You choose your stress levels by your responses to situations
You have a deadline – a major report is due in half an hour and your computer crashes. The school calls, your child is sick, you are in the middle of a rush job and your office is an hour away from school. You have a meeting scheduled in half an hour and you can’t find your carefully prepared notes that include pertinent graphs and vital information. You are working on a major project, everything seems to be going wrong and your client is calling every 5 minutes. You feel panicked.
I’m sure you have your own 1001 crisis moments when stress is suddenly escalated to the moon. In an instant your fight/flight response is activated and adrenaline is pouring out your pores along with perspiration.
But even though your body and mind are prepared to run or fight, the proverbial tiger at the door isn’t there; at least not in physical form. You are geared up for battle with noone to fight or no place to run. Sometimes, we become like the deer frozen in their tracks staring into the headlights of an approaching car.
What is your first response to a crisis?
It is easy to panic when you are meeting a deadline and everything goes wrong, your job or someone is depending on you or life simply dumps a truckload of problems on top of you.
Panic, fear and anxiety are responses to perceived danger and are connected to the automatic thoughts that tell us we need to do something to survive. Even when that survival is psychological, our physical responses to that danger remain the same.
When our responses to problems are exaggerated or are out of proportion to actual events, we find ourselves in a state of constant high alert and stress.
No matter what the situation – no matter how dire or drastic – we can stop, evaluate and choose a more appropriate response. That first step in finding a solution, is lowering the immedate stress level so we can think and act more appropriately.
When we develop practical responses to every day problems, we can better handle emergencies. If our typical response is exaggerated or out of proportion to the situation, we soon develop habits that keep us feeling hopeless and helpless. It isn’t the events themselves that stress us out, but our perceptions of what we can do, are able to do or believe we must do.
Unless someone is physically in danger where immediate action is required, the first thing when faced with what seems like a catastrophic crisis is to STOP.
Take a few calming deep slow breaths that come from the diaphragm, and allow your mind to become calm. Taking those few seconds or minutes out of a time pressured situation might seem like an eternity but it isn’t. You are calming your reaction so you can find appropriate solutions.
Next, do a quick assessment. What is the first thing that needs to be done? What can you do and what can’t you do? What resources are available to you? Make a quick inventory of options. Choose the best and act.
Panic can keep us from thinking systematically and logically adding more pressure and intensity to our situation. We can reduce the effects of that panic by challenging the thinking associated with it, turning it from catastrophic to manageable.
Over the next few weeks, I will explore ways to put in place more practical responses to problems.
Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC
What stuff is creating a special and unique home – what is not
Yet my home gives me pleasure. I designed and built it to meet my needs for smaller space with lots of light, openness and freedom of movement. I will miss it when I can no longer live here just as I miss the home my husband and I had built and which I had to sell. But I would miss even more the opportunity to have enjoyed it.
Likewise, I would miss the things in my home that give me pleasure, create beauty in spacing, design and color as well as being functional. I would find it difficult living in Spartan quarters without the things I have inherited, were given to me or collected that I love and that hold meaning to me.
But my friend was right in that you can become so attached to your home and things that you lose perspective. They aren’t the end all.
We can collect so much “stuff” that it becomes a great source of stress. When closet doors don’t close, our cars won’t fit in the garage, there is no room in the spare bedroom for guests, and we have to rent outside storage units just to store “stuff”, it’s time to get serious about why we are hanging onto so much of it.
So what do you do?
The prospect of sorting, organizing and getting rid of stuff can be so overwhelming we walk away and treat ourselves to a shopping trip! Wrong move. Moving to a new residence is a great time to get rid of stuff. Downsizing your home is another. But you can get rid of stuff without being so drastic.
Where do you start?
Organizational experts will tell you if you haven’t used something in two years, get rid of it. I have used drastic measures before but have given away things I wish I still had. Since I don’t like clutter, and my home space is designed and designated for just so much, it gives me incentive to not just organize but get rid of things. Here is what works for me.
1. Start in one area at a time. Perhaps that is an overflowing closet, or a room. Keep the target area manageable. Don’t try to do the whole house at one time.
2. Sort and evaluate carefully what you have: What is absolutely necessary, what may be necessary at some time in the future (are you sure it really will be necessary?) and what is meaningful enough to organize space for it.
3. Examine the space available to you. Resist the temptation to simply move excess “stuff” into another area. Challenge yourself. Is this stuff really necessary? Will you really need it in the future or is it an excuse to keep you from making a tough choice?
