personal "schema lens". Schemas are your beliefs about yourself and your world. You tend not to question them but rather react out of them time and time again.

Your schemas develop from your experiences starting at birth, so it’s not like you chose yours. Family, culture, religion, and biology influence them, so no two people develop the exact same ones. “Maladaptive schemas are normal reactions to abnormal life experiences,” say the authors of Why Can’t I Get What I Want, Drs. Elliott and Kirby Lassen. They say that schemas are developed from four channels that carry information to the brain:
• How you're treated
• How you maneuver your world
• What you hear
• What you see

For example, a child whose obese parents overate and were very physically inactive developed life-schemas that dictated his later health practices. When either parent tried to change their unhealthy habits the other would berate him/her for trying to effect genetics. So as not to upset anyone, that parent would go back to his/her usual bad lifestyle. From this repeated scenario their son developed these schemas:
• Other-centered: you shouldn’t do anything to upset your spouse
• Blameless: weight is totally determined by genetics; if you’re overweight it’s not your fault
• Powerless: it doesn't do any good to try to lose weight

As an overweight adult he found himself in an endless cycle of overeating and under-exercising, dieting, and slipping back into his old, unhealthy habits. He probably has no awareness whatsoever that his behavior is driven by his life-schemas.

Elliott and Kirby Lassen say that there are three life-schemas through which we view the world: self-worth, empowerment, and relationships. These “zones” intersect and influence each other.
The most elaborate of all the schemas is the self-schema; your beliefs about your own traits, strengths, weaknesses, preferences, and how you relate to others. Self-schema is the most important one because it’s fundamental to the others. If you have poor self-esteem you’ll also have problems with the empowerment and relationship areas. So, if you have a dependent-schema, meaning that you’re incapable of handling everyday decisions well, the thought of changing bad health habits may seem beyond you.

The second schema is the empowerment zone. This can also adversely affect the others; if you feel powerless, for instance, to make healthier life choices it depresses your self-esteem and can make you vulnerable in your relationships.

Finally, there’s the relationship-schema, which is also hugely important. Maladaptive schemas are the root of most problems and conflicts in relationships and represent your "hot buttons". Each person's schemas interact, oftentimes creating power struggles and conflicts. If you have an “other-centered”-schema you’ll likely avoid doing anything you think would upset another person. You may say yes when you really want to say no.

The good side of schemas is that they give a sense of order to your world. Without them you’d have to work at interpreting everyday experiences every time they occur.

The downside, however, is that your schemas can subconsciously mislead you by distorting your perceptions, thus your behavior.

So, if you worry about the negative effects of stress but do nothing about them, you must increase your awareness (always the first step) of the schemas that inhibit you from changing. Next week I’ll cover the most likely schema culprits for doing nothing to improve health habits.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. Her mission is to inspire people to live conscious lives of personal responsibility in relations with themselves and with others. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com or call 239-693-8111 for information about her workshops on this and other topics or to invite her to speak to your organization.

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Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Life schemas can keep you in bad habits decade after decade
Stress for Success
July 11, 2006

A recent Psychology Today sidebar article said that “half of Americans worry that stress is wrecking their mental and physical health, but very few are taking steps to tackle the problem.” Why?

It went on to say, “One in four Americans say they overeat to comfort themselves, while 25 percent of those who describe themselves as ‘very concerned’ about stress turn to cigarettes for relief of frustration and anxiety.”

Some of the very people who most need to do good things for themselves turn to bad habits. Why? And then why does it too often take a heart attack or some other serious physical breakdown to convince them to change?

Change, even small change that’s good for you, is difficult for everyone.

There are many reasons people continue with bad habits. Some do because they're in a state of denial; they don't think they have a problem. Others may experience "learned helplessness", which means they've learned to be helpless in certain areas of life so don't even bother trying to improve them. These people are often also depressed, yet another reason for not changing.

A helpful psychological explanation for why those who don't replace bad habits with good ones is that they have a "life schema" that holds them in the same unproductive behavior decade after decade, even in the face of deteriorating health.

“Schemas are an information processing program in our minds that interpret and organize life experiences, much as computer software organizes incoming information”, say Charles Elliott and Maureen Kirby-Lassen, authors of Why Can’t I Get What I Want? (Davies-Black Publishing, 1998.)

