Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Enjoy Christmas, overcome stress
Stress for Success
December 25, 2007

The shopping is done, the gifts are wrapped, dinner’s ready (all of the gifts will be opened and the food consumed in a tiny fraction of the time it took prepare it), the family and the guests are gathering. It’s show time! It’s time to enjoy your loved ones and the reasons you celebrate today.

To enjoy today more with less stress focus on what Christmas means to you.

Christian beliefs celebrate the values of love, joy, hope and charity, etc. So when your sister Jean drives you nuts with her argumentative ways focus on your meaning of Christmas, which I assume includes love. Practice an underappreciated Christian value; acceptance of others as they are. (“Judge not lest ye be judged.”) Your aggravation with her won’t change her ways, it just aggravates you. Accept her and love her as she is (take a deep breath).

If you have a secular belief system Christmas is probably about gathering with loved ones. So when someone imbibes too much challenge yourself to look beyond it and to appreciate something about him; albeit perhaps when he’s sober.

For some, today is very painful because of the loss of a loved one. I wish there were words of wisdom to make this day less stressful. Certainly staying busy tends to help. But ultimately, grieving seems to require going through the difficult emotions vs. ignoring them or avoiding them. Journaling can help but probably just a little.

To find greater pleasure in today devise and repeat a mantra throughout the day, especially when something or someone is getting on your nerves. Identify two to three ways you need to “be” to side-step possible hassles. Would you need to be more patient? Less judgmental? A better listener? More assertive? Less Assertive? Calmer? Less defensive? Precede the two to three ways you need to be with, "I am …"

My favorite affirmation that I’ve used dozens of times over years is, "I'm calm and relaxed, accepting and gracious." It worked so well in the original situation for which I devised it that I've used it to center myself ever since. When I have it on my mind before I'm in a situation that’s likely to trigger me, I virtually always remain calm and relaxed, accepting and gracious. However, once I let my emotions get triggered, it's difficult to respond graciously.

Granted, it's a bit late to expect a new affirmation to work 100% for you, but by creating one right now and repeating it throughout the especially challenging moments today, you’ll center yourself so you can more likely “rise above” (as my mother always said) the events that trigger your stress reaction. Whenever you feel your blood pressure rising repeat your affirmation over and over (and take a deep breath).

Use your affirmation to bring yourself back to center to increase your ability to “be” as you want to be today.

Merry Christmas and strive to remain centered.

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

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Shop for gift of reason
Stress for Success
December 18, 2007

Think about what you’re buying vs. what you need
There are only seven more shopping days until Christmas! You'd better hurry!

Or so Madison Avenue would have you believe. But before you buy another gift for your kids, consider this research.

Lan Nguyen Chaplin of the University of Illinois and Deborah Roedder John of the University of Minnesota found that materialistic values, like preferring "nice sports equipment" to "being good at sports", increases between the ages of eight and nine, and 12 and 13. And it’s not surprising that children with low self-esteem value possessions much more than kids with higher self-esteem.

So if you want to give your kids the best Christmas gift ever, spend more time with them and teach them something new, which enhances their competence thus their self-esteem.

Deprivation can also lead to excessive materialism like for those who felt inadequate growing up in a poor household. On the opposite end of the economic scale, if money, status and image were very important to your parents, you may be more materialistic than your friends.

We’re also brainwashed by the media to buy, buy, buy. Advertisers imply greater happiness if you buy their product; has that ever worked for you? Doubtful.

Judith Levine, author of “Not buying it: my year without shopping”, bought only the necessities for an entire year. She not only saved $8,000 she also spent more time with friends and did more meaningful work. She said she felt liberated and also lonely and bored because she couldn’t do things that cost money but still had to replace her shopper’s “high”.

To cut back on buying things Levine recommends:
▪ Research the history and craftsmanship behind products to help you develop your own tastes versus advertisers’.
▪ When you obsess about shopping distract yourself with non-shopping activities, like exercising, reading or volunteering.
▪ See yourself less as a consumer and more as one who pursues what brings you passion and joy. When you spend, do it on what truly makes you happy in the long run versus the short run.

Also, think before you pull out your credit card:
▪ Differentiate between what you “want” and “need”. You need to eat to survive; you want an expensive meal at that trendy new restaurant.
▪ Before you buy something, weight the possible disadvantages versus the benefits of owning it.
▪ Ask yourself why you want something. If it’s to lift your spirits remember if it works at all it works only temporarily. If it's to improve your status remind yourself that extrinsic rewards (e.g., the sporting equipment) don’t work. Intrinsic rewards (e.g., developing your athletic skills) create true self-esteem.

With this year’s less stable economy it’s a good time to reevaluate your spending habits. Don't buy just for the sake of buying. Instead of racing around madly searching for the perfect gift that’s too soon forgotten and too little appreciated, why not spend time with that person doing something interesting as their Christmas gift instead? It won’t be as good for the economy but it’ll be much better for yours.

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

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Always let your body win
Stress for Success
December 11, 2007

It’s comforting to know that your assessment of your own health more accurately predicts your future health and longevity than a review of your complete medical records (see last week’s article). This supports my commitment of always letting my body win.

Your body never lies to you. When you develop a symptom like insomnia, headaches or constipation, your body’s telling you to minimize the cause, therefore the physical symptom.

Those who consider themselves healthy are better listeners, and, according to recent research, experience a positive influence on their endocrine and immune systems, making them healthier. Those who consider themselves less healthy would be wise to listen more.

Tel Aviv University health psychologist, Yael Benyamani, believes if you think you’re in good health you take better care of yourself. Since healthy habits lead to healthy outcomes, exercising, for example, becomes not only good for your health it also supports your perception of good health, which leads to even more healthy habits; a great cycle.

Benyamani also believes that if you think your health isn’t so great you’ll give in to unhealthy habits like smoking, eating poorly and not exercising. Your belief may not only predict but also cause less healthy outcomes. His advice to those who think they’re less healthy includes:
§ Pay close attention to changes in your physical functioning. When your sleep pattern, appetite, energy level, or what Benyamani calls “vague bodily sensations, not things you’d necessarily tie to specific illnesses” deteriorate
they’re red flags to pay attention to.

For any physical symptom that goes on for more than a few days, figure out its cause. Usually there’s a stressor that has been bothering you since or shortly before the symptom onset. Make a commitment to yourself that for all physical symptoms you’ll let your body win by taking appropriate action. Solve your stressor to reduce the stress therefore your physical symptom. For example, if your physical symptom is exhaustion, get more sleep, take more naps, meditate more versus reach for another cup of coffee to keep going!

§ Pay much more attention to your risky behaviors like smoking, overeating, etc., and acknowledge the potential and actual impact they’re having on your physical and emotional self.

If you choose to do nothing different at least remain consciously aware that it’s your choice; maybe someday you’ll make healthier ones.

It’s common to take years to talk yourself out of a bad habit and into a better one. When you’re in this “contemplation” stage of change, use the time wisely and seek information regarding the potential damage the bad habit causes and the benefits of its corresponding good habit.

§ Depression hinders awareness of the negative impact of bad habits and inhibits taking positive action. Consider counseling, which can pave the way for healthier choices.

Get on your own great cycle: pay much closer attention to the invaluable physical information you gather from inside yourself daily. It’s your roadmap to healthier choices, better health and ultimately a growing perception that you are indeed healthy.

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

InterAction Associates
Training & Coaching with a Purpose!

Skill Development Through Training Programs & Coaching
Bridging the Generation Gap
Building Diverse Teams
Workplace/Sexual Harassment
Stress Management
Team Building
Polished Public Speaking
Customer Service
Creative Problem-solving & Decision-making
Much more
All services are tailored to
meet your needs

Monday, November 19, 2007

Keep looking for relief from physical symptoms
Stress for Success
November 19, 2007

When you experience a new physical problem don’t assume that you have to live with it forever. Look for its cause and mitigate it. For instance, recently I've experienced muscle tension in my hips and know it's from sitting at the computer too much. So I bought a new laptop to vary where and how I sit when working.

Also consider treatments you’ve never tried before like foot reflexology (a valid treatment for my mild muscle tension), Reiki (the most relaxed I’ve ever felt), chiropractic medicine (my chiropractor only works on the area behind my right ear, which I find very helpful), among others.

