High Octane Women

How superachievers can avoid burnout

Too Stressed to Manage Your Stress? The Solution May Be Staggering

Relieve Stress By Choosing Your Goals Wisely and Working on One at a Time

Because stress is so pervasive in today's world, it can feel overwhelming just thinking about incorporating stress management into your life. Just another monumental task to add to your already overflowing to-do list, right?

Not so, says Harvey Mackay, best selling author, columnist, and inspirational business speaker. Although an unfocused goal, such as "getting my stress under control," can be quite daunting, if you choose what you want to achieve wisely, you can make some very significant gains over time. One way to improve your odds for success is to establish definite targets ("lose ten pounds by June" as opposed to "lose some weight"), then stagger what you hope to achieve.1

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For example, instead of tackling something as pervasive and gargantuan as "stress" all at once, pick one stressor you'd like to change or one stress reduction technique you'd like to incorporate into your regular routine, then focus your efforts on accomplishing that one specific goal. (But don't give up too soon if change doesn't happen as quickly as you might want; research by Philippa Lally and her colleagues (2010) suggests that it can take quite a while (several weeks to many months) to form a new habit.)2 Once the changes have become a comfortable part of your regular routine, use that success as a motivator to tackle your next challenge. 

To give you some ideas, here are a few stress reduction goals, ranked in order of difficulty to accomplish, that you can stagger throughout the year to help you create a healthier, happier, and less stressed life for yourself.

♦ EASY

Learn to Breathe. I know, sounds stupid, right? Everyone knows how to breathe. It's involuntary. But few people know how to breathe correctly. By learning to breathe correctly and training yourself to use this technique when you're feeling stressed, you will always have an immediate and highly effective weapon in your arsenal to combat stress. 

  • Start by pulling in air through your nose and bringing it all the way down through your abdomen. You should be able to see and feel your abdomen swell slightly.
  • Then, let the air out slowly through your mouth.
  • This type of deep breathing expands your lung capacity and fully oxygenates your blood, which then carries that blood to your muscles and tissues. The result is a reduction in muscle tension and an overall sense of calm and well-being.  

Do a Mental Scan of Your Body. A few times a day, especially when you're feeling stressed, take a few minutes to do a mental scan of your body for hot spots of stress. Where is the tension? In your neck? Your stomach? Your back? Once you locate the hot spot(s), concentrate on that body part and imagine replacing the tension with warmth, lightness, and relaxation.

Laugh. Laughter replenishes the mind and is a quick, easy, and effective way to reduce stress. Smiling can have the same effect. So ...

  • Watch a comedy.
  • Surround yourself with funny people.
  • Do things that make you laugh.
  • Smile at people as you walk past them.
  • Studies have found that even faking laughter has benefical effects, so go for it!

For more information about the physical and psychological benefits of laughter, see Want to Get High? LOL

♦ MEDIUM

Make Deep Breathing a Habit. Deep breathing is only an effective stress reduction technique if you train yourself to use it regularly. That's not as easy as it sounds. When you're stuck in traffic, when you're waiting in line, when you're sure your computer is purposefully messing with you, or when you're faced with any other similarly irritating experience, blood pressure rises, heart rate increases, and breathing tends to become rapid and shallow. This means that you have to condition yourself to pay attention to your breathing throughout the day just as most of us have conditioned ourselves to grab our purses or wallets when we leave home or check our messages when we hear a beep. 

Disconnect. Literally. Dedicate a specific period of time each day to turn off all of your electronic devices and clear your mind. (Although this may seem like it should qualify as "easy," in today's 24/7 world and with society's addiction to technology, it's not any easy thing to do for most people.) For more tips on successfully disconnecting, see Reducing Tech-Based Stress in Our Tech-Filled Lives.

♦ MORE DIFFICULT

Exercise. Although exercise is an excellent way to reduce stress, if it isn't already a part of your routine, it can be hard to find the energy, motivation, and time to add it. But even if you can't build a full workout into your schedule, there are things you can do to fit physical activity into your daily routine.

  • Walk or bike instead of drive to places near your home.
  • If you take a bus or subway, get off a few stops before your destination and walk.
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Take a brisk walk during your lunch break. 
  • Do calf raises at your desk, using your own muscles as resistance. 
  • Do bicep curls while sitting in traffic.

Downsize. Overcommittment and overscheduling is one of the most frequently cited sources of stress, and in today's hectic and fast-paced world, it is difficult to get a handle on. But there are things you can do to unbury yourself. 

  • Streamline by delegating or completely removing unimportant or unnecessary tasks from your schedule. 
  • If household responsibilities are dragging you down, consider hiring a housecleaning service, shop online for food and other household items, start using a meal preparation and delivery service, or assign specific chores to other family members to cut down on your load.
  • Plan your day, piece by piece, including mapping out time for tasks you don't normally schedule in your planner, such as phone calls, note taking, or report writing.
  • Build a cushion into your scheduling by give yourself an extra 10 or 15 minutes between appointments to return calls, make up for running overtime, or to just decompress. 
  • Just say no. For more on this strategy, see Psychology Today article, Just Say No.

References:

1 Mackay, H. (Dec. 30, 2011-Jan. 5, 2012). South Florida Business Journal. www.southfloridabusinessjournal.com.

2 Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C. H. M., Potts, H. W. W. and Wardle, J. (2010), How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40: 998-1009.

© 2012 Sherrie Bourg Carter, All Rights Reserved

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Sherrie Bourg Carter is the author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout (Prometheus Books, 2011).

Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D., psychologist and author of "High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout," specializes in the area of women and stress.

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