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Managing Our Stress: Let’s get practical


05Dec 2006

Ok. We are in the holiday season. And now we will be bombarded with articles about the stress of the holidays — family gatherings, shopping, managing our finances, holiday parties and concerts to attend, traveling, and so forth. And it is true — the Christmas season and New Year’s tend to create more stress for us.

But the problem I have with many of the articles — whether they are in the newspaper, on msn.com’s homepage, in Time or USA Today, is that they are either so fluffy (“keep track of what you spend”) or they are so repetitive and vague they become meaningless.

So here is my attempt at trying to give some practical advice, and probably some you don’t usually hear.

First, let’s define stress.

Foundationally, STRESS = DEMANDS > RESOURCES.

You feel stressed when you have more to do than you have time or energy to do it. You feel stressed when you have more bills than you have money. You feel stressed when others are demanding more of you than you feel you have to give. The examples are endless.

However, the truer equation is this:

STRESS = PERCEIVED DEMANDS > PERCEIVED RESOURCES.

You may have heard, “perception is everything”. In the case of stress, this is absolutely true. What you perceive (or believe) to be the demand is what drives you (e.g. how clean the house needs to be when company comes to visit – it depends on whether it is your best friend, your boss, or your mother-in-law!)

Similarly, what resources you believe you have also are related to perception. You may think you have to clean the house. But you actually could hire someone to do it (yes, there are people who do it on a “one time” basis), but your own personal values may keep you from making this choice. So, in essence, you are choosing not to access a resource that could help you meet the demands in your life. Result = stress.

We could drive this deeper and give lots of examples, but I want to address some other related issues. But keep that equation in your head – it really helps to figure out “Why am I feeling so stressed?” The easiest way is try to track what are the “should’s” that you are feeling you need to do, and then try to determine how realistic they really are. (I give seminars on this topic for businesses and families from one to three hours long, so this is a quick introduction; feel free to see my presentation notes (pdf) for a fuller coverage).

Ok, so let’s look at some practical ways of dealing with the stress we will all be experiencing during the coming holidays.

1. Sleep. We all tend to feel more stressed when we are tired. And we live in a chronically sleep deprived society. Most of us don’t get as much sleep as we need and it creates a lot of problems in our lives.

So do yourself (and your friends, family, and employer) a favor. Go to bed. Turn off the TV. Choose to go lie in bed and not stay up to watch a movie. Shut off the computer and quit searching the ‘Net.

It is amazing that if you actually quit feeding stimuli to your brain, you go lay down in your bed and turn off the lights, you will usually go to sleep in a relatively short time – because you are tired.

2. Say “no” – to yourself, to your friends, to your family. Try it right now. Just practice. Quietly (but out loud), say “no”. See you can do it. It is physically possible. Now the trick is to do so frequently and repeatedly.

I am a high-energy, stimulation-seeking person. And I love a party. As a result, my biggest fear was that someone was having fun somewhere and I was not there to be a part of it. I used to wear myself out going places, being with people, seeking fun – and then I would get sick (as well as being stressed and irritable even if I wasn’t sick).

So I have had to learn to say “no” – largely to myself. I don’t have to go to the XYZ concert, or go see the lighting of the Christmas tree downtown, or go to the Smith’s (and the Johnson’s, and the Jones’) Christmas parties – although it might be fun to do so. The fact is: I can’t do everything that is out there and available. And neither can you. If we do, we will get tired, stressed, over-extended, and possibly sick.

For some people, saying “no” to others is the more difficult task. Saying “no” to your friends, that you can’t go out tonight to see a movie, or watch the big game on TV, or go to a great concert, or whatever it is.

For many, saying “no” to family (especially mom and dad, if they live close by) is the hardest. Sometimes this takes the form of setting limits on how long you will stay over the holidays, or whether you will come visit at all (if they live out of town). Other times, it may be saying that you will pass on a family tradition that really isn’t that important to you anymore (driving around and looking at Christmas lights, or going on your annual Christmas shopping trip).

The main point is this: just because you did ABC in the past, or just because Amy/Bob/Sue/John want you to … with them, doesn’t mean you have to this year. Make some choices for yourself this year.

Choose what you want to do (and don’t do the rest).

I would strongly encourage you, right now, to pick out some things you are not going to do this year.

3. Be thankful and enjoy each day (and moment). As I shared previously, being thankful for what you have is key to enjoying life.

Now the key to this being really helpful versus being a nice platitude is to practice it. Today, when you are done reading this, tell the first person that you know and see something positive about your life (“you know, I really enjoy the Christmas lights at this time of year”). Or share something that you appreciate that they bring to your life (“Have I ever told you how much I enjoy your smile?”). Even in a negative circumstance, choose to be thankful (“yea, this traffic sucks, but it’s nothing compared to worrying about a car bomb going off when you go shopping”).

I’m sure there is more we can do to reduce our stress during the holidays: eat less, exercise more, don’t try to impress others with your gifts, …

But let’s try these 3 steps and see how we do this year.

Remember, get some sleep. Say “no” to doing some of the extra activities available to you. And practice being thankful for many of the circumstances of your life and those around you.

Let me know how it goes.

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