Out of curiosity recently I turned to acupuncture for a new discomfort in my right hip along with the general muscle tension mentioned above. I selected a local acupuncturist to try this 5000 year-old Chinese approach to healing and have been impressed with the three treatments I've received.

Before my first treatment she told me about acupuncture then I described my symptoms. She encouraged me to tell her about anything else bothering me because she could possibly treat multiple symptoms at the same time, depending upon what they were and their severity. So I told her about fatigued vocal chords and a recent diagnosis of falling arches (good grief!). She treated all of these conditions at the same time.

I'm happy to report that after just one treatment my newer sharp hip soreness absolutely disappeared, my falling arch hasn’t improved, but the tension in my hips is much better. Now after my morning yoga it's like I never had that muscle tension. It's like I'm 25 again (okay, 45)!

Granted, my symptoms were minor. If I'd had more serious ones three visits wouldn’t have been enough. Nor are three visits necessarily enough for my symptoms, time will tell. But given my brief and mostly successful exposure to acupuncture my mind is even more open to it than before.

Some people hesitate trying it for fear of the needles. However, the only time I felt a needle pierce was with the one that she placed in my right heel, which was over in a flash and I wouldn't even categorize it as pain. Otherwise I didn’t even feel the insertion of the other needles.

After she placed the needles she left me to relax for 30 minutes, checking back occasionally, after which she removed the needles and I was on my way. There was nothing uncomfortable or scary about the experience; in fact it was downright interesting and beneficial.

I’m not suggesting that you should try any and all alternative medical treatments. But if your physician hasn't been successful in treating you then do some research into what else is available. If you don't like taking prescription drugs, which Western medicine so quickly prescribes, you'd be an even better candidate for acupuncture.

Ultimately I encourage you to look for something to minimize negative symptoms to feel better, which allows you to remain active, which is good for your physical, mental and emotional self, not to mention your stress level.
Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com with your questions or for information about her workshops on this and other topics and to invite her to speak to your organization.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Try acupuncture to relieve tension and to quit smoking
Stress for Success
November 13, 2007

Americans are increasingly turning to “alternative” medicine to treat what ails them; often they’re trying Acupuncture.

As I described last week, Acupuncture is based on the belief that when Chi (life energy) is blocked as it travels throughout your body’s energy pathways (meridians) it throws Yin and Yang out of balance causing illness or discomfort. Acupuncture restores the balance by inserting very fine needles into Acupuncture points to facilitate the even circulation of Chi.

Without realizing it, my first encounter with this ancient Chinese approach to healing was back in the 1980s when, out of curiosity, I tried foot reflexology. This is a form of acupressure, which uses fingers or an instrument vs. needles to stimulate ankles and the soles of the feet. It’s based on the belief that different parts of the feet are connected to specific parts of the body. By stimulating the appropriate part of your foot you can reduce the discomfort for the physical problem you’re trying to remedy. For instance, to get relief from sciatic nerve discomfort you would apply pressure to the inner part of your heel.

Our ancestors got plenty of natural acupressure opportunities. They walked on actual earth (vs. concrete) with either no shoes or less “constructed” ones, frequently stepping on pebbles and other hard or sharp objects. This sent an electrical impulse to the corresponding part of the body from the part of the foot that was stimulated. With enough repetitions these small “shocks” cleared out obstructing crystals that cause physical problems. The next time you walk on the beach and step on a shell notice this jolt of energy and in which part of your body (other than your foot) you feel it.

Not only did reflexology feel good to me, it had impressive results for my minor muscle tension.

I have a caution, however. After receiving treatment from a professional I bought a reflexology book and tried it on my husband, who was very skeptical of the practice. The book said to use a pencil eraser and apply as much pressure as possible to the soles of the feet. I did. For the next couple of days, he couldn’t open his jaw! He became a believer that I had over-stimulated something that was apparently connected to his jaw.

My husband had our next experience with another form of Acupuncture, Auriculotherapy (ear acupuncture) to help him quit smoking. Three electrical jolts were sent into each ear lobe to decrease his cravings. (This can also be used to treat other addictions.) It was only intended to help him through the first three days of withdrawal, but those were the worst. So, for it to work, you must want to quit. It was the only treatment that ever helped him kick this unhealthy habit of thirty years.

My most recent experience with Acupuncture was just recently. After writing an article about successful Acupuncture treatments for headaches that lasted for months, I decided I’d finally try it and that’s what I’ll address next week.
Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com with your questions or for information about her workshops on this and other topics and to invite her to speak to your organization.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Try acupuncture for what ails you
Stress for Success
November 6, 2007

Recently I wrote about research findings of acupuncture treatments for chronic headaches lasting for months. I’d long been curious about Acupuncture so I decided to try it for myself.

In today’s column I’ll explain this ancient treatment. In following ones I’ll describe my own experiences with it.

To me, any “successful” treatment that has stood the test of time is worth considering. Acupuncture certainly meets this criterion. Chinese have practiced it for about 5,000 years for pain relief, the prevention and treatment of disease, and anesthetizing surgical patients.

It’s based on the belief that every living creature has the universal life energy called Chi or Qi, which includes the spiritual, emotional, mental and physical. This energy travels throughout your body along pathways called meridians.

Chi is comprised of two parts: Yin and Yang, which are opposite forces, and when balanced, work together. Yin is represented by female attributes: passive, dark, cold and moist. Yang is signified by male attributes: active, light, warm and dry. Nothing is completely one or the other.

When Chi’s flow is blocked or unstable, Yin and Yang are thrown out of balance, which causes illness. Acupuncture, which literally means “needle piercing”, restores the balance by inserting very fine (and disposable) needles into Acupuncture points (where the meridians come to the skin surface) to facilitate an even circulation of Chi.

Acupuncture commonly treats:
۰ Addictions including food, alcohol, drugs, cigarettes
۰ Arthritic conditions
۰ Headaches, including migraines
۰ Allergies
۰ Tendonitis
۰ Lower back pain, etc.

Besides needle insertion other treatments include:
۰ Cupping: stimulation of acupuncture points through suction; the partial vacuum produces blood congestion at the site of the physical problem; used mostly for low backaches, sprains, soft tissue injuries and relieving fluids from the lungs caused by chronic bronchitis
۰ Auriculotherapy (ear acupuncture): ears have a rich nerve and blood supply and believed to be connected to points throughout the body facilitating treatment of many disorders
۰ Moxibustion: applying heat to acupuncture points used for bronchial asthma, bronchitis, some types of paralysis and arthritic disorders
۰ Acupressure: the use of fingers or an instrument vs. needles; e.g., foot-reflexology where the soles of the feet and ankles are stimulated

There are many attempts to explain why acupuncture seems to work, including that it:
۰ enhances the immune system by raising triglycerides, certain hormones, white blood counts, etc.
۰ stimulates secretion of endorphins, serotonin and noradrenalin
۰ releases vasodilators such as histamine constricting or dilating blood vessels
۰ regulates the part of the nervous system that perceives pain

While not all are convinced, western medicine increasingly accepts Acupuncture. The World Health Organization recognizes more than 30 diseases or conditions, ranging from allergies to tennis elbow that can be helped by it. In 1997 the National Institute of Health stated that for headaches, low back pain, menstrual cramps and carpal tunnel syndrome, “Acupuncture was useful as part of a comprehensive pain management program.”

With Acupuncture’s emphasis on prevention and its 5,000 year track-record I think it has earned our consideration as a treatment option.
Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com with your questions or for information about her workshops on this and other topics and to invite her to speak to your organization.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Follow the advice in these quotes to manage conflicts better
Stress for Success
October 30, 2007

Often times in my presentations I use pithy quotes to make important points regarding my subject matter. Last week I wrote about two of my favorite ones that communicate great advice for managing conflicts:
۰ “I train people how to treat me.” -- Source Unknown
۰ "If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always gotten." -- Dr. Susan Jeffers
These shed light on how we’re responsible to some degree for the outcome in all of our conflicts. Can you see that your reaction in a dispute trains the other person to expect you to behave similarly in the future? For example, if someone comes to you frequently to dump out her heart, isn’t your listening teaching her to come and talk to you again?

If you want to teach her to come to you less often respond differently; if you always listen she’ll always expect you to.

The Bible verse, "Judge not lest ye be judged" also applies to most conflicts since it’s so typical to negatively judge someone with whom you’re having a conflict. Negative judgments are mostly adjectives that describe the person, such as, dependent, arrogant, lazy, good for nothing, etc.