Schemas create our expectations, so we find what we look for. “You see the world not as it is, but as you are.” Stephen Covey. We interpret situations according to our schemas and react predictably to them.

For example, you received lukewarm applause after a presentation you gave. If you have an inadequate life schema you might respond by thinking, "I must have been really bad." If you have an entitlement life schema you might respond after the lukewarm applause with, "I can't believe they aren't applauding louder. What a lousy audience!"

If you’re one of those who knows stress is wrecking your health and you do nothing about it, perhaps you have a life schema that's getting in your way of changing. Identifying your schema roadblock, challenging it and ultimately changing it would have to happen before any change is likely to occur; and as importantly, to last.

Elliott and Kirby-Lassen say there are basically three types of schemas:
• Self-worth: which includes your sense of adequacy, worthiness, desirability and your ability to accept yourself
• Empowerment: which includes how assertive you are, how capable, empowered, and resilient you perceive yourself to be
• Relationship: which includes whether you’re centered upon yourself or others, your capacity for intimacy, your self-definition and your ability to trust

Which bad habits do you indulge in too frequently that you know you should change for your mental and/or physical well-being? Which areas in the above three schemas would you guess are impeding your ability to make the desired changes?

Over the next weeks we’ll take a closer look at how schemas function and what you can do about them.
Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. Her mission is to inspire people to live conscious lives of personal responsibility in relations with themselves and with others. E-mail her at http://www.jackieferguson.com/ or call 239-693-8111 for information about her workshops on this and other topics or to invite her to speak to your organization.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Celebrate many benefits of living in free society
Stress for Success
July 4, 2006

The Fourth of July is like a big outdoor block party with lots of family, friends, food and fireworks. I love this day, and along with Thanksgiving, it has always been my favorite holiday. They're both such unifying celebrations because all Americans (or virtually all) commemorate them regardless of race, religion or region. And they represent two important American values: freedom and gratefulness.

To sustain our free society a contract between a democracy and its citizenry is essential: for every freedom there is a corresponding personal responsibility.

Let’s define freedom first. A thesaurus lists these synonyms: liberty, independence, choice, free will, autonomy, self-determination and lack of restrictions. Wow! That's a wonderful list of what this country affords us.

It’s truly revolutionary in the annals of human history that each of us has such liberty. To live successfully in a free society you need a great deal of self-determination. In other words, it’s your responsibility to determine what you want your life to be.

Once you figure that out you must then take the next step and make your desired life a reality. Big Brother isn’t here to make it happen for you. A great deal of personal accountability is required to make your vision come true; in other words, you must make the necessary choices to accomplish your goals.

Who you are today is the sum total of all of the choices, conscious and unconscious, that you’ve made over your lifetime, along with the luck of the draw regarding the circumstances of your birth and upbringing. You can’t do anything about the circumstances of your birth, but you do control the choices that you make.

If you've done a great job of taking advantage of our system and putting together a life you’re proud of and happy with, you can pat yourself on the back for your choices. If you're not happy with your life, hold yourself accountable for those choices that got you where you are. For a different life make new and better decisions.

Freedom also requires significant independence and self-sufficiency. For example, compared to socialist nations, our economic system is quite brutal. Our social safety net has much bigger holes in it, requiring us to hustle to make something happen should we lose a job or get into financial difficulty. It’s our responsibility to live within our means and to have a cushion for the down times (even if that means saving only $5 - $10/month every month, year after year.) Or after hurricanes, we’re learning that we must rely upon ourselves the first days after a storm vs. expect the government to come to our rescue immediately. It’s our responsibility to prepare ahead of time.

Another synonym for freedom is lack of restrictions. We certainly have many laws that restrict our behavior in this country, and some would say entirely too many. But compared to most societies we have significantly fewer limitations. (If I lived in Saudi Arabia, for instance, I, a woman, wouldn’t be allowed to drive or vote!) As citizens it’s our responsibility to be educated on the issues of the day and politicians’ stances on these issues and to vote accordingly.

Freedom is a wonderful thing when anchored by personal responsibility. I am free to make my choices and to be responsible for the consequences of them. It sounds fair to me.

Enjoy this great holiday!

