By definition, if you want to change your vulnerability to stress, you need to change something in your life. The Five Keys are strategies of major importance in achieving this, but all of them involve an investment of time.
Key 1: Resilience
Many people think of stress as being things beyond our control. It is true that many stressors (things that appear to cause stress) at our places of work involve loss or lack of control, but to think that stress itself is the same is to miss the point.
Have you ever noticed how some people see to go to pieces in a crisis, while others keep calm? On the other hand, in the absence of a crisis, the calm person may be intolerant of minor irritations, while the other is unruffled. Clearly, then, stress is dependant, not on the stressor, but on our internal reaction to it.
It might be thought that the differences in reactions can be explained by variations in personality, but that too is to miss the point. The fact is that our tolerance to minor or major stressors depends on a number of factors, not least of which is how we are feeling at the time.
For instance, I can remember that when I was very stressed at work, I reacted very badly to the note of a particular telephone call. I tore it up in frustration and threw it into a bin, instead of filing it away for future reference, as was my usual practice. What made the difference was the state of my mind.
Now this gives us a clue to what is necessary to conquer stress. The fact is that it is possible to control our states of mind, though many people fail to realise this. This ability is known variously as resilience or as tough mindedness. It is the ability to shrug off the most difficult issue with a smile; the ability to resist the temptation to react badly to stressors of all sorts. Luckily, it is possible to learn how to do this.
Unluckily, it cannot be taught in a short article. But I can suggest a way to start building resilience. It is to begin practising visualisation. The method is to find a quiet time and place and to shut your eyes for a moment. Then begin thinking of a time in your life when you felt completely relaxed. (Be aware that if you suffer from chronic stress, you will not be completely relaxed even when you are asleep. For this reason, you may have to go back in time to find an appropriate occasion. ) Concentrate on recalling the details. What could you see? What could you hear? What did it feel like, both physically and emotionally? Re-live the moment; enjoy the warmth of the feelings. Do this for a couple of minutes, if possible.
There are many ways to use this visualisation, once you have done it for the first time. However, the simplest is to revisit it at least once and preferably twice a day. Try to recall it, also, whenever you begin to feel stressed. If possible, take some time out and practise the visualisation for a minute or two. When you emerge from your sanctuary or haven of peace, you will feel refreshed and better able to cope with whatever was stressing you.
Key 2: Exercise
Regular exercise is most effective in fighting stress because it does so at several different levels.
Stress is accompanied by loss of energy. In other words, the stressors lead to our consuming energy in our reaction to them. Paradoxically, shortage of energy can be stressful in itself. By becoming fit, we provide our bodies with reserves of energy, and this first reduces the risk of stress from shortage of energy and then protects us from reduction of energy to harmful levels when we feel stressed by an external source.
But there is more to this than purely building energy reserves. Frequent exercise leads to improved lung and heart function, and produces natural improvements in our ability to relax during recovery time from the exercise. These effects in combination give us better restorative sleep patterns.
In addition, our brains run on glucose and oxygen. Regular exercise, especially if it is vigorous, provides increased levels of fuel to the brain, by speeding the flow of blood in the brain even when resting, and enables more efficient and effective thinking – and less tiredness. The increased flow also removes toxic waste more quickly from the brain. It is easier to be positive when your brain is working well. Thus, it stimulates a rising of one’s mood and lifts feelings of depression. Indeed, exercise and fitness are the keys to confidence, self-image and self-esteem.
The positive mental state that is created is enhanced by the release of endorphins in our blood when we exercise. These chemicals give us feelings of happiness and well-being.
Clearly, therefore, exercise is a formidable weapon in the resilience-building armoury. It should not surprise us to learn, however, that it is also an excellent antidote to individual attacks of stress. If you are having a bad day, half an hour of vigorous exercise on the squash court or in the gym will stabilise your mental state and help to restore equilibrium to your emotions.
There are two more points that deserve comment. The first is that research shows that physically fit people have less extreme physiological responses when under perceived pressure than people who are unfit. This, of course, is the other side of the coin in saying that stress causes disease.
Secondly, regular exercise increases our capacity to work and our endurance of stress. We acquire the ability to tackle jobs without fade. This effect reduces the possibility of harmful reactions to workplace stress. Indeed, the probability of burnout or consequential ill health is greatly reduced.
Having proclaimed the advantages of exercise, allow me to sound some words of warning. Before undertaking any new programme of exercise, consult a doctor, especially if you are over 60, or have suffered from heart or respiratory problems, or high blood pressure, or are grossly overweight.
- Aim to exercise daily if possible, but at least three times a week.
- Always warm up with suitable stretching exercises for 5 to 7 minutes. Start slowly and build up the effort.
- Aim to increase your heart beat when exercising to a level equal to (220 – Y) x 0.8, where Y = your age. Ideally, it should remain at this level for 20 to 25 minutes.
- Spend 5 to 7 minutes cooling down.
- Then relax completely.
Key 3: Eat sensibly
What, how much and when we eat changes the chemistry in our digestive tract and in our nervous system. These chemical changes affect our mental and emotional state. Nothing could be closer to the results and the true cause (our attitude or reaction) of stress than this.
When we have insufficient glucose in our blood, in an attempt to make good the deficit, our bodies pump epinephrine into our systems to speed up the conversion of what little food is in our systems into glucose. This also speeds our heartbeat and makes us breathe less deeply. At the same time, our muscles tense. This, you will appreciate, is undesirable, for it replicates the signs and results of stress. No wonder we feel so bad when our blood sugar levels are low.
Having too much glucose is just as bad. To protect against damage to the heart from the thickening of blood, the pancreas produces insulin. This reduces the glucose levels by speeding up its conversion into glycogen and by changing the muscle cell walls so that they will absorb glucose more rapidly. The trouble is that the nerve cells are not adjusted in this way, so, while the muscles receive more energy, the brain and the rest of the central nervous system do not. When the glucose level drops, you feel tired, nervous and potentially depressed. Again, the effects of stress are produced by the quality of our food intake.
I need hardly point out the desirability of keeping our blood sugar (glucose) levels in balance.
Follow these recommendations to maximise the safeguarding against stress:
- Eat a substantial breakfast.
Energy demands are high when you first get up in the morning. By eating breakfast, you ensure that sufficient glucose reaches your brain and body with a minimum of delay.
- Graze during the day.
To ensure a continuous supply of glucose to the nervous system, eat small meals at regular intervals of about three hours. The traditional three square meals a day is not so good. They tend to be set too far apart to enable the glucose levels to be maintained consistently at optimum levels.
- Reduce your sugar intake.
Ordinary sugar (sucrose) is glucose in relatively concentrated form. As soon as it enters the blood stream, it spikes the glucose levels. As we have seen above, you immediately feel your muscles energised, but this does not last more than a few minutes and your brain is starved in the meantime. Remember that many foods, such as soft drinks, chocolate, sweetened cereals, biscuits and cakes contain sugar. Cut back on these things, but do it gradually.
- Eat foods that are rich in complex carbohydrates, especially at breakfast.
Sugar and the starch found in white bread and in bananas are simple carbohydrates. These cause the problem mentioned above. Complex carbohydrates, such as wholemeal bread, oats, vegetables, pulses (peas and beans) and fruits (not dates, raisins or bananas), take longer for the body to break down. They serve, therefore, to maintain consistent levels of blood sugar.
- Reduce your intake of stimulants.
Cut back on consumption of tea, coffee and Coke drinks. These add to the feelings of stress if we are already stressed. Like sugar, they enhance our feelings of well-being for a short time and then leave us feeling worse than before. Smoking and alcohol are bad for stress too, having a similar effect.
- Drink plenty.
On the other hand, drink plenty of water. Many people live in a permanent state of partial dehydration. This is bad for stress. A good way to set yourself up for each day is to take a glass of water to put by your bed each night and drink it all in the morning when you get up. But don't stop there. Drink plenty more during the day.
Key 4: Regular recovery time
When you exercise vigorously, you need time to recover. All sports people know the importance of rest and recovery after physical expenditure of energy. The very same principle applies to mental and emotional expenditure. Stress of all kinds requires recovery time to offset it.
However much work you have on, resist the temptation to work your lunch hour and to skip tea or coffee breaks. If you find it necessary to work at weekends (are you sure it’s really necessary?) take time off in the week to compensate. The fact is that we work much more efficiently when we have rested properly.
Burnout is stress bankruptcy, brought about by lack of sufficiently regular recovery time. Genuine breaks, if they are frequent enough can make almost any stressor tolerable.
Key 5: Meditation
Research has shown time and again that people who meditate regularly, whether they do so as part of a religious ritual or without any connection with spirituality, maintain better mental health and resistance to stress than people who do not practice meditation.
An excellent plan is to meditate daily at a fixed time. Ideally, one should aim to meditate for at least 20 minutes, but as little as five minutes is better than nothing.
Meditation is simple. If you know how to worry, you know how to meditate.
There are many ways to meditate, but here is a very easy way to do it, and this one is just like worrying, but without the worry. You know how, when you worry, you tend to keep saying or thinking the same thing to yourself over and over again? Well that is exactly what you do in this meditation.
Practise it once or twice a day. Good times are before breakfast and before dinner.
- Sit quietly in a comfortable position. It is best to put your feet flat on the floor and have your hands resting on your lap, palms upwards.
- Shut your eyes.
- Relax your muscles progressively starting with your head and face and moving down to your feet, finally tensing the whole of your body and then relaxing everything at once.
- Ensure that you are breathing slowly and evenly.
- Begin saying the word, “one” to yourself silently every time you breathe out.
- Consciously exclude all thoughts. If an idea begins to intrude into your mind, chase if off gently and dismiss it. Concentrate on your breathing and on the word, “one”.
- Do this for up to 20 minutes. Time will seem to pass quickly once you are meditating properly so it is best to set an alarm to warn you when time is up.
- When the time is up, continue sitting, eyes closed, for a minute or two, allowing your thoughts to return in their own time. Then open your eyes and remain seated for another minute before rising.
Although this article has copyright, you are more than welcome to put it in a newsletter or ezine, or to post in on a website, provided you include the resource box below and make no change to the text.
Stuart E. Nelson (http://www.LifeCoaching4You.com ) specialises in teaching business owners and their staff how to make more money yet have more time, and in helping people to find balance in their lives. He does this by concentrating on the elimination of stress, and the building of supportive environments. Let the author of “Potential for Harm” and the founder of “Success Story”, the FREE newsletter, help you to find better balance in your life, happiness and fulfilment and to grow the profitability of your business. Request your copy of “Success Story” today! Mail to firstname.lastname@example.org