In the above example, when your colleague comes to confide in you for the umpteenth time, you hear yourself think, “Oh not her again! If I hear one more complaint I’m going to scream!” Even though there’s no literal judgment included in this self-talk, it implies one.

No one likes to be judged. Even if you never speak your judgments out loud they leak through your nonverbal communication. When your supplicant approaches you to talk to you again she’ll probably sense something negative coming from you (although some people will be oblivious). If she perceives herself being judged she’ll likely get defensive and resistant.

Rather than the judgmental rolling of your eyes, it would be better for both of you if you’d assertively set limits regarding how frequently, for how long, or if at all, you’re willing to listen to her.

One more quote that’s helpful in dealing with conflicts is, "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem." -- Eldridge Cleaver. If you’re unhappy with the outcome of a situation and you're unwilling to change anything that you’re doing then you’re part of the problem. If she continues to waste your time with her problems and you keep listening, you’re complicit in this undesirable outcome. Put the ball into her court by changing what you’re doing. Train her to treat you differently. She’ll almost have to respond differently in answer to your change. Keep changing until you either run out of options or you get better results.

Take responsibility for what you contribute to every outcome you experience. Instead of judging how the other person is wrong, focus on your own behavior and ask how it influences the outcome. Then, if you’re not satisfied with how the situation is turning out, do something different!
Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com with your questions or for information about her workshops on this and other topics and to invite her to speak to your organization.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Changing dance steps may bring different outcome
Stress for Success
October 23, 2007

"I train people how to treat me." (Source unknown)

Think about this in reference to a conflict you're having. It’s so easy to blame the other person, which conveniently allows you to ignore your own complicity. What are you doing to influence the outcome in your conflict?

For example, wives often complain that their husbands aren’t doing enough housework. The tasks, however, somehow seem to get done, but by whom? By her, probably. If so, she’s training him not to do anything because she will.

Harriet Lerner, the author of “The Dance of Anger” likens interpersonal behaviors to a dance. You teach each other your dance steps that eventually become the pattern of your relationship. To change your relationship change your dance steps which, invariably forces the other person to change back to you. It doesn’t always bring the outcome you want so you may have to change your dance steps again and again.

If you want him to do more housework, stop doing it all yourself. Train him not to expect you to do everything. Put the ball into his court by negotiating a fairer deal or by announcing what you will and won’t do, then let him decide how to respond.

Ultimately, if he never shares the work no matter what you do, you have a decision to make. A TV marriage counselor asked a wife who was complaining about this very issue with her husband, “Is this a divorceable issue?” The wife answered, “No, of course not.” The therapist said, “Then let it go. Stop trying to change him.”

Not fair, you say? Perhaps, but you still have choices. If you continue doing everything you’ll have taught him you’ll change your dance step a few times but if he holds out long enough, you’ll cave.

All I know is that "If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always gotten," (from the book "Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway" by Dr. Susan Jeffers). This is the bottom line rule in dealing with conflicts: change what you’re doing if you want a different outcome.

Like with coworkers who constantly ask you to help them with software problems you’re training them to ask you when you comply. If you keep fixing they'll keep requesting. Ask yourself, “What are my options?” To get a different outcome do something different.

Since you’ve trained them to come to you it only seems fair that you give some warning before you stop helping them. You could say, "I know I've fixed your computer problems in the past, but I really don’t have the time to help, so I’ll help you one more time, then you’re on your own."

Why should anyone change when they’re happy with the way things are? Whoever isn’t happy is the one who needs to adjust. Since waiting for others to change proves to be a very long wait, figure out what outcome you want and which dance steps would most likely lead you there. Then start dancing your new step.

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

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Conflicts can lead to stressful power struggles
Stress for Success
October 16, 2007

Too often we assume in conflicts that only one party can get his or her way. If you get what you want then that must mean I won’t get what I want; the infamous win-lose formula, which leads to power struggles and stress.

Conflicts tend to escalate when participants fight for what they want, for what’s called their “positions”. To de-escalate it would be better to focus on their “interests,” which expose additional options not seen from a position-only-focus.

Your position in a conflict is what you want. Your interests are why you want what you want. Here’s a simple example.
۰ You and your spouse are discussing what you’ll do on Friday night. You want to go to the beach and he wants to go out dancing. If you’re stuck in a power struggle you’ll both probably fight to get your way; if the other seems to be “winning” you’ll fight harder.

Instead, ask why each of you wants what you want.
۰ Why do you want to go to the beach? “To spend a quiet and relaxing evening, just the two of us,” you say.
۰ Why does he want to go dancing? He wants exercise.

Are there other things you could do that would be relaxing for you and provide exercise for him? (Keep it clean.) You could dance on the beach, go to a beach restaurant at sunset and dance, walk the beach, or you could dance at home. You get the picture.

Here’s a more typical and complicated conflict example. Two colleagues are working on the same project. Kim tells Don she has to move up the deadline, which Don says he can’t meet. Each party’s position; what each wants:
۰ Kim wants to move up the deadline
۰ Don wants to leave it as is

Each person’s interests are identified by asking why each wants what they want:
۰ Kim wants to move the project to the next level before her vacation, for which she already has reservations
۰ Don needs the time as originally planned to do a thorough job and besides coaching his son’s soccer team takes up his extra time

Do their interests suggest ideas that could resolve this conflict?

To satisfy Kim’s desire to move the project to the next level before her vacation could they put more time into the project before she leaves? This would allow her to feel comfortable with their original deadline. If necessary, she could help him with his other deadlines to free up his time to accommodate this temporary, extra workload. She could enjoy her vacation knowing that he continues to work on their project in her absence doing his desired, thorough job. Upon her return they could finish up the project and meet their original deadline.

For this idea to work, a solution must be more important than winning. If winning is more important to them then they could take off their gloves and go for it. And may the better fighter win.

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

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Balance life between today, pursuit of goals
Stress for Success
October 9, 2007

Balance: a state of equilibrium, equal distribution of weight, amount, etc. Seeking balance in your life is a cornerstone of stress management; such as don’t under- or over-exercise, if you’re too passive you’d be wise to become more assertive, etc.

Recently I’ve addressed an excellent book, “Finding Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, where the author encourages you to live your life by setting and working toward goals that stretch your skills. Following his advice can create a life of greater meaning and happiness. Creating “flow” activities also discourages your mind from ruminating on the negative.

But some people take this to the extreme, putting far too much energy into pursuing goals leading to a state of imbalance, focusing continually on the future while missing much of today. Like the hard-driving “successful” person who rides right into a beautiful sunset without even noticing it. Being goal-oriented is great but not to the exclusion of the here and now.

Others would say focusing on future goals is largely a waste of time because as Buddhism believes one’s reality is in the present moment; the here and now. To practitioners, focusing on the future means missing reality. Besides, working so tirelessly on goal attainment often doesn't bring you the satisfaction you’d hoped for anyway. Another benefit of living in the moment is that it facilitates mental and emotional balance because it means giving up your worries about the future and your regrets about the past.

But focusing exclusively on the here and now may not prepare you for the future.
The reality of living in our economic society, for example, requires knowing where your next paycheck is coming from to pay bills and that requires at least some level of planning for the future.

This is where balance comes in. Over-focusing on tomorrow means missing today; ask any parent who has over-focused on a career and missed out on kids growing up.
Whereas over-focusing on today may find someone in love with the spontaneous but forgetting important work deadlines or other commitments.

The trick is to seek balance. The more an imbalance pushes down one side of the scale the more you need to rectify it by doing something very unlike the cause to create a better equilibrium. Then watch your symptoms of imbalance begin to dissipate.

For example, you high-speeders racing into the future might want to balance your goal-focused tendencies by increasing your mindfulness of things you do daily like eating meals slowly and focusing your attention on the flavors, textures, and sensations of the food. Regular meditation would be great for you.

Or if you tend to mostly live in the moment scraping together your rent money, prepare a budget and figure out where your necessary income will come from. Set goals of how to adjust your income and expenses.

Balancing how much you focus on the present and the future allows you to enjoy the opportunities of the moment as well as plan for and secure your future.

