Do You Have More Stress than in the Past? Learn to De-Stress!

by Diane Berenbaum

During our annual "Happy New Year" call, my college roommate lamented about getting old and confessed she had lost her keys twice in the past week. That same day, she found her keys in the garbage can of her local yogurt shop and had absolutely no recollection of putting them there. Her conclusion - getting old makes you more forgetful.

I have a different theory to the missing key phenomenon - stress! Who doesn't feel stressed in this fast-paced world of change? Each day our interactions with customers, co-workers, supervisors, and family members are potential sources of stress. And, when this stress mounts, it can damage our health, our minds, and our relationships. We can lose a whole lot more than our keys if it goes unchecked.

You too may be on overload and are more stressed than you realize. The good news is that there are ways to regain your composure. If you want to be sure your MAGIC shines, then it's time to de-stress.

Determining Your Level of Stress

First, let's determine your level of stress. Consider the following stress symptoms:

You keep losing your keys, cell phone, glasses, etc.

I, too, must admit that I have spent countless hours looking for my keys. I run around the house looking in different rooms, muttering that I will be late, and then find the keys in one of the first rooms I scanned.

According to Pamela Peeke, M.D., M.P.H., "Stress impairs memory function." Stress is the reason we look everywhere for our glasses when they are sitting on our heads (very embarrassing), search the entire parking lot for our car when we can't remember where we parked (so frustrating), or leave the house without our wallets/purses (extremely problematic).

You get irritated over minor things.

"If the smaller situations in life start to bother you more than normal, it's time to take a look," says Tim O'Brien, director of the Institute for Stress Management. If you get irritated or frustrated when you have to stop at a red light, wait in line at a store or just missed the perfect parking spot, it is time to step back and recognize that you're heading for trouble.

You're clumsier than usual.

Do you ever wake up and find a bruise that you don't remember having before? Stress messes with your memory and sleep. "Forgetfulness is a key sign you're operating under stress," states Vicki Lachman, author of Stress Management.

You may be more clumsy than usual and are not able to remember that you bumped into the dresser in your bedroom last night. Or, you may find yourself tripping over shoes, rugs, toys, or nothing at all, because your mind is trapped in a whirlwind of thoughts.

You feel like you have little control over your workload and no time to get it all done.

Do you often look at your watch or clock during the day and wonder how you are going to get everything done in such a short amount of time?

Excessively high workloads with tight deadlines can make people feel rushed, overwhelmed, and stressed. A study by Sheffield University's Institute of Work Psychology found that associates with the least control over their jobs reported the highest stress and lowest job satisfaction.

You've been sick an unusual amount of times.

Stress can make you more susceptible to illness. You can experience physical symptoms like headaches, neck pain, backaches, dizziness, and chest pain. Listen to your body for signs that it is under distress.

OK, I'm Stressed! What Do I Do Now?

Just as we all respond differently to different stress stimulants, you may find that one de-stress method may work better than others. Here are a few you can try:

15-Minute Stress Relief

You can relieve stress in less than 15 minutes with this technique designed by Herbert Benson, associate professor of medicine at Harvard University: 

  • Pick a focus word or phrase (such as "one," "peace," or "I can do it").
  • Sit quietly in a comfortable position and close your eyes.
  • Relax your muscles; start with your toes and move up to your legs, stomach, shoulders, neck and head.
  • Breathe slowly and say your focus word/phrase silently as you exhale.
  • Repeat for at least 10 minutes.
  • Sit quietly for a minute and then open your eyes.
  • Sit for another minute before getting up.

Starting to feel better yet?

Get Some Exercise

Research shows that exercise can provide you with the physical energy to keep you going and the emotional energy to stay in the game. It is a powerful way to improve your mental outlook, attitude, health, and energy (and your physical shape, too).

