It’s no magic wand, but it is a plan

Most of us can probably rattle off any number of things on a daily basis that stress us out. So when you hear that April is stress awareness month, you’re probably asking why you need a special month to let you know something so obvious. But it is one thing to see the path you’re on, and something quite different to envision where you’d like to be and figure out how to get there.

magicwandWe get so used to living with our stressors that they become like old shoes we don’t even notice are wearing out – until the sole falls off or the heel breaks. To find a new way to live calls for paying attention to that old shoe before it breaks. It requires a heightened awareness of stress, some self-exploration, and a commitment to change. I don’t have a magic wand that will whisk away stress, but I do have a 6-step plan for identifying your stressors, seeing how they affect you, and learning ways to lessen their impact:

  1. Just how stressed are you? Assessment is always a good place to begin, and the Perceived Stress Scale is one way to do that. This scale has been the foremost instrument used in self-reported stress studies for years. It’s quick and easy to score, and you can even see how you compare to averages for your age group and sex.
  2. What are your stress symptoms? Stress affects all of us differently, but there are some common physical, mental and emotional symptoms that are often related to stress. Perhaps that nagging back ache, or the irritability you feel sometimes, are related to stress. Use a symptoms checklist to see how you are faring.
  3. What are your triggers? Is your stress mostly related to the hassles of daily life, such as traffic and time pressures, or do you have bigger issues like chronic illness, relationship problems or financial worries?

Once you know a little more about yourself and your stressors, consider these steps:

  1. Eliminate, or interact differently with, your stressors. The simpler strategies here are delegating tasks and saying no to new commitments. Then consider whether the things you really value are represented in how you spend most of your time – should you make changes to live more in alignment with your values? Another way to change interaction is improving communication – thereby strengthening relationships and perhaps avoiding some conflict-related stress.
  2. Change how you think about your stressors. What’s your story? How do you perceive your situation, your misfortunes, and the hand you’ve been dealt? Practice substituting positive statements for some of the negative self-talk in your mental narration. Use humor to defuse stressful situations. Consider your blessings and express gratitude for them. Bring mindful attention to the people and tasks you deal with.
  3. Live more peacefully with the persistent stressors. Let’s face it – some stressors don’t go away and aren’t that amenable to re-thinking. That’s when social, emotional and spiritual resources come into play. Call on your friends and community for support; cry on someone’s shoulder; talk and laugh with others. Cultivate a spiritual life; feel connected to something bigger than yourself; spend time in nature. And finally, incorporate some kind of relaxation technique into your daily life: meditation, breathing, yoga, and massage are all good choices.Woman in the sun

We can discover santosha (contentment) every day if we look for it. As Walt Whitman said, “Keep your face always toward the sunshine – and the shadows will fall behind you.”

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It’s easy to be hard, harder to be soft

Contentment is hard to find in January. There’s a letdown after the holiday months of November and December. Many of us are experiencing winter at its harshest. And the resolutions that we made a month ago with optimism and enthusiasm have collapsed, wavered, or become a struggle to maintain. It’s easy to fall into patterns of judging ourselves pretty harshly and with a lot of negativity. If ever there was a time to practice self-compassion, this is it.

This morning, feeling like I needed to start my days in a more positive way, I hauled myself out to an early yoga class. When it came time to set an intention for the practice, I realized that I rarely set an intention or dedication of love toward myself. I usually send love and compassion to someone else in my life, or if I do direct an intention toward myself, it leans toward self-improvement: Energy! Patience! Greater productivity! I’ve become attached to outcomes in a big way, and forgotten to treat myself with the care and kindness of a good friend.

By the end of January, it’s easy to get into patterns of negativity and isolation, beating ourselves up about not reaching our goals, and cocooning ourselves at home with TV and comfort food while we wait for spring. But by looking forward rather than in, we miss an opportunity to flourish right now. Practicing self-compassion can, on the other hand, help us realize greater emotional well-being and more of that elusive feeling of contentment.

Kristin Neff, a professor at the University of Texas, says that there are three core components to self-compassion: self-kindness, recognition of common humanity, and mindfulness. Mindfulness means that we acknowledge our pain and discontent, our flaws and our failures, along with all of our good qualities. But we don’t feel isolated by those imperfections and our mistakes don’t feel so personal, because by recognizing our common humanity, we see that everyone else has the same needs and desires, and ups and downs that we have. And by directing loving kindness to ourselves and others, we reap a lot of potential benefits.

Neff’s research has shown that people who have more self-compassion experience less anxiety and depression, and have increases in happiness, optimism and other positive emotions. They engage in less negative self-talk, and their self-esteem  stays higher when something goes wrong for them, because they realize that everyone makes mistakes and they don’t take it so personally.

Author Karen Armstrong says that, “Compassion is a practically acquired knowledge, like dancing. You must do it and practice diligently every day.” The recommended way of practicing compassion is through loving kindness and compassion meditations. Here is an example of loving kindness meditation (practice it by directing it first to yourself, then one-by-one to others: benefactors/teachers, beloved friends and family, a neutral person, a difficult person):

May I be happy.

May I be peaceful.

May I be safe from harm.

May I enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.

May I experience ease and well-being in body, mind and spirit.

And a compassion meditation (practice the same way as loving kindness):

May I be free from suffering.

May I hold myself with softness and care.

May I be free from suffering and the root of suffering.

May I be free from the suffering caused by greed [or anger, fear, confusion, etc]

May I experience ease of body, mind and spirit.

May I respond to suffering with compassion.

Each time I go through these meditations, I return to the line, “May I hold myself with softness and care”, because I know that sometimes this is the thing we forget in our day-to-day lives. Softness and care, rather than harsh judgment: That’s what we need in January, and beyond.