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

Monday, October 01, 2007

Flow activities can help decrease negative thinking and feeling
Stress for Success
October 2, 2007

When you’re not actively focusing on something do your thoughts easily drift to what’s wrong in your life? Shad Helmstetter, author of “What to Say When You Talk to Yourself”, reports that the average person experiences 80% negative self-talk! Now that’s stress!

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of "Finding Flow", says that when your attention isn’t focused on goals your mind wanders and settles on the negative. This leads to distracting yourself through passive leisure activities like TV, drugs, etc.

Operating in flow prohibits distracting thoughts and negative feelings because your attention is so focused on accomplishing something. Minor aches and pains also drift to the background of your awareness.

Csikscentimihalyi says to create goals on which to focus. “… goals shape and determine the kind of person you become. Without them it's difficult to develop a coherent self.”

To balance your moods, strive for "flow" through clearly defined goals that require stretching your skills to overcome a challenge that’s almost manageable; not too easy nor difficult. When in flow you're motivated and focused on the activity which becomes effortless, even when the goal is difficult to achieve. You can lose track of time. To be in flow also requires that you receive valid and immediate feedback on how well you're doing. So in dealing with an upset customer your feedback is how quickly (or not!) he calms down.

Don’t assume that leisure produces most of your flow experiences; especially if you spend your leisure time passively, without goals and without stretching your skills. This only fuels stressful thinking.

As I stated last week, Csikszentmihalyi has found that most of our flow comes from work. Some jobs don’t offer much opportunity for flow, however, because:
· the work is meaningless
· it provides no variety or challenge
· it's too stressful especially when there’s many interpersonal problems

To create more flow on the job your challenge is to put more meaning into your work. Don’t wait for your boss to do it for you. Figure it out yourself:
· Add value to any task by knowing how it impacts the entire operation. E.g., Filing paperwork seems meaningless unless you understand that it facilitates your coworkers’ quick access to information so they can improve customer service.
· Accept that the way things are being done is not necessarily the only way. Look for new and better ways to improve the outcome.
· Match your skills to each challenge. For example, a toll booth worker decided to make her job more interesting and challenging by setting a goal to get 25% of her customers to smile at her as they tossed their money at her. After she achieved that, she increased her goal to 50%. When this no longer motivated her she’d look for other ways to improve.

So take charge of your moods and thoughts by focusing on your task at hand, whether pleasant or unpleasant, leisure or professional. Set and achieve goals that challenge your skills and notice your unpleasant moods start to fade.

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

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

It’s back to work, say goodbye to summer
Stress for Success
September 25, 2007

Labor Day has past so it’s time to say goodbye to summer. The kids are back in school and you’re back to the work "grind". But take it from me you’d be bored to be on vacation every day.

After nine months of our year-long sabbatical (motor-homing around the country) my husband and I were both ready to return to a "normal" life. A Canadian RV park manager said it perfectly, "You can only play so long."

It's very common for us to dread work and live for our weekends. Bill Cosby did a great stand-up routine poking fun at the Americans who drag themselves through their work-week anxiously awaiting their weekends just so they can stuff themselves with every bad habit, food, and drink possible. Then they haul themselves back to work on Mondays to suffer through yet another work-week.

But humans need much more meaning than this and much of it comes to us from work, psychologist and author of "Finding Flow", Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, found. Most of our “peak experiences” are from work.

In the introduction to his book, Csikszentmihalyi says, “… we often walk through our days … out of touch with our emotional lives. As a result of this inattention, we find ourselves constantly bouncing between two extremes: during much of the day we live inundated by the … pressures of our work and obligations, and during our leisure moments, we tend to live in passive boredom."

To avoid this uninspiring lifestyle he encourages us to engage in activities that require a high degree of skill and commitment. Instead of watching television, perfect a hobby; transform a routine task with a new goal, “learn the joy of complete engagement” by making desirable and undesirable tasks into “flow” activities by:
· Defining your goal
· Creating a sense of control
· Getting relevant feedback on how you’re doing
· Stretching your skills to reach your goal
· Having uninterrupted focus
· Appreciating what you’re doing but it isn’t necessary

For example, for me, skiing is a flow activity.
· My goal: enjoy the challenge while getting safely to the bottom of the hill
· I mostly ski within my limits to give me control
· My feedback: not falling too frequently and reaching the bottom in one piece
· Believe me, I’m stretching my skills just to ski
· The time is uninterrupted; I’m completely focused
· I love the challenge, the beautiful surroundings, and the wind rushing by my cold ears!

You can even make mundane chores, like mowing grass, less undesirable:
· Make a goal to mow it more efficiently or neatly
· Your new goal gives you control
· Your feedback is whether or not you accomplish it
· Make your goal require stretching your skills to reach it
· Focus completely on the task to accomplish your goal
· Appreciate your improved outcome

Boredom and lack of motivation are very stressful states. Make your life much more interesting and fun by turning daily activities into flow activities.

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

Monday, September 17, 2007

Consider alternative treatments for headaches
Stress for Success
September 18, 2007

If you experience frequent headaches and the medications you’re taking aren’t working effectively, why not consider natural treatments instead?

Since stress is a major cause of and contributor to headaches it makes sense that alternative treatments for them are familiar stress reduction recommendations: biofeedback and relaxation (well documented as effective headache treatments), acupuncture, massage, herbs, and diets (less well documented as effective).

Let’s start with biofeedback. Small metal sensors attached to your skin measure muscle tension, brain waves, skin temperature, and other vital signs. Stress, through the fight/flight response, reduces skin temperature by constricting blood vessels while relaxation dilates them warming the skin.

According to the Cleveland Clinic biofeedback trains you to send blood flow to your brain for headache management. Most studies show that it reduces the frequency and duration of headaches in children and adults and seems equivalent to many headache medications. And there are no side effects!

Next is acupuncture, the ancient Chinese technique that inserts small needles into specific body points. Acupuncturists believe that illness and pain develop when the natural flow of "chi", the energy that circulates through the body’s meridians, is disrupted, causing an energy imbalance. Acupuncture corrects this imbalance.

It appears that acupuncture may cause the release of pain reducing chemicals, such as endorphins. The World Health Organization recognizes more than 30 diseases or conditions, ranging from allergies to tennis elbow that can be helped by acupuncture. In 1997 the National Institute of Health stated that for headaches, low back pain, menstrual cramps and carpal tunnel syndrome, “acupuncture was useful as part of a comprehensive pain management program.”

Acupuncture’s effects may also be ongoing: in a recent study chronic pain in the neck and shoulders and subsequent headaches were reduced for months.

Another alternative treatment is massage, although clinical trials haven’t demonstrated its value in headache treatment. Since it reduces muscle tension in the back of the head, neck, and shoulders by increasing blood flow it may reduce muscle tension headaches.

Some people swear by the use of herbs for headache treatment and prevention. Feverfew is the most popular herbal remedy for migraines, with studies showing that it’s helpful and well-tolerated, with only mild side effects. However other evidence has found it no more effective than placebos.

Another headache treatment is aromatherapy. There’s some evidence that the use of lavender, ginger and peppermint oils may help relieve tension headaches.

Avoiding certain foods, such as chocolate, aged cheese, citrus fruits, red wine and others, may limit headaches for some if you know which food is causing your headaches. First you’d need to keep an accurate diary of headaches and eating habits. More research is needed to determine if making dietary changes actually reduces headaches. However, significant reduction in migraine headaches has been observed when:
· dietary fat consumption is reduced
· supplementing the diet with omega-3 fatty acids

Since stress strongly contributes to and causes many headaches consult with your physician to decide if a natural versus “medical” approach would be better for you.

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

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Know what could be causing headaches
Stress for Success
September 11, 2007

Have you ever wondered if your headaches are just headaches or if they're symptoms of something more serious, even life threatening?

"Primary" headaches such as migraine, tension and cluster are just headaches; they’re not caused by other illnesses. “Secondary” headaches are caused by a physical condition or from medication, such as:
· brain tumors
· subdural hematomas (caused by head trauma)
· epidural hematomas (usually from skull fractures)
· meningitis and other infections
· strokes
· sudden onset of severe high blood pressure
· sudden elevation of pressures inside the eyes
· sinusitis
· hypothyroidism
· Parkinson's disease
· cardiac ischemia
· medications such as estrogen, progestins, calcium channel blockers used to treat high blood pressure, and some serotonin reuptake inhibitors used to treat depression
· overuse of over-the-counter or prescription pain relievers
· withdrawal from caffeine or analgesics

If you have on-going headaches, it’s very important to check with your physician to determine their cause rather than assuming they’re “just” headaches.

