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.”

My week with sea turtles

For most of the year, I don’t willingly get up before sunrise. But for one week every summer, I gladly rise before dawn and leave the house while everyone else is still sleeping. I do it for the sake of sea turtles, serving on the volunteer turtle patrol at a South Carolina beach.

For me, being on turtle patrol means that I get up when it’s still dark, walk two miles along the beach, meet interesting people who also care about wildlife, watch the sun come up, and just maybe, give a few turtles a head start in life. That’s worth getting up early for.

Sea turtles are endangered, due to loss of habitat, fishing activity, predation and being hit by boats. In response, natural resource agencies and beachfront communities around the world have developed programs to give baby sea turtles a helping hand. Think of it as leveling the playing field to make up for the human role in their endangerment.

In my community, volunteers go out each morning during nesting season to look for mother turtles’ tracks and mark where their nests are laid. Then the hatching patrol takes over, checking the nests each morning to make sure they are undisturbed, and looking for signs of hatching when the time draws near.

This morning I was practically alone on the beach when I went out. It had been raining all night, but it stopped just as I got to the beach. As I walked along, I saw deer bounding through the dunes and ghost crabs scurrying into their holes. There were no signs of predators near the nests, but crabs, raccoons and coyotes are all potential threats to the sea turtle eggs.

As the nests hatch, the baby turtles have more hazards to overcome on their way to the ocean – they can be eaten by birds, fall into holes people leave in the sand, and go in the wrong direction toward  lights from houses.  Many don’t survive the trip across the beach to the sea.

After we see that a nest has hatched, we wait three days, and then dig down into the hole to see how many eggs hatched, and if any live turtles are still inside, perhaps too weak to dig their way out. Volunteers take these turtles down closer to the water, and let them crawl out until a wave catches them and they start swimming. Usually a crowd of people gathers, and everyone clears a path for the turtles, shoos away the birds, and cheers when the turtles finally swim away with their little heads bobbing up for air.

It’s impossible to start the day with anything but a smile after witnessing something like that. I head back to the house where others are just beginning to stir, ready for coffee and breakfast, sandy, sweaty and hot, but knowing that I might have just spent the most valuable hour of my day.


Liberality in giving or willingness to give.

An article in the newsletter from my local hospital caught my eye yesterday. It told about some hospital employees who started a program to volunteer to help patients during meal times. Many patients, especially the elderly, need a little extra help with cutting their food or opening containers. When a family member can’t be there to help them, hospital employees (from all departments) volunteer to step in, providing assistance, encouragement and companionship for one to two hours a week.

By giving the gift of their time and attention, these employees are also receiving many benefits. There is a significant relationship between volunteering and good health. People who regularly volunteer generally live longer, function better, and have lower rates of depression as they get older than people who don’t volunteer.

Volunteers also report more satisfaction with their lives, higher self-esteem, higher levels of happiness and a greater sense of being in control of their lives. In addition, being a volunteer can sometimes involve people in a new social network, with all of the stress-buffering benefits that social support provides.

Why do some people volunteer and others don’t? Sometimes it feels like giving something to others – whether it is our time, our money or our love – means that we will have less of that for ourselves. When we let go of that habit of clinging to things, we learn that to give is to receive, and to receive is to give.

As a practical matter, studies have shown that one big difference between those who volunteer and those who don’t is time spent watching TV. Active volunteers watch far less television. So while it may seem that we don’t have time to volunteer, the reality may be that we only need to give up one of our “low-value” activities.

Helping others can also put people into new social roles; this can give them a sense of meaning and purpose in life. In that context, practicing generosity can be considered a spiritual practice. While that may sound surprising, if you think of spirituality as being connected to something larger than yourself, it makes sense. Practicing generosity helps us see how we are all connected and interdependent. It breaks down the barriers of time, space, age, race or socioeconomic status that may falsely separate us.

If you want to be a volunteer, but aren’t sure how to get started, look into programs in your city or county. Many local governments have web sites devoted to volunteer needs, some keep a roster of volunteers to call upon, and others will match you according to your interests. There are usually short term, long term and one-time opportunities available in your community.

The Corporation for National & Community Service is also a good resource.