Stress Management – By Dr. Alan Christianson:
Hey! Dr. Alan Christianson here. I am really excited to talk to you about stress ‘management.’ That is the word I am supposed to use, right? When you ‘manage’ something, it gives you the sense of always being there, and I just don’t know about that. I think a different mindset is appropriate for stress. So, how about not using the word, ‘managing’? Let’s use ‘thriving’ instead – really letting it propel you and move you further. Being excited, enthusiastic and maybe even a little bit nervous about being outside your comfort zone can be a positive thing. That is where we really grow.
One concept is realizing that stress can be given, or stress can be chosen. ‘Given’ stress is the one that comes to you blindly – the deadlines, pressures, the constant interruptions that come from electronic devices and whatever else. This can be a real grind and wear us thin. So, one thing you want to have is a ‘chosen’ stressor. This is something that really matters to you. For some, this can be a political, environmental or social cause. This also can be a goal relative to loved ones and things you want to see for them. It could be goals for yourself in terms of your health, your economic state or your education. If you have got some big, chosen stressors, they feel very differently than the given stressors. Our body has different reactions to them, as well. Sometimes, it can actually bring us to a better place and build more resiliency.
Stress is kind of like exercise. It is a challenge. If that challenge is not something you want, or is way too intense, you will suffer – unfortunately, your health and vitality will decline. On the other hand, if the challenge is chosen and intentional, you can control the intensity of it – where it expands your capabilities without overwhelming you. This is where growth comes from. This type of stress is really good.
Rather than worry about how to avoid stress, think about how you can create stress. Ask yourself, “How can I create really cool and great stress by moving towards things that really matter to me?” In doing so, really take some time to think hard about what really does matter to you. In thinking often about the day-to-day types of stress and distracting things, we may lose touch with what’s important. I would encourage you to start identifying what is important to you personally and build some rituals around these things.
Take some quiet time in a setting that is very peaceful and comfortable, and write about what things have really made you happy and are very important for you. Write about things you would like to see more of, and be crystal clear on how you can engage more of your time in moving towards those goals. We are often taught the way we get away from stress is by having distractions, such as watching television or seeing movies. However, science very clearly says that is not true. When you measure someone’s brain, you measure their cortisol. You measure blood chemistry. When someone is in a state of distraction, they are actually more stressed. They are actually not healing or doing better. They are just distracted and will go back into a world that is no better than the one they left behind. So, instead of using distractions to get away from stress, create and build your own stressors and focus on those. It works.
Another key is having some rituals and some rhythms. Practice some habits that move you to a state of repair and relaxation. So much of our world came from the model of factories. The pace of our life and the nature of it came about during the industrial revolution. Much of it was designed for us to be good little cogs in the factory and work hard at the assembly line. It was not really meant to create fulfilling, joyful lives for us. It was made for us to be productive. We have to realize that if we live our lives by default, and go along with that system, we will be productive and useful to that system. However, what about us and our needs? We really have to grab the reigns, pull them back and ask ourselves what really matters to us. What are your big goals? You have to figure out how to structure your day to make sure those important things happen and that you are in a state of resiliency, repair and happiness.
In taking control of your day, include a couple of rituals. Here is one of the easiest, which is also one of my favorites. You simply alternate which nostril you breathe through. Here’s the full explanation: Take about five minutes in the morning and sit down somewhere comfortable. If you do yoga and have great flexibility, then do a Lotus Pose. Sitting in a chair works fine, too, but have your spine straight, be comfortable and just control your nostrils. Breathe in through your left nostril, hold your breath, and breathe out through your right nostril. Now, breathe in through your right nostril, hold, and breathe out through the left. That is the whole sequence. You want to time it so each of those steps is about the same length of time. You can count, “One Mississippi, Two Mississippi,” or you can listen to your heartbeat. You can listen to a clock. You can say an important phrase to yourself. Find some way to get timing. In five minutes of doing that flow, you can radically reset the whole physiology of the stress response.
The funny thing we are learning is that our psychology affects our physiology. So, if we are down and feeling despair, we hold ourselves in a certain way. If we are happy, joyful and confident, we light up and hold ourselves in another way. So, the mind affects the body. Now, we are learning the body affects the mind. So, even if you are not feeling great, but you do something that resets your nervous system, you shift the psychology. You shift your brain in measurable ways.
Here is one more of my favorite tricks, and this is an easy and powerful one. We all know we need to move and exercise. We all know about the big benefits of meditation, but we are busy. Time is often compressed, days are often short and people have a hard time doing the things they’re already trying to do. So, how do you work it all in? Meditation is a way to have your mind go into a groove that takes away some of the background noise and frees up your creativity and your real capacity to heal yourself. One of the easiest ways is counting. You can go for a walk and can count your steps. It can be that simple to get the benefits of exercise and meditation. Lots of research has shown that pretty powerful things happen to our health when we exceed around ten thousand steps per day. That takes about 40-60 minutes for most people. If you are not already physically active or meditating, I encourage you to plan for a thousand steps, which you can do in about 10 or 15 minutes. Make a game of it: Try to count the whole way through without stopping. It is very normal that somewhere along the way, you’ll have a wait-a-minute moment where you think, “I have to pick something up,” and then, “There was this one thing that I have to do” or “I have to take this call.” All of a sudden, the brain thinks, “What number was I on?” No worries – just start over and go back to number one.
Find yourself a little loop around the neighborhood or do the thousand steps on a treadmill. Just find a place you like to be and plan on a certain timeframe. The goal is to maintain an unbroken count all the way through. You will be able to do this, once you get the hang of it! Even if you have been totally distracted and have a hard time focusing, it will get easier. You can easily chart your progress. Make a little note about how far you were able to count your steps without distracting thoughts. Soon, you will be getting your count steady all the way through. All you are doing is walking and counting, “1, 2, 3, 4, 5…” That is the whole complexity.
There is a beautiful thing we have learned from using methods of science to see the benefits of traditional practices: It isn’t complicated to get the big benefits from the important parts of those practices. So, try some walking meditation if you are not already. It can be one of the most powerful ways to reduce, transform and convert stress. Along those same lines, remember to keep your big vision, your big focus and your chosen stressors in mind at all times.
I suggest you wake up each day and write out your goals. Write what you want to see happen and how you want to really focus your time to achieve those big, chosen stressors. So, do not make stress the enemy by trying to manage it. Go ahead and transform it. Choose stress and make it a source of power for you.
Dr. Christianson here. Reset your health. Reset your life. I would be happy to show you how. See you soon. Take care.