As I wrote last week, the most common primary headache is a tension headache, which virtually all adults will have at some point. They’re mostly stress related.

The other primary headaches can be more chronic and are also strongly influenced by stress. The National Headache Foundation reports that 45 million Americans suffer from chronic headaches of one kind or another and spend more than $4 billion annually on over-the-counter relief.

Migraine headaches are the second most common type of primary headache with about 12% of the population experiencing them (approximately 6% of men and 18% of women). Because they’re often undiagnosed or misdiagnosed as tension or sinus headaches many sufferers don't receive effective treatment.

Cluster headaches are a far rarer primary headache, affecting .1 - .4% of the population. Approximately 85% of sufferers are men. These more severe and one-sided headaches occur, as the name implies, in clusters usually from one to eight headaches a day. For 90% of sufferers, the clusters occur intermittently. For the remainder the clusters are chronic meaning there’s no remission for more than one year or remission for fewer than 14 days.

If you experience frequent or chronic headaches and routinely medicate yourself, you can actually worsen your pain by causing “rebound headaches,” according to Ken Holroyd, professor of health psychology at Ohio University (holroyd@ohio.edu.). “When you take pain-relieving medication regularly, your body adjusts to that level of medication. Rebound headaches may then occur between medication doses or if you don’t take the medication. For some this can be a cyclical problem. They take medication for a headache, get more headaches, take more medication, and so on. This cycle needs to be broken before headaches can be effectively treated.” Antidepressants and other tricyclics, also used for headache treatment, don’t cause this rebound effect according to Holroyd.

If you experience frequent headaches, you and your physician need to decide if they’re primary or secondary. Rather than automatically medicate yourself try stress reduction to reduce primary headaches. This leads to fewer headaches as well as enjoying the additional benefits of lower stress.

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

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Try stress management techniques to relieve tension headaches
Stress for Success
September 4, 2007

You're behind on two work projects that are due next week, not to mention the sorry shape of your house. One of your kids needs braces and your mortgage payment is overdue. Life is just too stressful! You reach for the aspirins as you feel a headache coming on again.

Your headache pain probably gradually begins at the back of your head and upper neck, tightening like a band of pressure on both sides. It’s not usually disabling but it makes coping with anything stressful more difficult.

Tension headaches are the most common type of headache and most adults occasionally experience them; women more so than men. They’re called episodic if you have them on fewer than and chronic if on more than 15 days per month.

There’s no single cause, for instance, they’re not an inherited trait. It’s commonly believed that tension headaches are caused by - you got it - tension or stress. Symptoms can include:
· Irritability
· Waking up with a headache
· Chronic fatigue
· Trouble falling and staying asleep
· Muscle aches
· Loss of focus
· Dizziness

Tension headaches are red flags telling you to reduce your stress. Rather than simply medicating yourself with aspirin, try these ideas:
· Consciously deep breathe for a couple of minutes every hour on the hour to limit your headaches. Inhale deeply and as you exhale imagine the breath slightly expanding the part of your head that aches.
· Do deep relaxation several times a week.
· Free up time daily by not doing unimportant chores and invest that time into creating quiet time for yourself.
· Reduce complaining about things; ask if what you’re complaining about is within your control. If it is identify and pursue your options in dealing with it.
· Stop worrying about anything that’s beyond your control.
· Get regular, daily exercise even if only a relaxed walk vs. cardio-vascular exercise. Do yoga.
· Look at stressors through humorous eyes to diminish the tension they create.
· Do something fun on a regular, at least weekly, basis to make every-day stress easier to deal with.
· Eat a healthy diet rich in fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains to give you more energy.
· Consider biofeedback or counseling to reduce your tension headaches.

If these traditional stress management techniques aren’t enough to quell your chronic tension headaches, which 2 – 3% of Americans have, consider using antidepressants along with stress management techniques. Findings from an Ohio University clinical trial, published in the May, 2001 Journal of the American Medical Association, suggest a combination of antidepressants and stress management therapy can cut the frequency of chronic headaches by as much as 50%! This combination is more effective than medication or stress reduction alone. Additionally, those subjects receiving both treatments were able to discontinue antidepressant sooner than those receiving antidepressants only.

Headaches are a real pain. Look at them as symptoms of stress needing to be resolved and go to http://nationalheadachefoundation.com to learn more. Information is power.

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

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Decrease the stress of more work with less support by focusing on your priorities
Stress for Success
August 28, 2007

Has your workload increased as your workforce decreases? Whether your organization is laying off employees or having problems hiring enough qualified ones, step back and evaluate what you're doing to assure that you’re doing the most important things.

If you’re in a near constant race against time it’s easy to become distracted by what’s urgent but unimportant. If you simply add more tasks to your previous workload hustling to get everything done you’ll easily lose sight of your main purpose. If everything becomes a priority that means that nothing is. "Work smarter, not harder," by always knowing and investing your limited energy into your top personal and professional priorities.

A former high-school vice-principal who became the principal of her school created a visible, colorful poster for her desk on the first day of her new job. It depicted the top three priorities she’d identified as vice-principal to lead toward the ultimate goal of improving student performance: classroom discipline, teacher expectations, and parent involvement. She committed to these three priorities guiding her time investments for at least the first year.

As she raced through her days, to avoid being sidetracked by an urgent task, she’d question if investing her energy into it would lead toward one of her top three objectives. If her answer was “no”, she’d delegate the task as often as possible.

Another technique to remain focused on the important comes from Stephen Covey, author of "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People." He suggests planning your time by making a weekly list of your professional and personal roles and what you want to accomplish in them. For instance, professionally your roles include coach, supervisor, team member, etc. Personally you’re a parent, spouse, friend, etc. Schedule your week’s activities ahead of time by including what you want to accomplish for your most important roles. For example, if you have a friend who needs support schedule a lunch to offer her some.

Take the advice of consultant Ivy Lee for one final idea on focusing on the important. Back in the 1930s he was asked by Charles Schwab, President of Bethlehem Steel, for advice on how he could achieve more. Lee told Schwab to write down the most important things he needed to complete the next day and rank-order them. In the morning start immediately on the number one priority and work only on it until completely finished. Then move on to the second most important, etc. Stick with each as long as it remains the most important. Do this every day.

Within five years Schwab created the largest independent steel company in the world. He was so impressed with the value of Lee’s advice he paid him $25,000! How much would that be worth in today’s dollars?

To make the most of your time identify and then live your life by your top priorities. Say “no” to that which leads you away from them. Say “yes” to that which leads you toward them. Stop doing more and more; instead do more of the important and much less of the unimportant.

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

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Plan family vacations to make sure everyone has good time
Stress for Success
August 21, 2007

You love your spouse and kids but are you ready to spend 24 hours a day together?

Some families vacation exceedingly well together sharing common vacation goals; whether hiking every national park on your itinerary or shopping every mall. They also negotiate well when they don’t agree.

After my husband and I returned from our sabbatical a dear friend said we must have been glad we put so much planning into our trip given the incredible time we had. I laughed because all we planned was to be gone for a year in our motor home, ski Colorado for two months, and eventually travel to Alaska. Other than that we played everything by ear.

Other families don’t necessarily agree on what constitutes a good vacation. They’ll need to plan and negotiate more to keep everyone wanting to continue living together afterward.

They’ll need to discuss and agree upon their holiday goals; especially if they have very different interests. Rather than one person planning everything, leaving your enjoyment dependent upon how good a job she does:
· Get everyone’s input about what they’d like to do. (Be honest about what’s important to you. If you don’t and you end up not enjoying yourself you have only yourself to blame.)
· Accommodate as much as possible what each says they’d like more and less of on vacation (e.g., less time in the car, more exercise)
· Identify and then make your common interests your priority. If everyone wants to camp Minnesota’s Boundary Waters, make that the centerpiece of your trip. If possible, start there. Sharing the awe of this serene and natural wonderland together goes a long way in helping you negotiate the rest of your vacation.
· Encourage everyone to do Internet research on your destination to explore the possibilities ahead of time.
· Put each family member in charge of something; whoever is the best a scheduling keeps the calendar, the best navigator’s in charge of maps.
· Decide on a budget then allocate a daily average amount to spend and monitor how you’re doing. On days you under-spend, put the extra money into a general pot that you draw upon for extras. As you approach the end of your money you’ll either need to discipline yourself to cut back or decide how you’ll pay for any overage.
· Plan plenty of activities for your children. Keep them busy. Wear them out physically! It’s so fun to see them enjoying themselves to the point of physical exhaustion! Then when they crash for the night you can have private time. But don’t over-schedule them leaving them cranky and disagreeable.
· Include daily exercise to reduce everyone’s stress and to minimize weight gain if part of your fun is eating your way through a vacation.

