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The World's Shortest Course in Stress Management

By Marty Nemko

I am prone to being stressed. I believe I secrete more adrenaline than the average person.

That scared me because I knew that high-stress people die younger. In addition, I saw that being a high-stress person was hurting my career and personal life. No one wants to be around someone who’s stressed out, let alone hot-tempered.

In contrast, I saw that most successful people appeared calm. For example, when watching C-SPAN, I noticed that most senators, among our most influential people, remain calm, even when negotiating the world's most important issues. So I figured that to get what I want, I too need to be calm. (I believe Howard Dean went from frontrunner to also-ran because his Iowa caucus speech confirmed our intuition he was a hothead.)

So, I’ve worked hard to figure out how to keep my stress under control. Here is what I’ve learned. I’ll never be a laid-back person, but these strategies have helped me, and subsequently my clients.

Stop rushing. At age 20, I visited Europe for the first time. I recall standing in the Louvre at around 2 PM thinking, “If I can get through the Louvre in an hour, I can probably fit in Versailles before the end of the day.” That was typical. My addiction to adrenaline, fed by always trying to cram in as many activities as possible, kept me from enjoying whatever I was doing and made me a more stressful person. Lesson Learned: Do everything at a comfortable pace. Rarely is rushing is worth it. Even good emergency room doctors rarely rush—they proceed with focus, but without rushing.

Don’t look back. We all have reasons to be upset about things in the past. Thinking about them rarely helps. Rather, it usually increases our stress. Stay in the moment.

Live by the serenity prayer: May I have the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. We’ve all heard of people with terminal diseases who appear unworried, seeming to fully enjoy every moment. Yet many people get upset by things we can’t change, for example, when we’re driving in bumper-to-bumper traffic or when someone cuts us off. When someone cuts me off, I try to think, “I can’t cure him so I’m not going to let him get me stressed.”

Corollary: Accept people’s fallibility. We all encounter people who are stupid, thoughtless, or even mean. We may even be married to one. People are incredibly hard to change—even PhD-toting psychologists often fail to fundamentally change their clients. If you decide you’re not cutting the person out of your life, or if its someone you’ll only meet once—a slow clerk for example--try to view the person with charity rather than judgment: “We all have flaws. He’s doing the best he can.” People who are angered by or try to fix other people usually live stress-filled lives, and rarely change them much. We can refine but rarely remold.

I look out for early signs I’m getting stressed: for example, my neck starts to feel tight. If so, I take lessons from the yogis: I make sure my posture is good and take some slow deep breaths. I also often take a walk around the block or put on some music. (Right now, my favorite is the Glide Memorial Church Ensemble’s uplifting gospel CD “The Sounds of Hope.” Weird in that I’m a staunch atheist!)

Think less; act more. When I’m already stressed, I ask myself, "Is there anything I can do right now to fix the problem?" If yes, I try to do it. For example, if you’re afraid no one will hire you because you have no skills, make a list of your past accomplishments to remind you of your skills. If there’s nothing you can do about the problem—for example, you’re waiting to hear about a job you’ve applied for--immediately divert your attention by asking yourself: “What do I want to do now?”

So many people analyze a problem to death: analysis paralysis. After a moderate amount of thinking, try something, anything. It’s easier to figure out an alternative approach when you get feedback on what you’ve tried. So, for example, if you're worried you'll remain single for the rest of your life, place an ad on, ask friends to set you up, hang out at Starbucks, whatever. Think less; act more.

Three breaths/leave. Some people have short fuses—they go from calm to exploded in just a few seconds. So, often they find themselves looking back and thinking, “I wish I hadn’t said that.” If that sounds like you, get in the habit of-- the second you start to feel angry--taking three slow deep breaths, and if another person is the target of your anger, leaving the room. When you’ve left the room, ask yourself, "In the long run, will I be better off or worse off if I get angry about this?" If, on reflection, you conclude it’s worth exploding, fine. You’ve made a conscious choice to do it rather than letting your adrenaline dictate your behavior. But fact is, you will rarely decide it’s worth getting angry.

I still struggle with managing stress, but the above tools have helped.

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