Many people may dread exercise or are unable to find time for it. For those of you crunched for time, here are a few stretching exercises, designed by fitness expert Victoria Johnson, that can be done in the comfort of your own work space: 

  • Breathe - Sit upright, relax your neck and shoulders, and take a deep breath in and out through your nose. Feel your diaphragm expand as you inhale. After a few slow, deep breaths, you'll put yourself in a much calmer, yet more energized state.
  • Neck Stretch - To stretch the muscles in your neck, tilt your head to the right while looking straight ahead. With your left hand, grab the bottom of your chair seat and lean a bit to the right. You'll feel the stretch down the left side of your neck and shoulders. Repeat the exercise leaning the left ear to the side to stretch your right side. To stretch the back of the neck, look straight down, pressing your chin to your chest.
  • Wrist Stretch - Stretch the top of your wrist by gently applying pressure to the back of the right hand while pointing your fingers down towards the floor. To stretch the muscles on the underside of the arm, reverse the above process. Use the opposite hand to press against the finger tips as they point to the ceiling.
  • Leg Work Wall Sit - Stand with your back flat against a wall, feet shoulder width apart, and 9 to 12 inches in front of you. With your arms at your sides, slowly lower yourself towards the floor until your knees are at a 90 degree angle. Hold this position for 30 to 60 seconds.
  • Calf Rises - While holding onto the back of a chair or desk, balance on one leg and rise on to your toes so you feel a contraction in your calf. Hold and squeeze for three counts, then lower until your heel almost touches the floor. Repeat 15 to 20 times on the same leg then switch.
  • Lower Back - Sit up tall in your chair with your right leg crossed over your left. Gently look over your left shoulder and rotate the body far enough so you feel a stretch along the lower back muscles. Make sure to keep the hips facing forward while you hold the stretch for 15 to 30 seconds. Repeat on the opposite side.

Learn to Relax

You may be so used to a certain level of stress that you don't know what it feels like to be calm and relaxed. With progressive relaxation, you can increase your ability to relax. The focus is on tensing muscles and then releasing the tensions instantly and completely. Here's what you need to do: 

  • Find a quiet room where you will not be disturbed for about 15 minutes.
  • Wear comfortable, loose fitting clothes and lie with your back down on the floor, mat or bed.
  • Settle back and close your eyes. Allow yourself to relax as much as possible.
  • Slowly inhale and exhale as you clear your mind.
  • Tense and relax all the muscle groups in your body.
    • Clench your right fist tighter and tighter so that you feel the tension and then relax
    • Do the same with your left fist
    • Bend both arms at the elbows and tighten the muscles in the biceps, hold, and relax
    • Turn your attention to your face - squeeze and relax your eyelids and jaw
    • Raise your shoulders as high as you can and then drop them all at once
    • Pull in your stomach and try to touch your backbone with your stomach and then relax
    • Arch your back and feel the tension in your lower spine. Settle down comfortably again
    • Straighten your knees and tighten your thighs one at a time
    • Bend your toes so that they point to the ceiling and you feel the tension around the feet and ankles, and then relax
  • Breathe in deeply and feel your heart rate slow down. You are now relaxed and can open your eyes.

Embrace Stress Productively

Not all stress is distress - the negative physiological and emotional response that occurs when stress is intense and unresolved. A certain amount of stress or pressure is necessary and even positive.

This good stress is called eustress, and can lead to progress, creativity, learning, and problem solving. It keeps us on our toes and helps us do our best in even the most challenging situations.

Stress is a good thing when you are in control of it and embrace it constructively. Learn to channel the stress and change things that aren't working. 

  • Look at all of the tasks that you try to squeeze into one day. Prioritize them and aim to eliminate those that are less important.
  • Refocus on a healthy view of people and circumstances. Cast off negative thoughts and work on meeting your long-term goals.
  • Manage your expectations. Keep a gratitude journal to maintain your perspective.
  • Prepare a plan of action and do something about it. Don't avoid the issues or let them get to you.

Will You Flourish or Flounder this Year?

You have what it takes to manage your stress and reach new levels of relaxation, productivity, and contentment. Find what works for you and you'll be breathing more easily this year and beyond. 
Diane Berenbaum is a long-time contributor and former editor of the MAGIC Service Newsletter. She has more than twenty-five years of experience as a consultant, coach, and facilitator. Diane is the co-author of How to Talk to Customers: Create a Great Impression Every Time with MAGIC® .
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