Family vacations are a wonderful time to enjoy life together. Show your kids how to do it. Plan ahead of time if that’s your style or just wing it if that has historically worked for you. Most importantly, enjoy each other and this great land of ours.

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

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Disconnect electronically to benefit from time off
Stress for Success

When your kids were babies wasn’t part of your brain awake all night focusing on sounds coming from their bedrooms? After a few years of this did you feel drained, exhausted and mentally fuzzy?

The impact of the developed world’s obsession with being electronically connected almost all waking hours is similar; after a few years you start feeling less rested, more fuzzy-headed and stressed out.

If you’re always plugged in and available for business communication during your off-work hours, not to mention your vacations, you’re never “off”, you’re never fully relaxed. How could you be if there’s the possibility that work may interrupt you at any moment?

Since the advent of fax machines, cell phones, instant messaging, etc., the boundary between work and personal time has been blurred for most people and virtually disappeared for some. On vacation you can physically be 3,000 miles away from work but as long as you remain “on call” you may as well be down the hallway from your office. Staying forever electronically connected to your job means you choose to participate in the instant expectations and response game you play every day at work.

There are definitely some people who handle this constant communication potential with little apparent stress. They focus like a laser beam on a work issue and when finished drop it like a hot potato and refocus on their off-work activity. Others are dogged by professional responsibilities carrying them as a backdrop in all they do.

Regardless of where you fall on this stress continuum, why waste your money on a perfectly good vacation risking the stress consequences of not fully relaxing? If you’ve always remained connected you can’t know if you’d be more relaxed disengaged until you try it.

Request honest feedback from your family regarding how it affects their vacations when you remain available to your professional responsibilities. Ask if it interferes with the family’s ability to have fun and to focus on each other.

If they ask you to detach from work during vacations:
· Communicate to those most affected, those who contact you the most often when you’re on vacation that you’ll be incommunicado during your upcoming break. Or, that you’ll only handle work communications at one specific time daily.
· Program your voice-mail and email’s out-of-office reply to inform others of when you’ll return.
· While on vacation breathe deeply each time you’re tempted to “check in” to help break your habit (addiction?)

Mounting research finds that regularly turning off completely is imperative in combating the physical consequences of stress. Your mind and body regularly need to recharge. A real vacation allows you to do this by letting go of work and settling into a different pace.

Do yourself a favor. Disconnect during your next vacation; even if only for part of it as an experiment. For some it may be painful. Others may be frightened of the consequences. Ultimately the health consequences of not reducing your stress are far greater than the consequences of disconnecting from work during a vacation.

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

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Take vacations to keep you mentally and physically healthy
Stress for Success
July 10, 2007

Unrelenting stress – even good stress -- leads to illness, disease, depression, burnout, and strained relationships. Why then do so many resist taking more time away from it? Some fear retribution at work if they take too much or even any vacation. Others think they’re invincible and don’t need time off. Eventually, however, it’ll catch up with you.

Vacations are mentally and physically healthy:
§ Psychosomatic Medicine: a study from State University College, Oswego, New York, showed men who take more frequent vacations have a 30% and women a 50% lower risk of dying of heart disease compared to those who don’t.
§ The Wisconsin Medical Journal: Marshfield Clinic research found that women who take frequent vacations are less likely to become depressed and report higher marital satisfaction
§ Participating in more leisure activities gives you greater satisfaction with life

Vacations also protect you from burnout, which is very difficult to recover from without a major life change. My husband and I were both severely burned out in the late 1990s due to professional and family stress. Our solution? We vacationed an entire year in a huge motor home traveling throughout the U.S., western Canada and Alaska. Upon our return we were ready and raring to go again. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone could create such an opportunity for themselves?

There are shorter and less expensive vacations that can improve your health. Last week I mentioned taking several long weekends vs. using up all of your annual days in one main vacation.

Another is to vacation at home. Disconnect from all work and possibly even personal communications and tour your own community. It’s much cheaper and we live in a tourist destination where there’s lots to do and see.

The minimum we should all do daily, or at least several times a week, is to take mental vacations. To facilitate this, enlarge and frame a photo of your most relaxing destination and keep it close by. As pressure builds, take a couple of minutes, close your eyes and take a mini-vacation in that beautiful spot. You’d be surprised how relaxing it can be. It won’t take the place of real vacations but it relieves stress like a boiling tea kettle releases steam.

You can reduce stress by fighting to protect the incredibly shrinking American vacation (putting energy into a goal reduces stress) by joining those who believe in a minimum paid-leave policy for all. The “Work to Live” and the “Take Back Your Time Campaign” have joined forces to pass a national three-week minimum paid-leave law. They argue that 127 other countries have laws protecting vacations. We don’t. They’re working to make this an issue in ’08 presidential campaign. If you’d like to join in, go to www.timeday.org.

Letting go of daily stressors through vacations allows your mind and body to recoup and build up greater resiliency to future stress. They recharge and rejuvenate you while improving your job performance when you return. It’s your responsibility to figure out how to best do that for your lifestyle and budget.

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

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Working less, vacationing more can increase productivity, lower stress
Stress for Success
July 3, 2007

Tomorrow we celebrate America’s independence. It’s one of the few holidays that virtually everyone gets off from work and spends it eating and perhaps drinking too much. But hey! It’s only one day. And that’s the problem.

This year July 4th falls in the middle of the week so fewer people will take additional days off to create a long weekend. And we Americans, working far more than other industrialized nations, need not only more vacation days, we need to take off the days we earn.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American gets 8.1 days vacation after one year on the job, and only 10.2 days vacation after three years! We haven’t worked this many hours since the 1920s. Almost 40% of us work more than 50 hours a week! This is absolutely nuts!

How can humans be expected to produce quality work when they’re perpetually overstressed and exhausted? Do employers who pressure employees not to take all of their vacation time actually think they’re increasing productivity? Does a small business owner expect to be more industrious after working 60 to 70 hour weeks month after month?

According to a National Institute of Management report performance declines 25% after a 60 hour workweek.

But does more time off equate to greater productivity? Joe Robinson, author of "Work to Live: The Guide to Getting a Life" says evidence shows that it does. Vacation days mandated by law vary from 30 in Spain and France, to 25 in Japan, to 21 in Norway down to zero in the United States. Americans work 6½ weeks more a year then the British and 12½ weeks more than the Germans!

"Contrary to the American myth,” Robinson says, “a number of European countries have caught up with the United States in productivity." According to the US Federal Reserve Board, Europe had a higher productivity growth rate in 14 of the 19 years between 1981 and 2000.

Not only can time off enhance productivity but the opposite is also true; stress, partly caused by too little vacation time, is estimated to cost employers $150 billion a year.

But corporate America doesn’t seem at all close to changing its attitude about paid time off (couldn’t they at least let us take off our birthdays?). So how can you use your few and very precious annual vacation days to maximize stress reduction?

It makes logical sense to me that instead of taking all of your leave days in one continuous vacation to take off several long weekends a year. Simply planning a longer holiday can cause significant stress in itself and by the time you've adapted to the different pace of your planned vacation it’s time to go back to work.

Instead consider strategically scheduling your vacation days with long weekends such as Labor Day or Memorial Day. Several mini-vacations each year give you more frequent stress breaks so you won’t reach the peak of stress waiting an eternity for your once a year time away from work.

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

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Doing nothing but worrying? Develop a sense of proportion
Stress for Success
June 26, 2007

Can I trust my daughter’s friends? Is my job safe? Will we have hurricanes this season? Are my parents being well taken care of? Do we have enough retirement income? Will terrorists strike again? There’s an endless list of things to worry about.

The original intent for all stress emotions, including worry, was to motivate you to take positive action regarding whatever is bothering you. An example of healthy worry is if at bedtime you fear that you didn’t lock up the house, you go check. Theoretically, once you investigate and secure any unlocked doors -- you take positive action -- your anxiety should dissipate.

