Category Archives: Stress

Hell is Other People

A bit bleak isn’t it. I imagine this line was the result of a particularly difficult holiday dinner at the Sartre house.  My version is: Stress is other people; from your kid who doesn’t tell you about the big science project until the night before it’s due, to your co-worker who keeps taking your stapler even though he has one of his own, to the driver who cuts you off during your evening commute. You may be able to maintain serenity through your daily subway ride but five minutes into a conversation with your mother and your eye is twitching.

I must tell you, there is no easy solution.  We have to deal with people every day.  I have found that the only thing that really helps is awareness and compassion.  I actually learned some of this when I was working in retail.  Often people would come in looking for a fight.  They had a return and were anticipating problems or they expected the line to be long – whatever it is, they were itching to let go of some rage.  I realized pretty early on that this had absolutely nothing to do with me.  It was all about them.  Maybe their boss was extra demanding that day or their car got towed or they just broke up with their partner or, or, or.  There were so many possibilities.  And the only way these people knew to cope was to go out and take it out on someone else.   When I understood this, it changed everything.  Instead of feeling pissed, I felt pity.  These people were living miserable lives.  I had them in mine for a short while but they were stuck with themselves 24/7.

Of course, you’re thinking, this is all well and good for those momentary encounters on the escalator or the freeway.  But what about those people I see every day, the ones that really push my buttons.  And I say again, awareness and compassion, but this time it’s not just for them but also for yourself.

I’m a fan of Martha Beck.  She has a technique that can help with this issue.  When there is someone in your life who is making you crazy it is quite possible that the reason they are soooo annoying is that they remind you of yourself, of those parts that you would rather not have.  So what you do is, write that person a letter (you are not going to give it to them).  Write down in raw, explicit terms what it is that is making you nuts.  Lay it all out, graphically and in detail.  Then, change the salutation.  Instead of Dear You, make it Dear Me.  Is there stuff in there that you do?  I’m betting their is.  That’s why it’s so hard.  When someone does something you never do, it’s not nearly so aggravating.  You can shrug it off.  But when it reminds you of your own shadow, then it sticks.

Can you feel some compassion for that other person and for yourself as well?  Now, part two.  Think of someone you admire very much.  Write that person a letter filled with all those things that make you swoon.  When you are done, once again change the salutation from You to Me.  I know you will find things in their that are yours, things you do and are.  Just as we itch when we see our darkness in others, so too do we feel uplifted when we see our light in others.

These things will not work every single time.  But perfection is not necessary.  You are just out to make things a bit better for yourself and others, just a bit.  There will be moments when you have to go for a brisk walk or take deep breaths while counting to ten or just go into the bathroom and scream.  That’s okay.  Be kind to yourself, it’s the only way you will manage kindness to others.

Some of you may know the author David Foster Wallace.  He gave an incredible commencement speech that really speaks to this and to how you can choose what you think and how you react.




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At the Office

You’ve made it in to work and thanks to  your new way of looking at things your eye is not twitching and you may even have a slight smile on your face that is not entirely based on coffee.  Well done.

We now come to a particularly insidious form of stress.  It’s extra trouble because it’s low grade, it doesn’t feel like stress.  You aren’t breathing more heavily, your heart is not thumping in your chest.  I’m talking about how many of us here in the modern world do our jobs,  seated at a desk, staring at a computer.

First of all, there’s the chair.  While chairs have been around for a while it’s only recently that we started sitting in them for 8-12 hours a day.  A chair is not optimal.  Most chair are flat or even tilt back a little bit.  This causes us to sit on our tails – on the base of our spine-and curl our backs.  This in turn causes our pelvis to tilt back – not the way it likes to be.  Go look at the model of a skeleton.  Its pelvis is tilted forward.  This allows the pelvic bone to properly support out internal organs and allows free movement of the hip joint.  Have you been to a yoga class lately?  How many people have tight hips, need blocks under their knees in baddha konasana?  Go to a yoga class in Japan, where they spend a lot of time seated on the floor,  and you’ll find people with open hips – even the men who are generally less flexible than women.

Then we have the desk and the computer.  They may cause you to hunch your upper back while you mouse and type.  And if you’re a woman the desk is probably at the wrong height so you have to raise your chair and then your feet don’t quite meet the ground.

So there you are, off balance and hunched up for many hours every day staring into a lit screen.  Your body is not happy.  It may be giving you signals with lower back pain, neck stiffness, and general tightness all over.  You may be getting headaches or blurry vision.

I often see people, women in particular, walking around with their shoulders hunched, a slight suggestion of a hump on their back.  This is the result of sitting in a hunched position all day.  I have to supress the urge to pull their shoulders back.  Try this.  Get up and go to a full length mirror (or a dark window).  Turn sideways.  Stand normally and then look at yourself. Are you nice and straight, shoulders over hips, a gentle curve at the neck and lower back?  No?  Take a deep breath, deep as you can and let it out.  Now, straighten up.  Take a deep breath again.  Is it deeper?  I bet it is, if only a little.  When you curve forward you not only ruin the line of that great suit you’re wearing you constrict your lungs.  Less air=less oxygen to your organs – including your brain.

What can you do?  Your job involves time on the computer.  You aren’t sufficiently high on the food chain to rate a custom desk and chair.  There are ways to help yourself out.

If you have an adjustable chair it may allow you to adjust the seat so it tilts forward, allowing your pelvis to do so too.  If does not adjust you can get a little pillow or blanket to tilt yourself forward.  If your feet don’t fully touch the ground invest in a couple of yoga blocks.  They work great as lifts for your feet – we all used them at a yoga studio where I worked for a while.

Then, don’t sit there for hours.  Get up every 30 minutes or so.  Take a little stretch, maybe even a little walk.  If you don’t have a window but can get to one, do so.  Look at the outside world.   At least rise up out of your cubicle space and look into the distance. Let your eyes focus on something far away for a bit so they can relax too.  DO NOT eat lunch at your desk.  Get out, even if only for 30 minutes.

These little adjustments will make a difference.  Try them and see.

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The Power of Distraction

In our last exciting episode we learned what stress is and why it can cause trouble.  In the next few posts we will talk about ways to deal with stress.

So what can you do about it?  Unless you are prepared to move to a desert island or a monastery you will not be able to eliminate the major causes of stress in modern life – but you can minimize the effects.

The first thing to understand is that you do have control over how you react to stuff.  For example, when you are standing on a platform that feels hot enough to be in one of the lower circles of hell you can get angry about it.  You can fume and mutter to yourself.  You can fan yourself aggressively, generating more heat than you are dissipating OR you can accept that it is hot but that it will not be hot forever.  A train will come and you will get on it and get where you are going.

I know, that is easier said than done.  But it can be done, it just takes a little practice.  You do not have to get upset at every obstacle you encounter.  Getting upset will not make the train come faster, it really won’t.  And while staying calm may not make the train come faster either you will spend the time far more pleasantly, you really will.

If you cannot simply let things go (and believe me, I understand that) then distract yourself.  Bring something to read or something to listen to when you know you might have to wait.  Make up stories about your fellow waiters.  Plan your meals for the week in your head.

My point here is that you can choose to stay calm in difficult situations.   This will reduce your stress and may even result in clearer thinking.  You may not be able to do it every time, but it will get easier with practice.

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Dagger of the Mind

Stress.  We’ve been told we should reduce it, manage it, avoid it.  But what exactly is it and why is it so terrible?

The first thing we have to understand is that while society and technology have been evolving faster and faster, our bodies are still pretty much the same as they were 10,000 years ago.  A few minor things have changed – for example, we’re taller on average and many of us can digest lactose.  But for the most part, we are designed to deal with a world that is gone – at least those of us here in the Modern World.

Usually when people talk about stress they say it’s the “fight or flight response”.  This conjures images of ancient man encountering a lion or wooly mammoth.  But stress came in more ways than that for our ancestors.  Stress was also negotiating hazardous terrain like bog-filled moors or high cliffs.  Stress was being caught in the open during a storm.  Stress was going out to hunt for game and then not catching anything.

In all of these cases, the body and the mind have to deal with an immediate problem that requires use of the muscles and the senses .  You might have to run fast or you might have to slow down and pay really close attention.  You might have to enter unknown territory to find your dinner.

The body’s response to a red alert is to make some changes that will give you every advantage.  The adrenals release cortisol and adrenaline.  Your heart rate and respiration increase sending lots of oxygen-rich blood to your muscles.  Your senses become acute and you are alert to every little change.  And like the Captain of the Enterprise shutting down life support on unoccupied decks, the body will slow or shut down any activity that is not necessary, digestion for example, until the ordeal is over so that maximum energy is available for action.  Once it is over, everything returns to normal and interrupted processes can resume.

For our ancestors this system worked great because it helped them survive.  But our lives are very different.  We have so many more things that cause stress.  Commuting to work is a giant source of stress.  Noise is stress.  Worrying about job security or confronting co-workers or customers is stress.   Keeping up with the Joneses is definitely stress.

While most of our stresses are not life-threatening they are constant.  They don’t stop.  This means that the body is repeatedly going through the stress response.  Imagine, if you will, being a crew member on a star ship that is almost always on red alert.  The lights are dimmed, the alarm is going off, crew people are running around, everyone is on edge, and the Captain is barking orders.   Eventually you would probably start to go a bit nuts.  You’d consider telling the Captain where he can put his orders and simply hiding out in your quarters or running through the corridors waving your rapier around.

This is how the cells and organs of your body feel if they spend most of their time under stress.  Your nervous system is overstimulated, your digestion is poor and your adrenals exhausted.   Your digestion is where you begin – you aren’t really what you eat, you are what you digest and absorb.  Poor absorption means malnutrition and weakness in all organ systems.  The adrenals are our power center and when they are exhausted you may have fatigue, insomnia, weight gain, poor concentration, PMS, and  low immune function.   To go back to our metaphor, your starship is now drifting and a sitting duck for any enemy that might show up.

Now you know why everyone is going on about stress and why should avoid it. In our next episode we will look at some ways to reduce your stress and keep your starship crew happy and healthy.

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