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. Her mission is to inspire people to live conscious lives of personal responsibility in relations with themselves and with others. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com or call 239-693-8111 for information about her workshops on this and other topics or to invite her to speak to your organization.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Overcome yes-but and the procrastination it causes
Stress for Success
June 27, 2006

If you want to be a successful procrastinator use the sure-fire technique, the yes-but. "Yes I know that I need to get that done, but not now." It works because it’s obvious what usually follows the but … nothing. "I'd love to apply for that job, but I'm probably not qualified." The yes indicates your interest in the job and the but is the excuse you need to put off trying to get it.

Are you a yes-buter? Dr. Arthur Freeman and Rose DeWolf, authors of The 10 Dumbest Mistakes Smart People Make, say a common reason you may procrastinate in uncomfortable situations is because you have a low tolerance for frustration. But since frustration is a fact of life you'll need to tolerate disagreeable circumstances better if you expect to overcome this very effective stalling practice.

Acknowledging the unpleasantness of your task can help. But don’t go overboard. If your self-talk exaggerates how distasteful the job is you’ll be right back into yes-but. Instead, consciously acknowledge the due date of your commitment and at minimum create a plan of action as described below.

Ultimately, to stop delaying you’ll need to change your yes-but to yes-and. Instead of, "I'd love to apply for that job, but I doubt I'm qualified", say "Yes, I'd love to apply for that job and I need to find out what the qualifications are." Yes-but gives you excuses. Yes-and shows you the steps you need to take.

"Delay is the deadliest form of denial," C. Northcote Parkinson said. So when you hear yourself use the yes-but as an excuse for procrastination immediately do the following:
• Write your project’s goal, e.g., "I want this job."
• Next, list all of the steps you’d need to take to get it, breaking them down
into bite-size pieces:
– Get the phone number for and call the organization for which you want to work
– Ask about the qualifications and if meet them get an application
– Fill out and send in the application
– Follow up with a phone call to the company
– Etc.
• Write down a deadline for each and every step.
• Then commit to each step, one by one. As Mao Tse-tung said, "The journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step." Put one foot in front of the other and take one step at a time.

If you’re unwilling to follow through with these steps, decrease your stress by admitting to yourself that you have no intention of looking for this and possibly other jobs. Being honest with yourself about it means you’re being conscious of your choices. “I choose to not pursue this job because I assume I’m not qualified.” Staying conscious increases the likelihood that one day you’ll make a different choice. Perhaps you’ll even pursue a job you fear you’re not qualified for by throwing caution to the wind and researching whether or not you are.

Get out of the nothing-can-be-done mode and instead focus on a starting point. Each time you hear yourself say yes-but stop yourself and instead say yes-and to see what the implied action steps are that you can begin right now! Then start your journey one step at a time.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. Her mission is to inspire people to live conscious lives of personal responsibility in relations with themselves, with others. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com or call 239-693-8111 for information about her workshops on this and other topics or to invite her to speak to your organization.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Chronic procrastinators need to just start
Stress for Success
June 20, 2006

"Procrastination is the fear of success. People procrastinate because they’re afraid of the success that they know will result if they move ahead now. Because success is heavy, carries a responsibility with it, it’s much easier to procrastinate and live on the ‘someday I'll’ philosophy." Denis Waitley.

Or if you prefer Mark Twain's take on procrastination, he said, "Never put off till tomorrow, what you can do the day after tomorrow."

No matter how you look at it, procrastination is a frustrating habit. But since it’s a learned one it can be overcome. But nothing will change until you get conscious about your habits.

If you’re a professional procrastinator you need to become aware that when you say "later" you really don't mean it. Thousands of “laters” create thousands of opportunities lost. So when you say "later" follow up with, "Later to me actually means never. Do I really want to get this done or not?"

Also become very cognizant of your avoidance habits, which you’ve probably perfected to the point that you engage in them automatically and unconsciously whenever you face an unpleasant task. Keep a journal of your thoughts and emotions when you're delaying. Follow these steps:
• Choose something you’ve procrastinated on each day.
• Describe the activity you put off. Was it unpleasant, confusing, uncomfortable or threatening?
• Write what you were thinking and feeling when you began to delay, for instance, "I can’t concentrate enough right now." Continue to record what you say and/or what you do to prolong your postponement.
• What was your outcome?
• Ask yourself why you're avoiding action. Is it a legitimate reason or just an excuse? Also ask yourself, "What discomfort am I evading?" Usually your answer is based on some unfounded fear.

To get going try these ideas.