However, worrying may become unhealthy when you:
§ continue worrying about something after you’ve attended to it
§ take no positive action about whatever you’re concerned with
§ obsessively fret over anything

If you could clearly see that most of what you worry about isn’t worth your energy, would it motivate you to worry less? See if you’re like Althea, a mother who worried nearly constantly and was treated for this at an Adlerian Psychology family counseling center.

Althea especially worried about her 10-year-old son. She started worrying the second her eyes opened in the morning and throughout her entire day. The psychiatrist assigned her to:
§ Daily write down on paper every single worry (large and small) that entered her mind, and put them all in the one spot
§ After writing down each worry she was to stop fretting about it.
§ Make a one-hour weekly appointment with herself to do nothing but worry about each concern she’d written. She chose Wednesdays from 8 - 9 a.m. to worry at her family-room desk. Outside of that one hour she was not to worry at all.

During her Wednesday morning meetings with herself she’d do her best to worry about what was on those pieces of paper like, "Sammy’s 5 minutes late", "I wonder what the expiration date was on that milk he drank", "It’s going to rain and Sammy forgot his jacket."

It’s very difficult to sit for one hour and do nothing but worry; try it.

Althea was amazed at the myriad of things she worried about. It didn't take her long to discover that vast majority of her worries:
§ were trivial in nature
§ were about Sammy
§ never came to pass
§ focused on things beyond her control
§ were definitely not worth the time, energy and stress she invested in them

Once she became consciously aware of these epiphanies, she made a goal to decrease her worries by 50% each week. After just one month she quite easily decreased worrying to a more “normal” level.

It’s difficult as a parent, a business owner, or as someone with a medical condition not to worry. Often the worry is appropriate because something does require your positive action. Learn the difference between your own healthy and unhealthy fretting and preserve your stress energy for the concerns that can actually benefit from your attention.

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

Monday, June 18, 2007

Channel storm fears productively
Stress for Success
June 19, 2007

Here we go again! We’re less than two weeks into the hurricane season and we've already had two named storms. Wow!

Tropical Storm Barry, however, also demonstrated that tropical storms are a natural and important part of Florida's ecological balance. In other words, storms are not necessarily bad; in fact they’re necessary.

If you’re already stressed-to-the-max about hurricane season you’ll need to productively channel your fears to avoid being exhausted by the end of November. If you excessively worry it may be because:
§ You’re experiencing post-traumatic-stress disorder from having been through a life-threatening storm before. Please consider getting counseling for this. There’s no reason to suffer needlessly.
§ You’re a worry-wart no matter what the situation. I’ll have a great technique for you in next week’s column.

To keep your imagination from going wild, creating unnecessary tension, there are three basic stress management principles you can use when experiencing storm anxiety.

The first is to understand that Mother Nature’s survival emotions, anger and fear, are intended to motivate you to take positive action in response to whatever is triggering them. Take your storm anxiety energy and invest it into identifying positive actions you could take to calm your fears.

Secondly, putting your energy into preparing for hurricanes gives you a greater sense of control, which automatically lowers your stress.

Thirdly, keep your anxiety commensurate with the reality of the storm threat. This begins and ends with what you say to yourself. Wherever your thoughts are going that’s where you are going. Thinking fearful and stressful thoughts leads you toward fear and stress. Replace scary thinking with “What are my options?” repeated over and over until you think of a positive action you could take.

To practice these principles also get reliable information to educate yourself so you can gauge how stressed you need to be for each storm. For example, knowing two hurricane terms can help you decide how worried you need to be.
§ "Hurricane watch"; a hurricane is possible in your area
§ "Hurricane warning"; a hurricane is expected
Doesn’t it make sense to invest less fear into something that’s possible rather than expected?

To moderate your fear level, watch weather updates (but not obsessively until and unless there’s a hurricane knocking on our door). Remain watchful as long as we’re in the "cone of uncertainty". Once we’re out of this cone your anxiety level should drop in proportion to the decreased threat. Not all storms are created equal. If you remain as stressed it means you’re not allowing reality to influence your fears. Accurate information counters unrealistic fears so get the News-Press’ Hurricane Guide 2007 in the Sunday, June 3 newspaper (also distributed through Circle Ks) to help you prepare for storms ahead of time.

Given the experiences of the past few years with hurricanes, it’s wise to be alert and prepared. As your anxiety increases use that energy to review and act on your preparation plans rather than letting your fears be based on fear alone.

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

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Live through your strengths to create happiness
Stress for Success
June 12, 2007

I'm very grateful for my blessed life, which is full of loving relationships, adventure, and a fascinating career. Taking the "VIA Signature Strengths Test" at the Authentic Happiness web site (http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu) explained why my life is so good.

This test measures 24 character strengths; from humor to humility. It's part of Positive Psychology (PP), which researches mental health vs. mental illness. To create authentic happiness PP tells us to live our lives through our natural strengths vs. fixing our weaknesses.

My test results show that my life choices are an expression of my five top strengths: genuineness, curiosity and interest in the world, capacity to love and be loved, gratitude, and perseverance. (Other character strengths measured include, optimism, open-mindedness, leadership, fairness, spirituality, forgiveness, bravery, kindness, plus eleven more.)

A high “curiosity and interest in the world” score means “always asking questions, finding subjects/topics fascinating, and liking exploration and discovery”. This helps explain why, at the age of 22, I joined the Peace Corps for 2 ½ years and why I chose the career of public speaking. My “genuineness” high score may explain why customers consistently tell me that my presentations are so practical.

My high “capacity to love and be loved” score must have something to do with being happily married for 29 years and having a large and loving circle of friends.

Interestingly at the bottom of my strengths were “modesty” and “teamwork”. These also make sense regarding my career choices (and maybe my willingness to share my character strengths with you!);
§ Too much modesty would make for a boring speaker.
§ My profession is largely a solitary one, which is fine because I don’t crave teamwork in an office environment. I'm happy as a clam working mostly by myself.

To increase your own happiness PP says to follow the following three paths. It’s better if you pursue all of them:
1) Do more of what gives you pleasure and/or joy
2) Immerse yourself in your passions
3) Live a meaningful life

Go to the above web site and take their tests to discover how to become happier. Your honest responses will lead to valuable feedback on your strengths and vulnerabilities.

Then follow PP’s advice: compensate for your weaknesses that interfere with happiness with your character strengths. For instance,
§ If you work alone but “teamwork” is one of your highest scores you’d probably be happier working with others.
§ If your “kindness” score is high but you aren’t giving a lot of energy to others, you may feel unmotivated.
§ Look for any way to live your strengths. “Catching people doing something right” can express a high “gratitude” score, as would daily acknowledging all that you’re grateful for.

Proactively increase the expression of your strongest character strengths while letting go of striving to improve upon your imperfections, which can be very difficult. It’s much easier and far more fun to express your strengths, which increases your energy, which increases your hope and motivation to continue making these easier changes. How can you lose with this formula?

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

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Achieving happiness by enhancing inner you
Character strengths can make people happy
Stress for Success
June 5, 2007

Happiness is that elusive American birthright enshrined in our Declaration of Independence and can be difficult to achieve.

According to psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman, founding director of the Positive Psychology Center, University of PA, and author of “Authentic Happiness”, there are three major ways to achieve it. Live a life that’s:
§ full of pleasure, passion and joy
§ full of “flow”, as psychologist and author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it, where you lose yourself in your passions
§ meaningful, full of purpose
He found the key to happiness comes from our internal qualities and character strengths and by enhancing these we make ourselves happier.

In recent years Seligman and his colleagues have identified 24 character-strengths that make people happy, including creativity, bravery, and kindness. They discovered that happiness was most strongly associated with what they labeled “heart- strengths”: the ability to love and be loved, gratitude, curiosity, and hope.

Not surprisingly love was at the top of the list. Because humans are a social group, being enjoyably occupied with others, including at work makes us the happiest. And it doesn’t have to be romantic love, as anyone with close friends knows.

Expressing gratitude is also very rewarding because you’re focusing on what’s good in your life. The person you’re thanking feels appreciated, which encourages him to strive to improve. The relationship is strengthened leaving you both feeling happier. What goes around comes around. Expressing gratitude infrequently, however, doesn’t impact your happiness significantly. Expressing it frequently does.

