We all need realistic tools for stress management; not things that take superhuman effort or a huge lifestyle shift, but things that work. Each of these will help you with the personal and professional stressors you face at every point during your career. If you can focus on these six, every day, you will see important differences in your energy level, enthusiasm for life, relationships, and improvements in your work, patience, and mental and physical health.
Breathing – All stress-related breathing is short, shallow, and rapid. Stress-managed breathing is long, deep, and slow. All skilled athletes learn to control their breathing during their sports and especially just before they perform a specific move. You cannot function effectively if your breathing is out of control. Shallow breathing creates a vicious circle; the shorter your breaths, the more of them you need to take. Without good oxygen control, your body shifts into fight-or-flight mode faster than you want. You get tunnel vision and tunnel hearing, as the blood leaves your brain and moves to your extremities. Practice breathing slowly and deeply, concentrating on the length of each breath and spending a moment on those transitions between the end of each inhalation and the start of each exhalation.
Relaxation – This does not mean put your feet up with a cold drink and watch TV. Using focused relaxation, self-hypnosis, or meditation for stress control means you should try to find a minimum of 10 minutes each day, in a safe place, to close your eyes and simply do one thing: breathe slowly, counting from 100 down to 1 (okay, so that’s two things). If you can make this a part of your everyday routine, like brushing your teeth (and just like for good tartar control, twice a day would be even better), you will actually want to start extending the time.
Exercise – Running a marathon is not necessary to get beneficial, stress-relieving exercise. Just walk. Daily. For about 30 minutes. Walking is easier on your joints, burns calories if you move along at a lively pace (about 130 steps per minute is a good clip), and is a great social activity to connect with your spouse or partner, friends, colleagues, or your dog. Exercise helps you get better sleep, burns your excess stress energy from the day, minimizes depression, and supports your heart and lungs.
Attitude – In two words, you can better manage your personal and professional stress when you are relentlessly positive. People who see the worst in every one and in every thing are no fun to be around. Not all the world is bad. Those same people who always see their glass (or their checking account) as half-empty rather than half-full bring everyone around them down. Leucadia, CA-based psychologist and longtime stress expert Dr. Brian Alman says it best, “Successful people have one foot in the present and the other in the future. Miserable people have one foot in the present and the other stuck in the past.” Find the good in the situation you’re in. We live in the best country on the planet. Unlike a few billion other people who have no money and bad water, we are blessed with flush toilets, constant electric power, and disease-free mosquitoes.
Diet – Out with the bad carbs (diet and regular sodas, candy, bagels, white rice, pasta, fries, packaged flour and sugar foods) and in with the lean proteins, more veggies, complex carbohydrates, fruits, nuts, more water, and vitamin supplements. Food is a drug and it changes your mood for the good or the bad (caffeine, liquor, sugar, fats). Small changes make a big difference over time, like cutting portion sizes, avoiding most fast foods, studiously drinking two glasses of water before each meal, no carbs after dinner, or adding more fiber. Your body needs fuel but it needs the right kind of fuel. What you eat makes a difference in how you think, feel, and even how you sleep.
Sleep – We are a sleep-deprived culture. People who say they can get by on four to six hours a night are actually harming themselves. Lack of sleep affects your hormones (which can give you belly fat), judgment, concentration, and interactions with people. If you feel tired all the time, resolve to get more and better sleep than you do now. We sleep in 90-minute cycles. If you can adjust when you go to bed so that you wake up at the end of a 90-minute cycle, you’ll feel better. Prove it this way: have you ever only got four hours of sleep and woken up feeling fairly refreshed? Have you ever got 10 hours of sleep and woken up feeling like a zombie? In the first scenario you woke up at the end of a 90-minute cycle; in the second you woke up in the middle of one. So if you go to bed at 10:30 p.m. and get up at 6:00 a.m., you will usually feel better than if you go to bed at 10:00 p.m. and get up at 6:00 a.m. Make your bedroom dark, quiet (use a white noise fan or ear plugs), and cool. Don’t fight with your spouse or partner in the bedroom. Go to another part of the house. The bedroom should be a place of peace.