• Timothy A. Pychyl, of Ottawa's Carlton University, runs a procrastination research group and suggests, "Make a deal with yourself and follow the 10- minute rule.” Acknowledge your desire to procrastinate then do the task for 10 minutes anyway, to initiate, the hardest step for chronic procrastinators. After working on it for 10 minutes decide whether to continue. Once you're involved, it's easy to stay with the task.
• If you have something to do, do it now or schedule it. If it's not worth the amount of time it takes to schedule, it's not going to get done "later."
• For larger projects write out your goal and list each step you have to take to accomplish it. Schedule each step in your calendar.
• Invest your energy on the important and ignore the trivial.
• Don't demean yourself when you procrastinate because it diminishes your self-esteem so you’re more likely to continue procrastinating.
• Keep a next steps list for all projects; one of the best ideas I've ever learned. For major projects I'm working on I keep a next steps list with an estimate of how long it’ll take to accomplish each one. If I have 15 minutes I'll look over my lists for something I can get done in less than 15 minutes. This furthers your progress in bits and pieces, which is great for those who procrastinate.
• Put the task right in front of you to avoid “out of sight out of mind”.
• Public commitment: Tell someone what you’re working on and when you’ll have it finished.
• Reward yourself when you’ve completed it. Do something just for fun. Give yourself a mental complement.

For chronic procrastinators remember the most important thing to do is just start! So what are you waiting for?

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. Her mission is to inspire people to live conscious lives of personal responsibility in relations with themselves, with others. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com or call 239-693-8111 for information about her workshops on this and other topics or to invite her to speak to your organization.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Take Time to Overcome Procrastination
Stress for Success
June 13, 2006

Have you ever seen “a round to it”? My husband made one for me years ago. It’s round in shape with the words, “to it” encircled, meaning when I get around to it I’ll get it done.

Do you put off something time and again until you get "around to it"? Does this habit get you into trouble with co-workers or family members?

Putting off until tomorrow --- or until never --- destroys more human potential than anything else. Since everyone has the same amount of time, 24 hours a day, the difference between being a Martha Stewart and a dreamer with big plans is usually a great deal of procrastination. It’s set into motion when you put off doing something that you tell yourself you'll get around to it tomorrow, a tomorrow that may never arrive.

I’m not addressing here the normal overload most of us experience that can lead to occasional procrastination. I’m referring to those who turn procrastination into an art form; those who shelve too many things at home and at work until a later time that seems will be better for whatever reason they can summon. I’m talking about those people who can waste an hour to avoid tackling an unpleasant five-minute task.

Dr. Donald Caruth and Gail Handlogten-Caruth, authors of Managing Compensation, identified seven causes (excuses) of procrastination. Identifying your major cause is the first step in overcoming it.
• Fear of success: success requires responsibility and many avoid personal responsibility
• Fear of failure is too great a fear for some to face; if you don't try you cannot fail
• Low frustration level for something that is too difficult or too uncomfortable making procrastination a viable option
• Misplaced priorities; when you don't know what's most important you can’t know where to begin, you may choose easy things to do first putting off the more important
• Poor time estimating; underestimating how long something will take makes it easy to delay because you can fit it in tomorrow; or you put it off because you think it’ll take too long and you don't have enough time right now
• Lack of motivation is common when the anticipated payoff is too small or the effort to produce seems too large
• Perfectionism paralyzes many people into inaction; perfectionists often suffer analysis paralysis, continually needing more information before a decision can be made resulting in procrastination

Timothy A. Pychyl, a professor of psychology at Ottawa's Carlton University, runs a procrastination research group and studies purposive behavior. He suggests that there are two basic ways of functioning in life. The first is the action-oriented approach where moving from task to task is easy. The other is the state-oriented approach, where there is a lot of inertia and procrastination.

State-oriented people rate tasks more negatively; they experience greater uncertainty, boredom, frustration and guilt than do action-oriented people. Frustration seems to be at the core of their procrastination. But irritation is a fact of life. To overcome procrastination they'll need to learn to tolerate frustration better.

Procrastination is a learned habit so you can learn to replace it with better habits. Next week I'll present several ideas to help you get around to it with less stress.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach in Lee County. Her mission is to inspire people to live a conscious life of personal responsibility in relations with themselves, with others and with the environment. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com or call 239-693-8111 for information about her workshops on this and other topics or to invite her to speak to your organization.