May 10, 2010

Give Me a Break!

The great success is to go through life, as one who never gets used up.
– Albert Schweitzer

From what I hear in my office on a daily basis, it sounds like most people would like to eliminate stress completely.  Truth is, we can’t—and shouldn’t even if we could.

A little bit of stress is what keeps us standing upright (without muscle tension, we would collapse) and doing plenty of other very effective things, including the ability to swallow or refreshing our eyeballs with a blink, to name just two.  In fact, it is not physical exhaustion that leads people to my services, but the mental and emotional exhaustion of contemporary life’s daily hassles and major life stressors. It is this excess stress that is eventually physically harmful to us, as well as the cause behind many, if not most, relationship problems. The following are just a few simple ways we can take it down a notch.

  1. Curb your self-talk.  Did you know that experts estimate we have an inner dialogue going at a rate of between 300 and 1,000 words a minute?  I say “dialogue” rather than “monologue” because sometimes we’re running two (or more—often opposing) points of view at any given time!  Think about your own experience as you stand in front of the mirror shaving or applying make-up, or when you’re driving home after work.  A lot is running through your mind, and if you’re like most people, the messages are generally negative.  These thoughts aren’t usually aimed at better planning, or effective analysis of a problem, they are something like hamsters running in an exercise wheel: thoughts are circular, and exhausting.  Learning to catch your inner dialogue, slowing it down, and putting the focus of it on a single optimistic thought or goal, will reduce your stress.  Building the mental muscle to restrain this negative self-talk takes time, but it can be done if you find the right strategies for you (I recommend you find several effective thought-stopping or slowing techniques), and are persistent in your practice of them.
  2. Bracket your worry time.  We all have things that worry us from time to time, but worry is usually unproductive.  Since most of the things we worry about never happen anyway, it does little good to spend a great deal of time worrying about them.  Hard to stop a habit like worry though, so it’s best to coax it out the door by bracketing the time spent thinking about the negative things that might happen.  Try this: when a worry presents itself, write a single sentence describing the issue (for example: “I will lose my job when the agency I work for goes through a layoff”) and then set a kitchen timer for 5 or 10 minutes.  Allow yourself to think about the potential for job loss, but spend the minutes jotting down as many positive thoughts as you can about the situation.  For example, one person’s list might look like this: I’ve always wanted to go back to school and this would be a chance to do it; I don’t like the work I do now; the organization doesn’t fit my goals and values anyway; I am bored with the work I do now; the workload is killing me; I would like to open my own business; my work schedule doesn’t allow me time with family or friends and a new job might be better; this job wasn’t right for me in the beginning and this is a chance to try something else.  When the timer rings, if you’ve forced yourself to focus only on optimistic alternatives to the worrying thoughts, you will have some ideas about ways to deal with the possibility that your job might go away.
  3. Small comforts.  Life is full of small wonders, small benefits, small comforts of many kinds, but when stress is running higher than normal, it’s hard to see or appreciate them, because of the natural mental narrowing to what is bad.  A cool breeze coming through the window on a warm night is one such comfort—easily missed while lying awake with stressful concerns.  The smell of freshly-cut grass (even as your hay fever kicks up) is a little benefit that never grows mundane.  Clean sheets on a freshly made bed; a cup of fragrant tea in the afternoon; the look in your dog’s eyes as you come through the door after a day away.  When you start looking for the little rewards of life, you’ll begin seeing them everywhere, even in places where you least expect them.  Gratitude is one stress-reliever we cannot afford to be without.

Each of the items I suggest above is backed by some scientific research, but the most useful way to know if they are “true” is to put them into deliberate practice and keep track of your own results.  Let me know what you find! Also see related postings on being “super-saturated,” the virtue of gratitude, and savoring life.

Posted in: Psychological Challenges @ 8:48 pm