Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Tackle the hard work of stress management to improve your life
Perceptions can often be blamed for stress

Stress for Success
January 29, 2008

§ “You see the world not as it is but as you are.” -- Stephen Covey, author
§ You are what you think you are. Your perceptions become your reality.
§ Be careful how you tell your story.
§ Wherever your thoughts are going that’s where you are going.
§ "It's not what happens to you that matters but what you do with it." -- Source Unknown

In other words, stress is in the mind of the beholder. How you view the world and interpret your experiences determine what kind of stress, not to mention life, you have. They determine which options you can see therefore how well you solve your stressors and the resiliency you have (or don’t have) to stress.

Since how you “behold” situations determines whether or not you’re stressed by them, doesn’t it behoove you to be more aware of how you are beholding?

This is the difficult part of stress management because it requires you to accept that life isn’t necessarily causing your stress. How you look at it usually is. (This is communicated to you through your thoughts about the situation.) You most likely assume your interpretations (thoughts) of situations are correct and may not be willing to concede that sometimes you are your own biggest stressor, but that’s basically what you have to consider.

For example, you and I work for the same critical boss. Each time he criticizes me I fold like a house of cards and whine about him to friends and family. You let his criticisms roll off your back. The same situation produces two entirely different results because you and I interpret the criticism differently. In short, I'm probably taking it personally and you aren't.

When you notice that you’re more stressed than is another person in the same situation it's an indicator that maybe, just maybe, your perceptions ARE your stress, which means you can’t trust what you’re thinking. Instead of assuming your perception is accurate find factual proof. If you say "he's always criticizing me" find proof of "always". It's highly unlikely that anyone always does anything. Literally count the number of times in one week that he criticizes you and when you complain about him substitute "three times this week he criticized me" for “he always criticizes me.”

This doesn't mean that your perceptions are automatically “wrong”. Everyone interprets life based on their lifelong experiences, temperament and possibly even genetics. They are such a part of you that you don't even pay particular attention to them, you just tend not to question them. To lower your stress however you'll need to develop a healthy skepticism about your own interpretations, especially when red flags are waving, telling you not to trust what you're thinking.

How can you know when your interpretation of a stressor is more responsible for your stress than is the situation itself? It’s not easy and next week we’ll consider one particular red flag, how you tell your story, and how it can imprison you in a stressful life pattern.

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, January 21, 2008

Practice the easy part of stress management
Stress for Success
January 22, 2008

"It's easier said than done," is something I hear frequently about stress management recommendations.

I've been teaching this subject for over 20 years and have discovered that most people don’t want to do the hard work of stress reduction -- challenging your interpretation of stressful situations. Most of your stress isn’t from what happens to you but rather from how you interpret it. Stress is in the mind of the beholder.

For example, you're stressed by a coworker’s near-constant negativity. "She drives me nuts!” you complain. "Somebody put a sock in her mouth!" This implies that she's making you stressed and she should change.

However, she's not the cause of your stress. Your interpretation of her negativity is what’s driving you nuts.

By not admitting that we’re causing much of our stress, we avoid the difficult work of challenging our thinking; it’s not easy. So it's true, stress management advice is easier said than done.

When you're not willing to consider that you’re the source of your own stress, the minimum you can do is to practice stress management basics, including:
§ Schedule daily rest breaks in proportion to the amount of stress you experience so your mind and body can recover. If you experience chronic stress (elevated stress that lasts month after month) it's even more important that you schedule multiple Stress Breaks into your daily life, such as a few seconds of deep breathing several times a day, 20 to 30 minutes of deep relaxation numerous times a week, a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise several times a week, a good night’s sleep on a regular basis, etc. Practicing enough Stress Breaks protects you from the ravages of stress.

Appreciating Stress Breaks’ benefits also leads to a greater perception of control (more self efficacy, which I wrote about last week), automatically lowering your overall stress.
§ Limit exaggerated thinking. Where ever your thoughts are going that's where you are going. Your aggravated and judgmental thoughts about your colleague mean you’re going towards stress. To lower your stress it's better to think about her in a problem-solving way like, "What are my options in dealing with her negativity?" Because she’s beyond your control your options must be ones that are within your control versus expecting her to change.
§ This requires an understanding and an acceptance regarding what’s within and what’s beyond your control regarding your stressor. In essence, everything about everybody else is beyond your control; their personalities, habits and reactions. Your choice of reactions is within your control. That’s why your only options for dealing with your negative coworker are ones that require you do something different, like not letting her bother you or gossiping with others about her, versus hoping she'll change.

You'd be wise when your thinking is very emotional and exaggerated to assume that you’re part of the problem and to challenge your thinking. In the meantime, by practicing these stress management basics you’ll at least lower your stress and facilitate doing the hard work of stress reduction when you’re ready to challenge your interpretations.

