June 2004 Insight Newsletter

Making Stress Work For You

“Reality is the leading cause of stress amongst those in touch with it.” – Jane Wagner, writer

Every magazine points out the steady increase in stress reported by most of us today. They give reasons: voice mail, email, pace of work, constant change… and offer methods of coping. But we can do better than cope: this extends the principles outlined in January’s newsletter (see Past Newsletters above for January’s).

We can learn to see manageable stress as useful, but over-stressing or burnout as avoidable and dangerous. Understanding how this works is essential.

1. Preventing Burnout Before It Begins

Stress and excitement are interchangeable. This explains why we’re eager to embrace change, dive into high speed activity and keep ourselves continuously busy. It’s exciting. The problem: excitement constantly kept at fever pitch causes the ultimate result – burnout.

Among the best books on managing this are two by James Loehr, the athletic coach: Toughness Training for Life and The Power of Full Engagement. Both deal with the importance of giving yourself brief breaks to recharge your batteries. I like his original study of top tennis players. What distinguished those who made the very top from those who didn’t quite was simple: the very top players were able to rest between rallies where the others tended to berate themselves and keep pressing at top tension for the next shot. Those who could “unwind” briefly and who kept a sense of humor outlasted and outplayed those who stayed wound up.

This points to the most important key to success I emphasize in all presentations – sustaining balance over time is what creates results. Moreover it creates them faster while those who attempt to just overpower a situation run into more and more difficulty. All it takes is practice.

Advertising executive, Karen Salmansohn, captures another form of “resting while in action” in her book, How to Change Your Entire Life by Doing Absolutely Nothing. In a nutshell she recommends finding moments through the day to enjoy doing literally nothing for just a few seconds – in the shower for a moment or two, between meetings and so forth. By consciously resting rather than madly scurrying to the next task, we create space for enjoyment and for reconnecting with what’s important to us.

Zen master, Jack Kornfield, speaks of the over-riding importance of both enjoying and improving in life. He notes we often get stuck in improving constantly without enjoying along the way. Slowing down to smell the roses is a habit we can learn through reminders and practice. It pays off, as Loehr notes, by allowing us to stay the course and recharging our creative juices, so we actually come up with better ideas that get results faster and make us more productive. Most people seem to have a hard time believing this, but I’ve seen it so often that even though it’s counter-intuitive, I know taking mini-breaks really accelerates success.

Burnout simply means exhaustion… of normal eagerness, interest and coping. The more exhausted we become the longer the recovery time. To get back on track one must face the exhaustion, get some solid rest for a significant period of time and then begin slowly with basic chores before gathering speed again. Burnout in organizations is a serious problem because no one wants to spend the time recuperating and few have enough information to know how to recover properly, so further, deeper burnout is likely once a person experiences one episode.

The solution, as always, is simple. Individuals must exercise self-leadership, learn to pace themselves and how to recover. Take the lead – do at least one thing for yourself each day and take a few moments here and there to “do nothing.” That’s Loehr’s point. We have to learn what athletes see as building toughness to cope well with intense challenges in today’s societies. Recommending other ways, less physically forceful, but no less intense, Salmansohn and Zen masters promote meditation of short and long types and point toward ways of managing ourselves that are particularly useful in situations where we can’t get the rest we need every time we feel stress. What we can do is rest briefly and manage our perceptions and attitudes.

Preventing burnout before it begins takes simple practice in basics that help us recover from stress daily. It’s not something that can wait till we’ve built up a large deficit. Recovery from burnout can seem impossibly lengthy. The time to begin “recovery” is before it becomes a problem, a little at a time, the same way stress can add up if we let it.

2. A Useful Web Site

Holistic-Online.com is one of many sites that summarize a lot of useful information. I don’t in any way endorse particular foods, herbs or drugs. I’ve certainly found that avoiding things that create stress – over-indulging in lots of areas, for instance, is useful – and this offers a quick overview of a lot of the common and common sense advice one finds.

The key is to figure out what suits you. That takes some trial and error. Some stress is exciting. If you indulge in it at work or elsewhere in life, you need to be aware you can’t burn the candle at both ends and in the middle, too without some serious methods for resting in between. For each stressor, you need to plan for balance with some de-stressing time and activity.

3. Humor is a Great Antidote

You know stress is getting to you when you find yourself losing your sense of humor over insignificant stuff. January’s quotation is worth repeating: “He who laughs, lasts.” The worst thing someone can say to you if you’re over that edge is that you need a sense of humor. Nevertheless, it’s essential for you to say this to yourself. We know that even under the stress of disease, good results can come from any and every attempt to find humor again and relieve stress.

Effective leaders aren’t stressed out, high-strung prima donna’s around whom everyone must tip toe. They’re solid, in-control, balanced individuals who are ready to make a difference when challenges arise. They keep their humor!

Please feel comfortable sending feedback, suggestions or requests.