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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Who’s your Sputnik?

We go through our lives circling, and being circled by, a changing array of characters: parents, siblings, children, spouses, friends and cousins. Our social networks and relationships change with the lifecycle, first one, and then another, becoming more or less important, a few of them constants. These circles of enclosure resemble nothing so much as satellites.

A satellite is a celestial body that orbits a planet, such as Earth’s moon. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite into orbit, naming it “Sputnik”. Since that time, the word “sputnik” has become a Russian idiom meaning a special friend or life partner – in other words, a person around whom your life turns, and whose world revolves around you. The staff of the aid organization Partners in Health was so taken with this concept that they gave the name Sputnik to one of their treatment programs in Russia, signifying their commitment to patient-centered care and support.

But the term “sputnik” could be synonymous with any kind of social support. Who are the sputniks in your life? The people to whom you turn in times of crisis, as well as the ones in whom you confide on a daily basis? And for whom are you a sputnik? Which people would you drop everything to help? Whose well-being is vitally important to you?

Parents are like satellites orbiting and protecting their children; and sometimes in later years, that circle turns inside out and children’s lives begin to revolve around their parents. Sometimes we lose someone in our orbit; other times, new friends or spouses join it. We are members of overlapping orbits around other people, our social networks looking like elaborate Venn diagrams. The beautiful thing about a circle is that it can always expand.

Just as Saturn has 53 moons, but the Earth has only one, it doesn’t matter how many people are in your social support orbit if the ones who are there are giving you what you need. That support takes different forms:

  • Feeling cared for and loved
  • Feeling valued and respected
  • Having a sense of belonging
  • Having somewhere to turn for advice and guidance
  • Knowing that there is a safety net of physical or material support

These resources we can tap from our social relationships are powerful players when dealing with stress. The perception of support can either prevent stress from occurring, or be a buffer against stress after it starts. Whether it is someone to listen or someone to give advice, someone who gives a hug or someone who loans you money, someone who raises your self-esteem or someone who stitches up your wounds, support from the people in your orbit keeps you healthier, both physically and emotionally.

The people in your support circle should not be taken for granted. Thich Nhat Hanh writes that investing in people is more important than having money in the bank:

We can get in touch with the refreshing, healing elements within and around us thanks to the loving support of other people. If we have a good community of friends, we are very fortunate. To create a good community we first have to transform ourselves into a good element of the community…We have to think of friends and community as investments, as our most important asset. They can comfort us and help us in difficult times, and they can share our joy and happiness.

During medieval times, many early scientists believed that there was something divine or perfect in the shape of a circle. Is that any less true today? Isn’t there something supremely magnificent about the satellites that slowly rotate around us, keeping us safe?

The “Habitastic” way to deal with stress

It’s fairly well known that practicing generosity can be an effective way of alleviating stress. Acts of kindness and volunteer work get us out of our heads and out of the “I’m the center of the universe” trap by forcing us to focus on something or someone else for a while. All of a sudden our problems don’t seem so big or overwhelming when put in the perspective of another person’s.

Sweating through a morning of hard work at a Habitat for Humanity home-build this week showed me that there are even more benefits to lending a helping hand on a regular basis. Besides the distraction from our own problems, there is the self-esteem and self-efficacy that comes from learning to do an unfamiliar job and doing it well. I can proudly say that I helped build a roof today, and that feeling of accomplishment helps to dislodge any negative thoughts about myself that might be causing stress.

imageThe hard physical work is also so unlike what most of us spend our days doing that our monkey minds shut off for a while and we are able to stay focused on the task at hand. When operating a table saw or lifting heavy trusses atop a house, keeping everyone safe and doing it right take precedence over worrying about the project at work or the problems of our children.

There’s also the camaraderie of working as a team, whether it’s with perfect strangers, co-workers, or family members. We learn about each other, strengthen existing bonds, and are reminded of the need to be good communicators. Most people very quickly fall into a rhythm of working together for the common goal.

I don’t know what brought all these people together to build a house for an unknown family. There was the young woman getting married in two weeks, stressed over wedding plans, but taking the day to build instead. There was a group of people who work in the same office given the day off for the project. Two sisters, a mother and daughter, people on vacation. Was it for fun, stress relief, a belief in the cause? Does it really matter?

Jacques Cousteau said that, “It takes generosity to discover the whole through others. If you realize you are only a violin, you can open yourself up to the world by playing your role in the concert.”

A new balance

I thought I had stress management under control until I decided to move. I was maybe even a little bit smug, staying calm when others fell apart, stepping in to support my friends and family through their crises. Now I’m realizing just how easily the balance can be disturbed, life can feel chaotic and turmoil can take over.