Another heart-strength is curiosity. Following your curiosities puts you into a circle of people who share them. It’s the best way to make new friends. It’s what brought my own large and embracing circle of girl friends together. Our mutual curiosities attracted us to work in the same community organizations 25 years ago and here we are still best friends and still sharing new ideas.

Regularly appreciating what has gone well in your day also boosts happiness by changing your focus from what’s wrong to what’s right. Life is good. Nightly before bed time list what went well during your day. Doing this for a couple of months you may notice a lightening of your moods and increased happiness.

The wonderful thing about living your life with more love, gratitude and curiosity is that it creates greater hope. You look forward to more tomorrows.

If you don’t think you possess any of these heart-strengths you can still find greater happiness by living your life by one of your character-strengths. In research participants identified their top five strengths and then used one of them in a new way every day for a week. For example, an adventurous person watched a TV travel show of a place she’d love to visit someday. Another day she challenged herself to learn a new sport, etc., creating more happiness.

Don’t assume happiness is beyond your grasp; pursue it. Start with easy changes: every morning upon awakening list what you’re grateful for and each night at bedtime review what went well that day.

For more information on this fascinating and important research go to http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu.

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

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Stress for Success
May 22, 2007, Week 167

Happiness not permanent state
Who you are on the inside matters more than external pursuits

"Happiness is never as good as you imagine it will be, and it never lasts as long as you think it will", says William Cromie of the Harvard News Office. Whew! What a relief for those who think that if you’re not always happy something’s wrong!

That’s why Daniel Gilbert, Harvard University psychology professor, suggests we accept that happiness is not a permanent condition but rather a state that we move in and out of. "The fact that you're not always happy is not a problem," he says. "So don't look for a solution when there is no problem."

It seems we also need to accept that just as your body weight has a set point around which you fluctuate regardless of how much you eat (within reason), you also have a set point for happiness that’s part of your overall personality which remains quite stable over your lifetime. That's why something wonderful can happen to you and after you get used to it you return to the happiness level you had before the event occurred.

This theory comes from fascinating twins research. In 1996 University of Minnesota researchers Auke Tellegen and the late David Lykken compared the happiness scores of identical and fraternal twins who grew up together or were reared apart to determine the degree to which happiness is genetically determined. They found that about 80% was attributable to genetic differences.

This is good news for some and bad news for others.

It has also been found that people with higher set points of happiness share common personality traits. In a 1998 review of 148 studies, social psychologists Kristina DeNeve of Baylor University and psychologist Harris Cooper of the University of Missouri - Columbia, found that happier people were friendlier, more extroverted, trusting and conscientious. They also believe they have control over their lives therefore were less prone to anxiety and mood swings.

So if you believe your set point is too low what can you do? You need to accept that you, like everyone else, will float in and out of happiness and that’s OK. Don’t exaggerate the awfulness of it. All that does is make unhappiness worse. Also:
§ Figure out how you can maximize more of the listed traits above. If being more conscientious seems the best place to start, then do your work more meticulously. Be more reliable and hard-working. Where would you benefit from being more careful and thorough?
§ Accept that happiness doesn’t come from external things. Stop buying stuff in the false expectation that it’ll make you happier. Also, don’t pin your happiness hopes on trying to get your loved ones to be more perfect so you’ll look better, therefore be happier.
§ Identify areas of your life in which you can be more in control.
§ Pursue what gives you pleasure, passion and joy.

Life’s too short to spend your precious energy going after external things in pursuit of happiness. What’s important is who you are on the inside, not what you look like from the outside.

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

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

More money doesn’t equal more happiness
May 22, 2007
Stress for Success

Can money buy happiness? Are wealth and happiness even connected?

If they are connected, according to data from the 2000 U.S. Census, psychologist David G. Myers, of Hope College in Holland, Michigan, should have found that Americans are three times happier than fifty years ago because our buying power has tripled since 1950.

But when Myers compared University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center surveys, which has surveyed Americans’ level of happiness in most years since 1957, he found greater affluence has not made us happier. The percentage of Americans who described themselves as "very happy" has remained surprisingly consistent, at about one third.

In fact, putting your energy into extrinsic attempts to find happiness will largely be disappointing. Anything external to yourself, like your job, home, car, or your appearance cannot make you happy for any length of time.

Interestingly, our hereditary past may explain why.

Traits that get passed on from one generation to the next are the ones that helped our ancestors survive so they could produce yet another generation. One such trait is called habituation, which means becoming accustomed to the status quo. This is hugely helpful when you’re faced with adverse conditions, such as a chronic disease or, in the case of many Floridians, living with increasing growth and congestion. After awhile, you adapt to the unpleasantness.

Habituation also applies to the positive events in our lives. No matter how wonderful the event at first, like winning a multi-million-dollar lottery, if it becomes a constant, you habituate to it.

Another trait we’ve inherited from our ancestors is to notice the negative more quickly than the positive since negative events may prove to be life-threatening. In other words, our human tendency is to take our positive experiences for granted and to focus more on the stressors of life. Bummer.

But Madison Avenue tries to convince you otherwise. It wants you to believe that if you’d just buy one more luxury you’d be happier.

Putting your happiness eggs in the buy-everything-you-want-basket, however, makes your contentment very vulnerable. Extrinsic happiness depends upon something outside of yourself; and that may not always be there. So, if your happiness is dependent upon your youthful appearance, for example, what happens as you age? Your happiness plummets, unless you find another way to enhance your appearance. Besides, you’ll habituate to each new surgery or expenditure so it no longer, in itself, makes you happy.

You’re much more likely to find true and lasting happiness if you express your positive traits, strengths and talents, such as kindness, service to others, gratitude, creativity, etc, in your work and in your personal life. All of these are considered intrinsic (natural to yourself) traits. Therefore, if what makes you happy is to help other people, any aging stress becomes irrelevant. Expressing your natural, internal traits and strengths is a constant in your life regardless of what happens outside yourself and is a much more reliable source of happiness.

So what else can truly increase your happiness? That’s our topic for next week.

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

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Do more of what gives you pleasure
Stress for Success
May 15, 2007

On your deathbed how will you finish off this incomplete statement, “Gee, I wish I would have done more …?”

I bet your answer wasn’t work or clean your house more. You probably said you wished you’d traveled more or spent more time with your family.

Here’s a related challenge. Take thirty seconds and count on your fingers the number of things you do regularly, whether daily, weekly, monthly or even annually, that gives you pleasure, passion and/or joy. Go ahead. Count them up.

Some of you quickly list several enjoyable things you do regularly while others are scratching their heads coming up with nothing.

Your answers to these are telling you what you’d better get started doing now!

They’re also related to what Positive Psychology (PP) is all about.

Unlike traditional psychology which focuses on mental illness, PP focuses on mental health, on human strengths rather than weaknesses. It teaches you to nurture happiness by identifying and using your strengths and positive traits in your work and in your daily life vs. trying to “fix” your weaknesses and limitations.

By living your life according to your "signature strengths" you create more happiness and meaning, which buffers you against life’s misfortunes and negative emotions, and makes your life more positive. Pursuing what gives you pleasure, passion and/or joy requires the use of some of your signature strengths.

Unrelated research out of the University of Arizona found that retired people’s two biggest regrets were not being assertive enough and not taking more risks. Think of these answers in relation to doing that which gives you joy. Doesn’t it suggest that you’d better get going now and not wait until it’s too late?

So what gives you joy or pleasure? Is there something you used to do, like a sport or a hobby that you stopped when you started a new job or a family? Could you get back into that? You wouldn’t have to commit vast amounts of time to it; just a little for now.

Over the next couple of weeks, notice what you see and do that brings a smile to your face and a lightness to your heart. What makes you laugh out loud? What motivates you to get out of that TV chair? Which activities challenge your skills and strengths? Do more of these things.

Once you identify activities that please you the challenge is to make time for them; you may need to literally schedule them. The more you do these things, while still honoring your regular commitments, the lighter your heart becomes. The joy these activities bring you becomes the motivation to keep doing them.

Some of you think you’re too busy to do more of what you want or may feel guilty when you do. Again I ask, on your deathbed what will you say you wished you’d done more of? Do it now. Create the habit of increasingly doing what gives you pleasure, passion and/or joy so when you’re actually on your deathbed you’ll have no regrets.

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