What are the chances you will be using it anytime soon? Why are you hanging onto it? Imagine how much easier life will be without it. Then ask yourself what kinds of organizational system (shelves, boxes, etc.) do you need. You are organizing for easy access not just storage.
4. Designate areas that are used for storage of seasonal things that are out of the way.
If items have meaning for you, then by all means keep them. I have my husband’s trombone. I know I will not be playing it anytime soon. Items that I have inherited or that were given to me that have a lot of meaning to me, I keep. They don’t have to have any monetary value. The value comes from its association with my life.
My rule is: if I don’t have shelf space or can’t create an organizational system that will store things, it goes. If it holds meaning, I find the space. The rest goes, because I have decided I am not going to build another house any time soon.
©Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC
Nothing creates more stress for me than having to learn something in the world of technology. As my daughter has lovingly said, Mom, I think you were born missing the technical gene. I couldn’t agree more. Yet in order for me to continue writing, blogging and sharing my love of God, people and ways to create a meaningful and happy life, working with my computer and cyberspace is a necessity I cannot ignore.
I admire people who can sit down, experiment with the computer and learn to do all the wonderful things it has to offer. I am not one of those people. Recognizing and accepting that has been the first step in reducing stress levels and adjusting my learning curve to one I can handle.
So how have I met this huge learning curve?
First, I not only acknowledge and accept my limitations in this area, but am comfortable in that knowledge. I don’t have to compare myself with others. Understanding technology is simply not part of my persona and never will be. Instead, I can maximize my strengths while improving in those areas that are more challenging.
Second, what is the minimum I need to know in order to do my work? I need to have step by step instructions and the ability to apply it. I need enough understanding and knowledge of terminology and language to converse with a mentor or teacher. That has been frustrating because new terminology is introduced every day. I continue to stick to the basics and learn the rest a little at a time.
Third, I know too much while knowing too little. Most computer self-help books are either too elemental or too advanced. A lot of what I already use is without full understanding of terminology and vocabulary. Because of this, traditional classes do not work for me. I budget time and money to hire a mentor to help me. On my own, I get self-help computer books and gradually learn the basic terminology so I can ask the questions I need to ask for assistance.
Fourth, breaking down any new learning into small steps and chunks of information is important. As a former teacher and facilitator of many groups, I am aware of the importance of application of knowledge to facilitate learning. No matter how busy, I challenge myself to learning something new every week in this area.
Fifth, I grace myself time to learn. I don’t even try to keep up with the fast, mad pace of technology. I work at a pace I can handle which reduces stress levels. Understanding how you learn is also important. I am very visual and tactile. So I save time, money and energy by hiring a mentor to help me.
We are each challenged with learning that might be difficult but necessary. For me it was technology. Yours may involve learning how to communicate more effectively, creating a happier marriage, applying good parenting skills, learning how to budget and care for your finances, etc.
No matter what the area of learning, the same principles apply:
• Acknowledge, accept your strengths and weaknesses. This is not limiting. It enables you to brainstorm and come up with alternative options and solutions. Resist comparisons to others.
• Define specifically what you need to learn. Create a plan of action that works for you. What is your learning style? What do you need in time and finances? What can you learn on your own – what do you need assistance for.
• Recognize that it takes time to learn and apply that learning. Adopt an “I can do” attitude and perseverance. Stick to your plan of action.
There are so many things we can accomplish with an appropriate attitude, determination and the willingness to apply self-regulation and discipline.
Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC
I am not a techie. Although I operate a website, post blogs twice a week, podcast and do other functions on my computer, the language of computers and technology is still foreign to me. When I have very concise step by step instructions I can usually maintain my ability to function. When something goes wrong or I need to learn something new on my computer, I quickly find myself on overload and feel the pressure of time as I try to complete my designated tasks.
We all have our panic buttons. Everyone has their Achilles heel. For many it is when they have to get up and speak in front of a group of people. I love speaking and find people easy to talk to. My computer doesn’t enjoy going out for a cup of coffee and conversation. While I enjoy the benefits of technology, I struggle with the huge learning curve that can seem overwhelming at times.
Become aware of your vulnerable spots. Perhaps it is relationships, communication or the world of finances. We get overwhelmed when bills are greater than our bank account and we have difficulty learning how to budget; communication deteriorates with our spouse; our children are out of control, and the expectations and requirements of our job keep rising. Whatever the challenge, recognizing what pushes your panic button and when it is pushed allows you to prepare and take action.