In most stressful situations, there are both emotional coping responses and practical, problem-focused responses that will help ease the feeling of discomfort. For me, it’s easier to focus on the practical steps, so I make the to-do lists; I schedule the cleaning, the repairing and the painting; I go through the closets; I sort things to keep or get rid of.

The problem is that focusing solely on the action steps is making me more than a little anxious and kind of obsessive. I literally can’t stop thinking about what needs to be done next. I can spend half a morning organizing my Craig’s list posts and Freecycle emails. I can spend half an afternoon organizing bags of castoffs for Goodwill. Meantime, all semblance of normal life is lost.image

Larry David once quipped, “I don’t like to be out my comfort zone, which is about a half inch wide.” Getting ready to move has been forcing me to see the limits of my own comfort zone.  I keep thinking that if I can just clear the clutter out of my house, I’ll feel calmer. But really what I need to do is clear the clutter out of my mind. It’s time for some emotion-focused stress management steps.

Emotion-focused coping means using techniques that help change how I’m looking at the stressor of moving. According to Richard Blonna, one such emotion-focused method comes from Morita therapy — accepting the strong feelings that I have right now, and turning my attention instead to productive work (like writing a blog post!) Another thing I could do is examine whether any of my thinking around the move is illogical. For instance, am I setting arbitrary deadlines for myself? Am I catastrophizing any aspects (if I don’t do this today, the move won’t happen)? If that’s the case, I can try substituting more positive statements for the negative ones.

I realize also that I’m making a classic mistake of people who have too much to do. I’m sacrificing some of the very activities that could make me feel better. While I’m continuing to do yoga regularly, its benefits would last longer if I also added some meditation or breathing breaks on the days in between classes. I could also be turning to my friends more for social support — a night out is okay, even when there’s a lot to do. And, in spite of the cold, a walk in the park would be calming.

Most of all I need to be mindful of spinning my wheels. As Robert Anthony has said, “Moving fast is not the same as going somewhere.” Maybe there are days when the best preparation for moving is not to pack, clean or organize anything.

Discovering what’s here

“È tutto qua” says the little note taped to my computer monitor. It is an Italian phrase meaning “it’s all here”. I first saw it in San Francisco, where it’s the name of an Italian restaurant. I looked up the meaning and was so taken with it that I have kept it in front of me ever since.

Besides my love for all things Italian, the note reminds me to keep life simple. Don’t confuse wants with needs, don’t overcomplicate things. It’s all here already.

Whenever I start thinking that someone else has a nicer house, or a better car, or more success, I remind myself that it’s all here.

Whenever I start fretting about how I look, or stressing over little things that go wrong, I try to remember: it’s all here.

The idea of è tutto qua for me is partially about gratitude, but it’s also about knowing how little we really need to make us happy. The Gallup polling organization surveyed over 130,000 people in 130 countries not long ago, and identified two things that are the biggest predictors of whether people enjoyed their day. The two things were “being able to count on someone for help” and “learned something yesterday”. That’s it.

Once our basic needs (food, shelter, safety) are met, it’s not the extra gadgets and extravagant trips that increase our happiness. It’s as simple as knowing that someone has your back, and that you’re continuing to grow. It’s all here.

The sister I can call for emotional support or advice; the neighbor I can ask to borrow an egg; the friend I can rely on in an emergency: it’s all here.

The ability to read, to listen, to see; to take up skiing when you’re over 40; or to learn (as I did yesterday) that the resveratrol in red wine can protect against hearing loss: it’s all here. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The question is, on how many days can you say, “It’s all here”?  The Gallup people also have something called the Well-Being Index, where they measure the mood of a sample of people every single day. It shows the percentage that had “a lot of happiness/enjoyment without a lot of stress/worry” and the percentage that had “a lot of stress/worry without a lot of enjoyment”. So, for instance, on February 19, 43% said they had a lot of enjoyment without stress, and 14% said they had a lot of stress without enjoyment.

Leo Rosten said, “Happiness comes only when we push our brains and hearts to the farthest reaches of which we are capable.” Maybe the two determinants of enjoyment are dependent on each other. Can we actually be free to learn and grow to our full potential if we don’t have the support of others? And can we have healthy, mutually beneficial relationships if we don’t continue to grow and change?

Are you going to enjoy today? What will you learn? Who will you support, and who supports you?

What was your first social network? (Hint: Not Facebook)

A baby in the arms of her father – with her mom looking on – is forming her first and most important social network. Her network expands day by day, babybecoming more complex, as she is introduced to siblings, babysitters, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Soon, she starts forming networks separate from the family – friends, neighbors, teachers and coaches. Eventually she has networks that encompass jobs, community and the entire digital world.

