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Stress Management Works:
New Ideas For the Age-Old Problem of Stress!

Your supplier just informed you that your shipment is going to be two weeks late. You've just had a call from your son who's going to take the day off for the fifth time this month. You've just found out that the computer system in the office has broken down again. Tom Ridge has just raised the alert level from yellow to orange. Are you stressed yet? What do you do? How do you react? Do you know that how you respond to these circumstances could either shorten or lengthen your life? Do you know that you have a choice about how you react? Do you know what to do for stress management?

What is Stress?

In technical terms, stress is the body's reaction to a real or perceived threat. The stressors are the stress causes, those events that cause our bodies to release a flood of adrenaline, cortisol, and other stress hormones that produce powerful changes. Our heart rate and breathing rate go up, our muscles tense, and our stomachs produce more acid; we are ready for fight or flight, a vestige of our lives thousands of years ago, but, in today's world, it can lead to physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral problems. For over 50 years researchers have been studying the relationship between stress and disease and have found that stress can lower our antibody production, which makes us more susceptible to diseases. It can deplete us of vitamins, increase bone loss and, over time, increase our risk of accidents. If we are constantly reacting in this way, like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, we are always in a state of tension, and feeling under siege. Michael Roizen, M.D. in his book Real Age: Are You as Young as You can Be?, states that stress stimulates many of the conditions that cause early aging. If we get into the habit of overreacting, we will subtract years from our lives. It is wear and tear on our souls.

It should be added here, though, that not all stress is bad, in fact, our productivity actually improves with an increase in stress until the stress becomes too great and our performance falls off. Our lives would be boring without any stress. It is a normal part of life and only dangerous when it becomes too much for us, or we allow it to turn our reactions into damaging overreactions.

Stress in the Workplace

Research has found that 60% to 90% of medical office visits are for stress related symptoms and an estimated 1 million workers are absent on an average workday because of stress related complaints. Job stress is estimated to cost US industry $300 billion annually, in the form of absenteeism, diminished productivity, employee turnover, direct medical, legal and insurance fees. (www.stress.org) Workplace violence and industrial accidents are increasing, and are also thought to be due to increasing stress. The longer-term side effects from workplace trauma are greater with those individuals who have not learned to calm themselves. Stress has also been implicated in the increase in workplace violence, and road rage.

Most of my clients are busy entrepreneurs who have started companies often at the same time their families were young. They have worked long hours and have little time for themselves. They are often referred to as Type-A personalities and have been blamed for causing their own stress, by pushing themselves to achieve. Being a Type A is not in and of itself harmful. In fact, these usually successful people often get more stressed when they try to relax or slow down. They need to find outlets for their energy; a vacation sitting on the beach will probably not work! They also need to identify what stresses them and avoid those situations if possible and, if not, practice better ways to handle them. Some of us are better than others at handling the stressors in our lives. There are many ways to accomplish this. Roizen rates certain factors that can give us back our years lost to stress. A few of these are: getting control of your responses; making and keeping friends; living within your means; and keeping your mind alive and active. Finally, it means dealing directly with emotional upsets and conflicts, which is a critical challenge for families who work together.

Stress is very individualized; what may be stressful for one family or business may be brushed off as 'no big deal' by another. The trick is to identify what you can and what you can't change. I keep this on my desk as a constant reminder.

Serenity Prayer
Give me the strength to change what I can.
The serenity to accept what I can't change.
And the wisdom to know the difference.

Stress Management: Where Do You Start?

While you may not be able to control all of the complications in your life, you can change your responses. The most important step is to decide to stop acting like the White Rabbit and take control. 'Stress hardy' individuals and families have that ability. The best way is to learn to replace the stress response with what Dr. Herbert Benson, author of The Relaxation Response, president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, calls the 'relaxation response'. The 'relaxation response' can be elicited by regular meditation and considerable research suggests that regular mediation practice for 10 to 20 minutes a day can reverse the ill effects of stress. Meditation basically consists of calming the mind through focusing on something simple, like breathing, contemplation, prayer or visualization.

Only recently a significant new study led by Richard Davidson, Director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin, and Jon Kabat-Zinn, founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, has shown that the 25 subjects who took an eight week meditation course showed an increased activity in the left frontal cortex of the brain, while the control group, 16 non-meditators, did not. The left-frontal cortex, under active in people who are stressed, overanxious, and/or depressed, is more active in people who are usually calm and happy. People with more active left frontal cortexes produce less of the stress hormone cortisol, recover faster from negative events, and have higher levels of certain immune cells. The study suggests that meditation may have shifted the 'set point' to the left, explaining why changing responses from 'stressed' to 'calm' can have large effects on your mood and your life. There is also evidence that those who can calm themselves are less likely to suffer deleterious effects from real trauma and are, in fact, less likely to suffer PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), according to Bessel van der Kolk, one of the world's authorities on the neurobiology of trauma. Stress is contagious! The positive changes in your mood and self-awareness can work wonders on your business and family.

This is not about selling your business, kissing the family good-bye, putting your house on the market, and living like Thoreau in the woods by Walden Pond. This is about discovering a wonderful tool that can be learned in a short time and improve your world. In the words of Loretta LaRoche in her funny and profound book, Relax-You May only Have a Few Moments Left:

Yesterday is history
Tomorrow is a mystery.
And today is a gift.
That's why it's called "the present".

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If you, your family, or your business would like help in managing stress, contact us at Key Resources for some suggestions and help!

Jane Hilburt-Davis has taught stress management to companies, executives, and physicians at hospital grand rounds. She has completed the Internship at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in teaching Stress and Pain Reduction through Mindfulness Meditation.

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