As a young lawyer, I had a recurring dream in which I had moved to a remote mountain cabin, deep in a wooded forest, with majestic mountains in my backyard and a waterfall that fed into a crystal clear lake in my front yard. I awoke each day to the sunrise, fresh mountain air and the energy of the calm environment. There were no phones, computers, demanding clients, irritated family members, traffic or boring social commitments. No stress. I felt relaxed, at peace and calm, thinking about this wonderful life.
Suddenly, my tranquil thoughts were shattered by an annoying sound; my alarm clock. As I slammed the clock to keep it from buzzing, I realized I was not in the mountains, but instead waking up to face yet another stressful day as a young lawyer, overcommitted in every aspect of my life and dreading what the day might bring.
Over the years, I realized the stressful days I dreaded did not have to be perceived by me as such. With patience and perseverance, I realized what caused me (and most people) to experience stress, and I changed my thinking about life’s challenges.
In my current profession as a corporate health coach, I am frequently asked, “How can I get rid of stress?” Everyone expects a one-sentence quick fix to this predicament that has faced humans for hundreds of years. The truth is you cannot get rid of stress. Stressful situations will always be there, no matter your age, socioeconomic status, or profession. But, what you can do is change your thoughts about stress.
First, a few words about stress and the detrimental effects it can have on us. It is true that worry and stress can weaken our immune systems and lead to heart disease, cancer, GI disorders, and mental health problems. 75 to 90 percent of all primary care physician visits are related to stress. Stress can deplete your energy, take away your creativity, decrease your decision-making ability and leave you in a continual state of exhaustion. Stress can result in negative self-talk and unreasonable self-expectations. Stress can lead to sleep deprivation as you lie awake night after night, worrying about “what ifs” that often never happen.
If stress can cause all of these ailments and problems, why do we allow it to take a front seat in our lives?
Many of us experience stress when we lack control over a situation, whether in our homes, at work or in our social circles. You cannot control the difficult client or boss who wants the project done yesterday. You cannot control the traffic jam that makes you 15 minutes late for work. You cannot control the high winds that knocked a large tree onto your house, ripping a gaping hole in the roof. You cannot control your elderly parents’ need for care in a nursing facility, causing you to wrestle with them over selling their home and giving up their freedom.
When you find that you cannot control these situations, your heart beats faster, your blood vessels constrict, your breathing increases and all of this can lead to health problems, exhaustion, self-doubt, and sleep disturbances. However, it is very important to remember that stress will only cause these detrimental effects if you allow it to! Stress is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you respond. You cannot control other people or situations, but you can control yourself and how you respond. This is great news! You can control 90 percent of the situation, when you thought you had no control at all! It is all how you look at it.
Stress also comes about because we set unreasonable self-expectations, thinking we have to be and do all things for every situation and everyone. Let go of this self-imposed perfectionism (and requiring those around you to be perfect) and enjoy a relaxed attitude, increased energy and greater achievements at work and home.
Yet another reason people are stressed is because they are on 24/7 worry duty in order to handle the “what ifs” of life. Constant worrying will not make the issue turn out the way you want it to, nor will it make the issue go away. It will only further drain your energy and cause more stress. Instead of poisoning your mind with “what if” scenarios, ask “what if not”?
Now that you know the detrimental effects stress can wreak in your life, what can you do about it? Remember, stress is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you react.
Think of a stressful event in nature, such as a hurricane, and compare it to your life. Hurricanes bring high winds, rain, torment, destruction (people, situations); however, inside the hurricane is what is known as the eye of the storm, where it is completely calm and peaceful (you). You cannot control the winds and waves (people, situations), but you can put yourself in the eye of the storm and control how you will react by staying peaceful and calm.
I can hear you now: “How do I find the calm in the eye of the storm when I am used to being in the thick of the winds and rain?” Patience and perseverance. You have allowed stress and stressful situations to control you for years. Give each of these stress relief tips a try. I guarantee you will begin to notice a difference in how you react to the storm encircling your inner calm.
1. Adopt a new language. Your daily language governs whether you see life as exciting, peaceful, frightening or stressful. If you wake up to “battle a new day”, you begin with a stress state.
2. Let go of tension. Through the day, check in with your body and notice where you are holding tension. Relax your shoulders and your jaw. Are you breathing?
3. Make up your mind that no matter what comes your way, you will be calm. Before you leave the house each day, consciously decide nothing and no one will upset you.
4. Think Positive. Don’t worry about the “what ifs”.
5. Meditate. All you need is one minute. If you don’t have one minute in your day, then we seriously need to talk!
Tips for meditating
n Set a timer for one minute
• Find a comfortable position
• Balance hands, symmetrical and still (i.e. both on lap, both clasped)
• Close eyes, smiling is fine
• Stop mental chatter/ inner thoughts
• Imagine energy encircling your body
• Observe and focus on your normal breath (inhale/exhale naturally, don’t force it or take big breaths)
• Numerous thoughts will come into your mind. It’s ok, just return your attention to your normal breathing and let them go away.
Living stress free does not mean there is no trouble, conflict, challenges or difficult people in your life. Rather it means refusing to allow conflict, people and challenges to affect your response and mood. We can respond with stress or we can respond with calmness and a level head. You decide, and let me know how it goes!•
Sharon McGoff is a graduate of Indiana University Maurer School of Law, a certified personal trainer and health fitness specialist with the American College of Sports Medicine, and a certified life and wellness coach with WellCoaches, Inc. She welcomes your questions or comments at [email protected] The opinions expressed are those of the author.