Five strategies to tame stress before it tackles you

Karen Susman
Karen Susman & Associates
Presenter, 2002 APWA Congress

Got stress? If you answer "No," check your pulse. If you don't have a pulse, you're right. The rest of you experience stressor stacked upon stressor with nary a moment to catch your breath. Terrorist threats, stock market slides, draught, budgets, computer crashes, health insurance rates, teenage children, two-career families, traffic, Eminem. A plague of locusts must be next.

Here are proven strategies for managing stress, the stressor, and your stress response. In general, the goal is to feel more in control of your life instead of feeling that life is happening to you; that you are a victim. A stressor, by the way, is anything you personally consider stressful. For some, public speaking is a stressor the size of Montana. For others, public speaking is fun. An object, event, person, etc. is only stressful if you interpret it as a stressor.

1. Deal head-on with stressors. Lighten your stress load. This is as simple as being sure the car is always filled with gas. That relieves the stress of running out. Cut up credit cards. Deal with a problem employee immediately instead of procrastinating. Inventory your life and say, "There are many things I have no control over. What can I control and what's the first step on one of these items?"

2. Get mental. Imagine you have a bank account filled with energy instead of money. List all the stressors in your life on one side of a piece of paper, i.e., kids, job, boss, traffic, bills, aging parents, Kansas City Chiefs, spouse, squeaky door hinge, etc. On the other side of the paper, decide how much energy you're willing to spend on each item. Can you really afford to withdraw huge amounts of emotional energy on traffic or a task that isn't done exactly as you would do it? Ask yourself each time a stressor challenges you, "How much energy am I willing to spend on this?" Just as you can choose to spend $100 or $2,000 on a bike depending on how much you have in the bank, how important a bike is to you, and what your other expenditures are, you can actually choose how much you react to a stressor.

  • Reframe a stressor. For instance, many get irritated if they have to stand in line. Standing in line is interpreted as a waste of time. Instead, reframing defines a long line in the grocery as time to read the National Inquirer, visit, breathe deeply, write notes, or think.

  • Visualize. Identify a pleasant, relaxing place. Take some deep breaths. Close your eyes and visualize yourself relaxing in great detail. Take some more deep breaths and return to reality. This can be done in 60-90 seconds. When you open your eyes, you still have chaos around you, but you're better able to handle it.

  • Rehearse. Tiger Woods rehearses each swing and each putt in his head. He visualizes birdies, not bogeys. Close your eyes and see yourself successfully handling a stressful situation. March through every challenge and your response in your head. Then when you're faced with the real-life challenge, you can confidently say, "Been there. Done that."
3. Be physically fit. To manage stress, you must be fit. About 90 percent of everything a doctor sees is stress related. Thus, if you're not fit, stress can make you sick. Given busy lives and gluttonous temptations, being fit is a challenge. Ironically, taking charge of your health gives you a sense of control. You can't control the stock market, but you can control what goes in your mouth. You can't control terrorism, but you can exercise ten minutes a day. You can't control the weather, but you can take five minutes a day to enjoy nature.

Here are four fitness components:

  • Exercise: Aerobic, strength training, and stretching. Exercise is something the whole family can do together.
  • Eat healthy: You need B vitamins to manage stress. Sugar depletes the body of B vitamins. Lay off the sugar. Too much caffeine simulates the stress response. Reduce caffeine. Are you dehydrated? Dehydration slows thinking, and can cause fatigue and headaches. Drink more water. Milk has been shown to lower blood pressure. It helps with sleep, too. Got milk?
  • Rest: Sleep deprivation is ubiquitous. Address your sleep requirements now.
  • Practice purposeful relaxation such as visualization, meditation, or progressive body relaxation.
4. Build social support. Maintain a network of friends, family, loved ones, church or synagogue, sports or hobby buddies, coworkers. Strong networks act as buffers between you and life's stresses.

5. Embrace laughter, humor, fun and play. These build the immune system. A big belly laugh relaxes you. Even in the midst of a stressful life, there's lots to laugh about. Being able to laugh, have fun, and play is great for the whole family and everyone you work with. It also gives you a sense of control over your life.

How do these strategies work?
Take standing in line. This certainly doesn't compare to the threat of terrorism, yet we've all seen vein-bulging, fist-raising rage in line-standers. Here's how each strategy would dilute the stress response.

If standing in lines is stressful for you, use:

  • Head-on strategy. Don't stand in lines. Go to the bank or store when there are no lines. Send someone else. Shop and bank online.
  • Get mental strategy. Change your attitude about lines. Reframe lines as positive.
  • Fitness strategy. Wear comfortable shoes. Carry your water bottle. Do squats while in line.
  • Social support strategy. Go shopping or to the bank with friends. Make an arrangement to tag team standing in line. Network in line.
  • Humor strategy. See the humor in standing in line. Wear a clown nose. Read a humorous book or listen to a funny tape while in line.
Got stress? You bet, but it doesn't have to get you.

Karen Susman will present "How to Reduce Stress in 60 Seconds or Less (Or Your Money Back)" on Monday, September 23, at Congress.