Tuesday, March 11, 2008

make stress work for you

on How Stress Can Help You

Americans are stressing out as never before. Last year, a survey of 1,848 people by the American Psychological Association found that a disturbing 70% of respondents reported having physical and psychological symptoms of stress. But the survey also had some good news -- 60% of those polled said they would be motivated to change, including learning to manage stress more effectively, in order to feel better. With that encouraging news in mind, I called life coach and frequent Daily Health News contributor, Lauren Zander of the HandelGroup (www.handelgroup.com) for her unique advice on managing stress.

First, Lauren says, it is important to understand what stress really is. Sometimes stress comes from painful circumstances, like illness or loss of someone dear, that only time can heal. But there are loads of other potential stress triggers, from unpaid mortgages to difficult relationships or health problems, that you can do something about. These circumstances themselves do not create stress. Rather the stress results from how you respond to them. "Stress comes from wishing something were different and the worry that you cannot change it, which leads you to feel stuck," says Lauren. You feel upset, you feel helpless and the result is you feel "stressed."
However, Lauren doesn't believe we should always view stress as negative. She views it as a natural outcome of an increased desire for a better life. "We live in a smarter world today," she says, "and our agenda now is to do well for ourselves." Stress symptoms can serve as an invaluable ally to help people achieve a better life. They are an informing voice that tells us it's "time to do something" -- if we try to ignore the voice, it gets louder and more insistent. Lauren teaches her clients to make stress work for them, instead of against them. How? First step is learning to accept it as a positive force and motivator... kind of like a wake-up call or feedback from a good friend.

Given that stress is a call to action, it is critical to investigate the nature of life stressors to decide what the appropriate action should be. There are two levels of stressors... the first, Type 1, belongs in what Lauren calls the "to-do" world. This incorporates bills, appointments, arrangements and the many other tasks that involve making and spending money and managing life as a grown-up. Although people moan and complain about the frustrations of handling these aspects of their lives, Lauren points out that in the to-do world there are always solutions. You may not love the solutions -- for example having to rein in spending habits to live within a compromised income, or disappoint someone by saying no to an invitation -- but they are there for you to find and implement.

Type 2 stressors, though, include the ones few people talk about... they are the "scary" ones in the world of emotion, says Lauren. Fear fuels many of these stressors -- fear that underneath it all you aren't capable... or lovable... or that your marriage is no longer working... or that you aren't attractive enough... or that you will get a terrible illness. The list of hidden stressors in the emotional world is long and complex, but this is where stress can be used to make life better, as we shall see.
If you feel stress because you've gained 15 pounds and don't feel sexy, that's a call to action -- but if you weigh the same as always and still feel undesirable, it's different. This feeling deserves a confession. You can "tell on yourself" to your husband or a friend, which is how to get what you need to feel better, such as a hug or a compliment, a "you're crazy, you have the best body and I love it!" Personally, I use funny consequences for "bad mind habits." When an inner dialogue causes stress, I charge myself a dollar if I dwell in those negative stressful thoughts longer than 30 seconds... and it stops me dead in my tracks. My "no harping" rules keep me from adding stressful thoughts and feelings to my life.

You can learn to view your worries as an alert to take an action to feel better. When you actually go to the gym, make the phone call you've been putting off, or pay the bill that's weighing you down, you will feel calmer. You will have heard what the stress is telling you and responded to it. It is only when you don't take such an action that stress continues to build. This is how your body and mind communicates about what is not working well in your life.

Once you recognize these two types of stress, it becomes feasible to take control of them on both levels. Here are Lauren's recommendations for doing that:
Start observing your crazy-makers, the things that annoy or irritate you. It may be easiest to make a list. Most, if not all of these are truly insignificant -- small stuff such as traffic or long lines. Stressing about them is useless. One way to eliminate the stress of crazy-makers is to alter whatever you can in your schedule or arrangements to decrease what annoys you so much. Leave earlier to escape heavy traffic, take care of errands on off-hours whenever possible... don't say yes to social invitations you don't really want to attend... that kind of thing. Changes like this will help, but a shift in attitude about them will likely help even more. Deflate the stress by refusing to take these situations so seriously or accept demands as "required" and you will see that their upset-quotient begins to diminish.
Write out the list of your responsibilities that fall somewhere between Type 1 and Type 2 stressors. These are in the "to-do" world and therefore, have "to-do" ways to solve them. Start with those that most distress you, but include them all. Big to-dos such as paying off debts or dealing with a difficult medical diagnosis for you or a loved one can seem especially difficult and overwhelming. Cull through the list slowly and carefully and come up with ways you can address these problems. Ask for help if you need it and consider the value of hiring someone when appropriate. For instance, if you have no time to clean your house, hiring someone will cost money of course, but it may pay dividends for you in time, positive energy and orderly surroundings.

The next challenge is the big one -- to take on the Type 2 stressors directly. Write out what you would like to change about you and your life. Oftentimes these desires live just under the surface as unconscious wishes and exist as stress because you are frustrated or unhappy with your current situation. The act of writing them out makes them conscious and gives you the means to evaluate their content. Your wishes might include a different career, living in another city, being nicer, thinner, or maybe more athletic. A good deal of your stress, though, may come from factors you cannot possibly change -- wanting to be young again, say -- or can't change now, such as moving. In those cases Lauren says a shift in attitude is mandatory. Pining away for something you cannot have -- ever or for the time being -- only heightens stress. It may feel hard to do this at first, but here is how you make such an attitude shift -- tell yourself that this is the way it is, just like some days its raining when you wish it was sunny. You can't control it, so you accept it. Once you accept the fact of your situation, realize that you are capable of living with it. Tough, yes, but you can do it... which leaves you free to move on to the stressors you can do something about now, and put this in the category of "later."

Now decide what life changes on your list you consider important enough to tackle... and gather ideas about how to achieve some solution. You may even find that among these are ways to address even the seemingly impossible ones. Let's say you wish your mate didn't have a serious disease, Parkinson's for instance, but you have accepted that you can't change the diagnosis. What can you do? Find activities that you and your partner can continue to participate in together, in spite of his/her disease. But remember, select just one or two areas to start with and take baby steps toward your goal. You will see that even small changes here and there bring you to a place where you do indeed feel better, says Lauren, and that you are not so stuck after all.

Stress will never go away. "It's called being alive," says Lauren. Once you see it as a necessary and useful tool to make life better, stress becomes your friendly messenger, an ever-present well of energy for you to draw from.

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