When we are on overload or feeling the pressure on our time and resources, panic sets in it bringing along anxiety and fear and worry. What do I do? How will I manage? I already have so much to do. I’m so tired. I wish I could just run away. I’m not going to make it.
Our thoughts begin to spiral downward. We magnify the problem and diminish our ability to resolve it. We compare ourselves negatively with others who seem to have it all together. We have instant recall to all the times we have tried and failed while forgetting all the times we have succeeded. We label ourselves incompetent, stupid, etc. instead of recognizing that we have both strengths and weaknesses and we do not have to put unrealistic expectations on ourselves. We can’t do it all. And we are okay.
Here are some things you can do when overwhelmed.
1. Reduce the immediate stress level. Take some calm even breathes and ask God to help you relax and focus. Panic and fear puts our bodies into survival mode so we can run or fight. You need to use this stress energy in a different way.
Do the following exercise. Find a private spot. Stand in a comfortable position. As you breathe in air, slowly raise your arms above your head. Hold for a second and say to yourself, I am relaxed and in control of my time and my abilities. Let out your air as you lower your arms. Do this several times.
2. Challenge your negative thinking. Instead of allowing your mind to dwell on all the “I can’ts” refocus them on all the “I can’s”. Resist thinking about how big the problem is. Instead, reframe it into something that is a challenge rather than a disaster. Tell yourself I can find the resources, develop the skill or do whatever it takes.
3. Break the problem down into manageable steps. Any overwhelming task can be broken down into productive steps of action. Become familiar with your typical response to trouble. What have you done in the past that hasn’t worked? What can you do today that will. Ask for help. Get support from others who will encourage you as you learn. Don’t be afraid to say I don’t know. It isn’t a reflection of your competence, abilities or self worth.
Life is full of challenges. Sometimes we will feel as though a truckload of problems has been dumped on us. The first thing is to step outside of it, put it into perspective and work on the demands one at a time. Otherwise our problems become monsters instead of challenges we can meet.
Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC
Every day we have 24 hours. Some of that time is needed for sleep and rest. Some of that time is needed to make a living and do all the things necessary to maintain life: shopping, preparing meals, laundry, cleaning, etc. The allocation of our time will be tempered by the demands of life.
However, we can be selective in what we include in those time constraints. While jobs, careers and home life have certain expectations, we can delegate, we can say NO, we can negotiate, and we can choose activities in our free time that give us a sense of purpose, fun and achievement.
Here are some ways you can maximize your time and make time work for you.
1. Have a regular time to get up and go to bed. Good sleep habits will maximize our time because we will be rested. Resist the temptation to go to bed when you feel like it. If you bring work home with you, stop working at least an hour before bedtime and focus on something pleasant.
2. Develop a positive attitude. It can have an enormous effect on our moods, energy levels and our ability to accomplish even unpleasant tasks. If you are feeling pressured, ask yourself what needs to change? What is under my control – what is not? A positive attitude can make a huge difference in managing our stress levels.
3. Schedule meals. I know it sounds like an impossible situation when everybody in the family is going in different directions. But it is a perfect time for everybody to be together and enjoy each other’s company; even if it is for only one meal.
Make it important enough so family members will want to be there. The TV is shut off, the answering machine takes messages and cell phones are not allowed. Talk. Share. Listen. Laugh. Make this a pleasant time. Don’t scold, remind or bring up unpleasant things. This isn’t the time to talk about chores. Talk about school problems later.
4. Have family meetings. Everybody is included and expected. This is where you discuss schedules, chores, rules, vacations, special events, etc. Kids can share their frustrations and have input in the discussion.
Establish meeting rules ahead of time. While parents have the last word, it is a way to develop cooperation. Chore lists include everyone – even parents. Be sure jobs are appropriate for age level and ability. Post both chore lists and family rules. Create incentives and rewards for completing jobs. A removal of a reward can be the incentive for completing jobs.
5. Schedule personal down times. Find pleasant things to do in the evenings that give you a sense of satisfaction as well as rest. There will be days when you just want to zone out.
But if zoning out is a habit, it’s time to evaluate what is happening during the day. Are you experiencing high levels of stress every day? What changes are under your control to make? Are there changes I can make at home, adjusting schedules, elimination of some activities, more delegation, etc. Do I fit my job? What can I do to prepare myself for a different job? Taking courses on line can be time well spent for future opportunities. Even in a tight job market, employers are looking for people who can be flexible, creative, responsible, innovative and willing to work together.
Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC
You are the CEO of your time. How are you spending it?
Nothing sounds more boring than having to live within a rigid schedule that I “have to” adhere to no matter what. Rigid schedules are not only boring, but can create constant pressure that increases stress levels. We feel we are at the mercy of everyone and everything and we can’t wait for the weekend, for that moment of “bliss”, when we can kick back, sleep in and just do whatever we feel like doing.
But the illusion of having such free time, is soon crushed by the reality that clothes need to be washed, the house cleaned, and all the other boring, unenjoyable and sometimes downright unpleasant tasks that require attention whether we like it or not still needs to be done. Is there a way out?
Developing daily routines doesn’t mean you can’t be flexible and it doesn’t mean you can’t have some “moments of bliss”. It just provides the structure to make time work for you. Dependable routines, as boring as it may seem, actually allow you to schedule in fun and down times.
Remember – it is your time. The kid in us resists self-regulation because it reminds us of a time when our parents were in control. But you are the adult who is now in charge of your time. You are the CEO. What do you want to do with it? What do you want to accomplish? This requires thinking long term and not just short term.
How we think about time is a key to managing it. If time is controlled by others, then we will feel we have no choices – we “must”, “have to”, or “ought to” do certain things. While it might seem like an insignificant shift in thinking, when we consider it is “our” time and we are choosing how to regulate it, it is freeing.
Words such as “have to” or “must” hold within them a feeling of helplessness. We have no choice. If we replace those words with I choose, we are in the driver’s seat. We choose to go to work; we choose to have a regular schedule from which to operate, we choose to delegate, we choose to teach our kids responsibility; we choose to regulate TV, multi-media and computer game times, etc.
Responsibility means we have the ability to respond. Life demands we work to support ourselves. But life also gives us the opportunity to make goals and work to accomplish them. While choosing to self-regulate may seem like drudgery or hard work, when habits that establish structure are put in place, those habits actually free up our time, allowing us to become more efficient. We are able to schedule more satisfying projects along with the jobs that might not be as satisfying.
In Thursday’s blog I will give you some specific ways you can make time work for you.
Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC
Nothing creates unwanted stress more than feeling we have no control over our environment. If we are reactive instead of proactive, good days only occur when everything is going well and bad days when everything isn’t. We are at the mercy of whatever is happening around us.
As kids we rebelled against having to pick up our toys, hang up our clothes and clean our rooms. It wasn’t any fun and we thought it was easier to just step over piles of stuff or wait until we felt like doing it. As adults we still rebel against “having to do” things we don’t feel like doing.
Self-regulation is never easy. But routines, structure and schedules free up our time to do more of the things we want. Without it, we become a slave to chaos: searching for that blouse we wanted to wear to work, coming home tired to a dirty kitchen, moving the pile of laundry off the sofa so we can sit down and relax, and trying to find that remote so we can zone out with TV or escape into chat rooms and cyberspace. We are no longer in control of our lives – disorder is.
As you look around you at the mess and clutter, it is easy to be overwhelmed. Where do I start? How do I put in place schedules that have simply evolved but are no longer working?
First Step – STOP
Turn off your cell phone and put up a Do Not Disturb sign. Take a piece of paper and pencil and write down your typical day from beginning to end; when you get up, eat, go to work, come home from work, and prepare meals, evening routines and bedtime rituals.
Where do breakdowns occur? For example, I have to wash dishes before I can cook; I have to yell at the kids to get them up, I’m late and I haven’t made lunches yet, I forgot to pick up groceries for dinner, etc.
What needs to be done on a daily basis to create order? What needs to be done each week? Have I been avoiding doing these things because I am feeling overloaded or I just don’t have the energy? Do I resist getting family members involved because I don’t like conflict and I don’t know how to delegate?
Habits are just patterns of behavior we have developed. We do them without thinking. Changing any habit requires knowing what you are currently doing, what you no longer want to do, what you do want to do and a way to put a new habit in place. It also involves acknowledging and accepting your own resistance to change.
Replacing habits takes time, energy, commitment and motivation. Doing the preliminary work enables us to know what we really want. Knowing that you can easily replace habits is both liberating and exciting. You are taking charge of your life.
Next week, we will take your findings and put a new plan of action in place.
©2012 Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC