Our bodies respond to stressful situations in a variety of ways, as noted in the few previous articles. Many of the physiological changes that occur within us are undesirable, unhealthy, and even dangerous if prolonged. Insomnia, fatigue, back pain, muscle stiffness, headaches, ulcers, colitis, gastritis, heart disease, cancer, and strokes have all been associated with stress and can all have debilitating effects on our bodies. In order to counteract this negative physiological impact, we must learn to reverse it. Learning to relax provides life-long control over our most vital functions.
Relaxation techniques were designed for just this purpose and have been around as long as humankind has had a written record. In addition, most of us are unable to take the time off necessary to truly unwind, so we must learn to calm our bodies more often and in quicker ways.
When you relax, your heart beat slows, your blood pressure is immediately lowered, muscle tension decreases, your body demands less oxygen, the flow of blood to your muscles and organs decreases, and your natural output of cortisone is reduced. This produces an immediate difference in the way you feel; a dramatic increase in your sense of well-being. Relaxation can be learned and doesn’t require any special equipment. In fact, it doesn’t even require a special location. Many people have reported significant positive changes as a result of practicing as little as two 15-minute relaxation exercises per day, each and every day.
Methods for releasing tension from our bodies are many and varied, with new ones being developed every year. Probably the most commonly known is massage, in all of its many forms. Because it involves two people, we explore massage a little later in this chapter, under the heading of “getting help.” In this section we focus strictly on ways of relaxing the body that don’t involve anyone but you.
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Reducing stress overload at work is similar to the approach we used with our personal life. It mainly involves analysis through prioritization. However, whether or not you are a manager (or supervisor) of others will be pivotal in your overload reduction strategy at work.
In today’s work world, thousands of people, some of them only a few years out of school, are promoted and asked to manage the work of others without any prior or subsequent training. Often the promotion is awarded on the basis of the fine work the individual did as a solo contributor. Management brings with it dozens of challenges, and unfortunately, few people are innately equipped to perform those functions adequately without good modeling and instruction.
The art and science of delegating is one of the most important ingredients in managing effectively.
The art and science of delegating is one of the most important ingredients in managing effectively. By far, the single greatest factor in reducing overload for managers is their willingness and ability to delegate. Many excellent workers drown in management because they hang on to such beliefs as ”I can do the job faster/better than anyone else” or “I just can’t trust anyone else to do it correctly” or “by the time I show her how to do it, I might as well have done it myself anyway.” These sentiments are poison to management success.
If you are in management and feeling overloaded, chances are very good that you are not delegating effectively. If you don’t believe that, at least go to several people you trust with whom you work closely (your subordinates are candidates for this, as well as management colleagues) and ask them to tell you honestly how they rate your ability and willingness to delegate.
Delegating is also your greatest tool in relieving your work overload. So even if you are already delegating, you may want to pump it up even more. It is a skill that can be learned like any other. Many good training programs exist for building your delegating skill. If you do not have access to these programs at your worksite, check with the human resources or training department at your company about public programs you might attend. If no training is available to you, there are also many good management primers that have whole chapters devoted to delegation. There are even a few books that address delegating exclusively. This presupposes, of course, that you are willing to put these new ideas into practice and let go of the old beliefs about how you are the only person in the universe who could possibly do the job right!
Many of us compound our personal lives with more activities than we can realistically juggle and continue to perform well. One strategy for limiting our commitments is to prioritize all our activities and eliminate or limit those at the bottom of the list. It is especially important at the personal level to share these strategies with friends and colleagues so that we don’t cause misunderstandings or bad feelings when we become less available or less visible. Let the important people in your life know what you’re doing and why. They will understand. And they will respect your ability and willingness to take charge of your life and make these changes.
If you are involved in professional societies, benevolent organizations, charity fund-raising groups, or clubs of the sort
that require attendance at meetings or performance of other duties, ask yourself how you are really benefiting from these memberships and what price you are paying to continue them. Yes, charitable organizations are honorable endeavors and society needs people to devote time and effort to them, but what is this commitment doing to your relationship with your children? Your spouse? Your ability to do your job? Maybe this isn’t the best time in your life to pursue altruistic ventures. A plan to devote time during your retirement years or after your kids are grown might be more realistic and sensitive to everyone involved.
One way of limiting your involvement with organizations is to step down from the time-consuming leadership positions. You can still make valuable contributions even if you’re not holding office. You’ll also give yourself a great deal more flexibility in terms of time and effort.
Limiting and prioritizing also extend to the activities we engage in with children and spouse. If you find yourself getting caught up in the commitments of your loved ones to an uncomfortable extent, you need to cut back. Once again, this first involves communication. You must share your concern and your needs. Remember: It’s about you! Don’t make them wrong for your past inability to say no. Tell them what you can and cannot do. Prioritize with them. Get them involved in helping you meet your “stress overload challenge.” They really do want to help you stay healthy and happy; it makes their lives better, too.
Eliminating a stressor often involves major life changes such as moving, leaving a relationship, going back to school, changing jobs, or taking a demotion. Many people do decide to take such action, because eliminating the stressor is the most direct way of dealing with the pressure of stress overload. Let’s evaluate whether or not there are stressors in your life that you could actually eliminate. You can try listing your stressors from three areas of your life (personal, environmental, and job/career). Using the data from the exercise and any additional ideas that occur to you, create a list of your top ten sources of negative stress.
If you are not able to fill in all ten lines, it’s not a problem. You probably have either less overall stress or you may have isolated the few critical sources that truly cause unpleasant situations in your life. Whatever number you have, if it feels complete to you, it’s right.
Further analyze your list by asking yourself which of these situations you are able and willing to completely eliminate from your life. Circle those items. You may have several items, you may have one item, you may have zero items that you are willing to eliminate.
As we begin to formulate a plan for making a major change, however, it’s important to step back and once more consider the big picture. Unless you have just recovered from a life-threatening health crisis and your doctor has told you to make drastic changes to your lifestyle immediately, don’t rush into it.
One more consideration of note: We are all different. The number of assignments or tasks or obligations with which you are comfortable may vary considerably from that of your colleagues or your boss or your friends. This isn’t about their comfort level, it’s about yours. Don’t judge yourself by anyone else’s standards or capabilities. It’s also unfair to judge them by yours.