Prepare yourself

The government is closed for business, and the impact has quickly become personal for a lot of people. No pay, no parks, no museums, no monuments. It’s at moments like this that my Girl Scout training comes to mind: Be prepared.

There is perhaps nothing as stressful as having our best-laid plans turned upside down by events that are out of our control. This week it’s the couple whose wedding can’t take place at the Jefferson Memorial as planned, and the tourists who scheduled a big week in Washington only to find the museums and monuments closed, and the government workers who were hoping to pay bills and save for Christmas and will now lose pay for every day they don’t work.image

But even when we don’t experience something as dramatic as a government shutdown, life throws us curve balls. Storms cancel our flights and take out our power; illness and injuries keep us from work and activities; friends let us down. Some say that managing stress is about managing expectations, as if by lowering our expectations and anticipating less, we won’t be disappointed. But being prepared doesn’t mean we should have to look forward to less; it means we need a plan B.

Having a plan B might mean building redundancy into systems, or bringing two power cords for your phone, or making backup dinner reservations, or applying to a safety school for college. Before we can solve a problem with a backup plan, however, we often need to change the story we’re telling about the situation. Herbert Benson and Eileen Stuart (in The Wellness Book) refer to this story as the “emotional hook”. The emotional hook consists of all your judgments, feelings and self-talk about the event – the shoulds, nevers, musts, oughts, and alwayses. “The government shouldn’t shut down. Why does this always happen to me? I’ll never be able to do this again.”

In order to effectively solve the problem and come up with a solution (the plan B), we need to get past the emotional hooks that are trapping us in the story. Taking some time to calm yourself, breathe and reflect puts you in a better place to counter the negative self-talk with positive statements and then choose how to respond. After that, you can look for possible solutions. For instance, The Washington Post is helping out this week by listing alternative destinations for all the major attractions that are closed, but if you haven’t gotten past the hooks, you might not see that help is there.

The more someone practices calming techniques and positive self-talk, the more it becomes second nature in times of stress. That takes us back to the Girl Scouts (of course). On the Girl Scouts web site, they explain their motto by quoting from the 1947 handbook: “A Girl Scout is ready to help out wherever she is needed. Willingness to serve is not enough; you must know how to do the job well, even in an emergency.

What-can-a-Girl-Scout-do-when-Disaster1In other words, being prepared isn’t just about equipment and supplies, or even intention; it’s about preparing yourself – being ready and able to deal with what life throws at you, both practically and emotionally. You can prepare yourself for those emotional hooks by checking your story on a regular basis. What’s bothering you today? What’s hard for you? Once you’ve answered that, think about what you’re telling yourself about it. Is there anger in your story? Self-pity? Sadness? If so, maybe it’s time for a re-write. Can you turn the story into something more positive by changing the words you are using about it?

Yeats said that “Life is a long preparation for something that never happens.” We always hope that the worst never happens, but a Girl Scout would say be prepared anyway.

Living with uncertainty

“Stress levels increased since 1983,” read the headline in USA Today last week. Not surprised? What’s interesting is why stress is higher for some people than others.

Sheldon Cohen and Denise Janicki-Deverts analyzed three national surveys (1983, 2006 and 2009) that used the same measure of stress. In all three, women’s stress was consistently higher than men’s, younger people had more stress than older people, people with less education reported higher stress than those with more, and people with lower incomes showed more stress than people with higher incomes.

What was different between 2006 and 2009 was that the increase in stress after the economic downturn was almost totally driven by middle-aged, college-educated, white men who were employed full-time. Cohen and Janicki-Deverts theorize that this finding could be related to the “threat of job loss, actual job loss, or loss of retirement funds.”

But what I see is that this could also be about loss of power and control. It’s not news that people who are lower in a hierarchy have more stress than those on top. And since it’s also still true that most of the power in our society is held by white middle-aged men with college degrees and full-time jobs, in some senses those people had the most to lose when the economy turned sour.

The stress levels of women, the young and the poor didn’t increase significantly because their position in the hierarchy didn’t change much. But for white, middle-aged men, the downturn may have been the first time they felt themselves to be on shaky ground. All of a sudden, there were no guarantees.

The Company Men”, a film about the economic downturn, portrays this theme convincingly. The main characters, who thought they had it made, suddenly were experiencing the uncertainty that other groups have traditionally lived with. Depending on their access to coping strategies, they either weathered the storm or were destroyed by it.

Our new reality is that many of us will be living with uncertainty for a long time. So how do we inhabit that reality in a way that doesn’t wear us down and make us sick?

  • Recognize what you can control and what you cannot. The stock market is out of our control. So are the actions of other people. But we can control how we react to events. Focus on what’s present right now instead of worrying about what can’t be predicted or controlled.
  • Be careful of how you talk to yourself. Too often, we limit ourselves by having a negative narrative going on in our minds (I’m not good enough, I’m too old, I’ll be next to lose my job). Practice replacing those negative thoughts with positive statements.
  • Believe in yourself. Easier said than done, right? It takes practice to change how you think of yourself. But if you remind yourself of the way you’ve handled situations in the past, and all the things that you are capable of, your ability to believe and trust in yourself will increase.
  • Write about it. James Pennebaker and others have shown that people who write about their feelings every day for several days can improve their moods and feel better emotionally.
  • Have a sense of humor. It helps us change our perspective on life events and sometimes even turns a potential stressor into something less threatening. Know what kinds of jokes, movies or comics are sure to make you laugh, so that you can turn to them when necessary.
  • Consider the idea of change as opportunity. As Claude Bernard once said, “Man can learn nothing unless he proceeds from the known to the unknown.”