Traditional social networks give us several kinds of support.  Tangible support includes things like money, a place to live or help with chores; informational support includes advice and instruction; emotional support covers love, trust, a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on. When we’re young, we rely on our parents for all three kinds of support; but as we mature, we look to other people in our network to provide some or most of these things, and we learn not to rely on any one person for everything.

Social connection is vitally important for health and well-being, but “connect” may be one of the most overused words of the last decade. We connect on Facebook, Linked In,Twitter and blogs; we connect with old friends, strangers, and people around the world; we connect at home, at work, on the subway and as we walk. But in our rush to connect with everyone, all the time, everywhere we go, do we make it all seem too facile? Do we forget the effort that goes into forging strong and lasting bonds?

It’s easy to click the “Like” button, but not so easy to engage with people day after day, through good times and bad, in the face of disagreements and hurts. It’s easy to send a text or an email, but it takes time to pick up the phone or meet in person to iron out differences. As our digital networks expand, are our in-person networks contracting?

The family network – our first – in many ways bears the brunt of our relational laziness. Maybe it’s because we don’t have the same fear of losing the people in that network. We learned early that we could rely on them, so we don’t worry about paying attention to them and cultivating the relationships. We take them for granted. Worse, we don’t mend the little tears and breaks in the fabric of the relationships, because we don’t think we need to.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn the past two weeks, I’ve been both to a family funeral and on a family vacation. Each one reminded me that families are messy and complicated organisms! At the funeral, a sister stood on one side of the room not speaking to her siblings. No one even knows for sure why she’s not speaking to them. On every family vacation, I see how hard it is for everyone not to slip back into their habitual roles: good child, bad child; provocateur, peacemaker; the bossy one, the passive one. No wonder we want to be with our “easier” social networks instead!

The novelist Doug Coupland has written, “People are pretty forgiving when it comes to other people’s families. The only family that ever horrifies you is your own.” The truth is, though, that unless you have a truly terrible family, they are the people who will be there for you over the long haul, the ones you’ll be able to call in the middle of the night with a crisis, and the ones you’ll want to share your successes with. Sometimes you feel like you can’t live with them, but it’s almost always better than living without them.

My intention for the new year? To pay attention to my family, to give and forgive, to listen more patiently, to judge less often and to share more meaningfully.

Running with friends

Yesterday I ran a 10k race, the longest I’ve run since my last 10k in November. I would not have done it without my running partner, Naomi.  I would say we keep each other motivated, but it’s more like we keep each other from being slackers. Neither of us loves running enough to do it consistently on our own. But knowing that we’re each depending on the other keeps us going.

Years of studies consistently show that social support is a significant factor in keeping people exercising, especially women. One recent study indicates that it is the esteem social support that is most significant – the positive feedback, encouragement and compliments we receive from others. On the other hand, companionship social support – having another person exercise with you – can actually keep people from exercising more strenuously.

I guess in some ways, that’s what’s happening with my friend and me. We keep each other running, but we don’t often push each other to work harder. We talk a lot while we run; a favorite question when the running gets difficult for one of us is, “Do you have a good story?” We don’t work together or live near each other, so hearing about each other’s lives is a great diversion. This doesn’t lend itself to doing speed work, but it has made us better friends over the years.

I could, and sometimes do, run with my husband. He’s good about keeping us on pace and running longer distances. But he sets a high standard for himself and that can sometimes carry over to me. Running with my friend, by comparison, is pretty much judgment-free. If one of us wants to walk, we walk. If one of us wants to run 3 miles instead of 4, that’s what we do. And if one of us suggests a 10k, the other one usually agrees.

The question, I guess, is what’s enough? While I know that challenging myself physically can prepare me for other challenges in life, I’m not the kind of person who needs to run a marathon to accomplish that. I have plenty of other opportunities in my life to prove myself, and to get that runner’s “high” feeling. Running is just one of the ways that I stay healthy. So even though it was a bit disheartening to see the fastest runners returning toward us when we were still two miles from the finish, I don’t feel too bad about our 10-1/2 minute miles yesterday. We ran 6.2 miles for the first time this year, and we felt pretty good at the end of it.

Olympian Wilma Rudolph, once the fastest woman in the world, said that she “… loved the feeling of freedom in running, the fresh air, the feeling that the only person I’m competing with is me.” My wish for every run is to find that kind of freedom and to feel the lightness that can come from running unencumbered in the fresh air. I may not be setting records, but I’m still running, and I’m glad I’m not alone.