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, January 15, 2008

Let your body tell you how to achieve a healthy balance
Stress for Success
January 15, 2008

Given that your assessment of your own health (from poor to excellent) predicts your future health and longevity better than a thorough review of your medical records it only benefits you if you pay attention to what your body tells you.

Your body always tells you the truth about how it’s functioning. Paying attention to its subtle and not-so-subtle messages helps you moderate your stress and your habits to help restore your body to a healthy balance – if you choose to. This is particularly important when a physical problem persists.

For instance, Tony (not his real name) had nagging back pain. It hadn’t occurred to him that his body was speaking to him through the discomfort. However, he learned to pay closer attention to what was happening in his life when his back acted up and quickly pinpointed the problem causing it through the journaling technique below.

Tony discovered that his back tightened up every time he paid his bills or worried about his finances. In other words, he was expressing financial stress through back muscle tension. Now he had something he could problem-solve on. He gained this insight by communicating with his body. It told him very quickly what his stressor was and what he needed to do to decrease it.

Use the following technique regularly to stay in touch with your body to reduce the physical consequences of your stress. Before you begin, have a piece of paper and a pen handy.
· Sit comfortably and take a few deep breaths to relax. When you feel ready, close your eyes and scan your body slowly. Start by becoming aware of the top of your head, move down to your forehead and eyes. Notice any signs of discomfort, tension or pain. Focus on the rest of your face, your jaws, your head and down through your neck, into your shoulders and down through your arms and into your hands and fingers.

Notice your torso, both front and back, continuing to look for signs of discomfort. Move down through your hips, your legs and into your feet and toes.

Let your mind go back to just one part of your body that is particularly uncomfortable and focus on that discomfort for a moment ….

If this part of your body could talk to you, what would it tell you to do to decrease your stress?

Take your pen and paper and write a letter to yourself from that part of your body. “Dear ____,” and let the uncomfortable part of your body tell you what’s causing the discomfort and what to do about it. Let the words flow without conscious effort.

It was through this activity that Tony made the connection between backaches and financial worries. After he worked to reduce his financial stress his back started to relax more and over time the pain disappeared.

Generally, if you allow the letter to “write itself” without conscious effort, you’ll receive good guidance. Now you just have to follow your own good advice.

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, January 08, 2008

Overcome yes-but and the procrastination it causes
Stress for Success
January 8, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Try these ways to improve your health this year
Stress for Success
January 1, 2008

I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions that are never accomplished because unmet goals create stress. So don’t think about the following as resolutions but simply areas that you could improve upon to enhance your longevity and quality of life.

These ideas are also hugely important to stress reduction because they promote "self -efficacy,” meaning that your actions bring about your desired outcomes, translating into greater personal control. A perception of having control automatically reduces your stress. Self-efficacy leads to improved problem-solving, as well, because you feel empowered to look for additional options in dealing with life's ups and downs.

Here are six ideas, reported in Psychology Today, that are backed by accumulating research on how to extend your lifespan.

According to the Journal of Gerontology to add years to your life stay physically active (duh!), whether by walking, biking or gardening. The great news is it works even if you’ve been historically sedentary. Additionally, “… six months of regular aerobic exercise can also reverse the loss of brain tissue that occurs with aging.” Regular physical activity also improves your mood.

Another finding is that lifelong use of two languages promotes longevity by delaying the onset of dementia by four years. Bilingualism "enhances brain vasculature and neural plasticity and increases your attention and cognitive control." The Internet makes learning languages easier. Through our local library you can access a wonderful language learning site called Rosetta Stone. Hurry, though, because I've heard it won’t remain free much longer.

Here’s some great news for wine lovers. According to Current Biology the phytonutrient resveratrol in red grapes and red wine counter aging the same way calorie restriction does. "Both activate a family of enzymes that slow the body’s metabolic machinery and offset the damage of a high calorie diet." Sounds good to me!

The Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health has two suggestions for longevity. "Living in the mountains promotes longevity even if you have high blood lipids and high blood pressure. Adaptation to altitude helps the body cope with lower levels of oxygen, and walking uphill regularly aids the heart."

They also report that close family ties are nice, but having a network of good friends boosts lifespan in old age. Being connected positively influences many physical systems, offsetting stress.

Finally, Psychosomatic Medicine reports that a good marriage counteracts the wear and tear of life on multiple body systems.

So here you have a variety of ideas to increase your lifespan throughout this New Year; drink more red wine, improve your marriage, put more energy into making and keeping great friends, move to the mountains, and as always, exercise more.

If you know in your heart of hearts that you need to improve in any of these areas, over the next year focus on a realistic and attainable goal to do just that. Make it a priority and go for it and see if on New Year's Eve 2009 you're not happy that you did.

Have a wonderful New Year.

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.