Sensational Living®

November-December 2006
© 2006 by Bret S. Beall


Holidays are often stressful times, so I wanted to give you encouragement to "Just say NO to stress" now and forever. Stress is an inconvenience at best, and a killer at worst, so please read on for some unfortunate facts, some educational anecdotes and some appropriate solutions.

All of us experience stress from time to time. It's a natural component of our biology. When we perceive a threat (like consequences from not getting our overwhelming job completed), our bodies release the hormones adrenalin and cortisol (and a host of others), which allow our minds and bodies to go into overload, the evolved response to our ancestors' need for "fight or flight." In small, intermittent doses, the hormones triggered by stress can help us to survive, increase productivity, and escape danger. In those small doses, stress is part of our natural, biological programming.

However, with longer, more continuous exposure, stress can cause great discomfort or even damage. We can develop tight muscles. We can get chest pain. Breathing becomes labored. We can develop dry mouth, which can lead to periodontal disease. We can become befuddled, as our memory is impacted. And this is just the beginning.

Cortisol is the hormone that seems to cause the most problems. A great online resource is http://stress.about.com/od/stresshealth/a/cortisol.htm. In small, infrequent doses, cortisol is part of our bodies' regular functioning. But when stress becomes chronic, the ongoing flood of cortisol wreaks havoc. Our blood sugar levels go out of whack. Our muscle mass can be reduced. Our bone density can be decreased. Our blood pressure can increase. And our abdominal fat can increase, which increases not only weight, but also the probability of heart disease.

Clearly, we need to do what we can to avoid chronic stress. There are many mechanisms to avoid or minimize stress. Some are less than healthy. Many people turn to smoking, drinking and drugs to escape stress. Without regard for legality, these substances in small amounts can provide a temporary fix. But, when stress is chronic, individuals who take these routes can end up with an addiction they didn't desire. Whether we're talking about nicotine, alcohol or illegal substances, virtually no one grows up thinking, "I want to become an addict," but it happens anyway. The title of this year's series of Sensational Living® columns, "Just say NO!" started as an anti-drug (and therefore, anti-addiction) slogan. I've avoided addressing addiction up until this point because the issue is so much more complex than just a simple (minded) slogan. People turn to using and abusing various substances because of so many varied psychological issues (childhood pain, peer pressure, sexual compatibility/attractiveness, dealing with stress, and more). The original "Just say NO!" was a short-sighted, ill-informed slogan. But, it does provide a focus on substance abuse so that individuals can choose to seek true professional counseling and to leave substance abuse behind.

Counseling in general can be the single best solution to dealing with stress, whether substance use/abuse is involved or not. Counseling allows one to investigate the core psychological issues that interact with one's daily environment that have led to chronic stress. Once these core issues are explored, they can be healed, and chronic stress will begin to diminish, and then disappear. I speak from personal experience here. Once I worked through my own core issues with the aid of a primo counselor (after several failed starts with less-than-primo counselors), my healing gave me an entirely new perspective on my daily environment, and I found I could deal with issues without creating stress.

I have been able to adopt what could be described as a "laissez faire" attitude to issues that would have once caused me great stress. That stress was fueled by unrealistic desires for and expectations of "perfection." I have written previously about "perfection" (see especially http://www.god-dess.com/services_lifestyleJune05.html for my opinions on "perfection"). Using the tools and understanding that I have gained, I no longer respond with stress; instead, I respond with empathy, sympathy and compassion.

A prime example of avoiding stress is my recent travel to Miami. My client prepaid my hotel expenses by check, but when I checked in advance to confirm that the check, sent by FedEx, had been posted against my account, it hadn't been. At the time, the billing/accounting department of the hotel was closed. I had no choice but to show up with my FedEx delivery confirmation receipt. That didn't help much; the hotel wanted to charge $600 to my credit card, but I stood my ground and explained that was not appropriate, and I would only allow them to put a hold on enough for "incidentals." The first day that the accounting department was open, I returned to the front desk with my issue, and asked if a resolution had been found. It hadn't, and after three more visits to the front desk, still with no resolution, I realized that I had to take charge of the situation after being given the run-around … I calmly insisted on speaking personally with the accounting department, and that initiated more detailed work by the front desk, and suddenly my account was fully credited with the cost of my stay. Yes, I had to be confident and forceful, but I didn't allow myself to become stressed. I "knew" a resolution could be found, and simply persevered … and was rewarded with a complete resolution (and a fully paid hotel bill!).

Most of the issues that cause stress ultimately relate to being scared or fearful. Afraid of not having enough money to pay the bills. Fearful of losing one's job. Terrified of being alone. The list goes on. The counseling that I describe above will help one deal with these issues, but in the meantime, you may gain some insight from another column I wrote, http://www.soulfulliving.com/logic_letting_go.htm ... let go of the fear. Remember that letting go of fear is a process, one that take times, so be patient with yourself, and don't stress when (not "if") the fear doesn't go away immediately. Consider it a goal to work toward, not immediate gratification.

Learning to prioritize is another tool that can help minimize stress. As an entrepreneur, I have many irons in the fire all of the time. Ordinarily, I have enough foresight to be able to schedule everything that needs to be done. But, sometimes unexpected tasks cluster, and I have to adjust my schedule. Such an example of adjustment is this combined November-December column. In November, I was traveling a lot, planning workshops, preparing for a Thanksgiving guest to Casa Beall, and helping lots of clients. I could have stressed myself by forcing myself to lose sleep and write new columns and newsletters for both November and December, or I could combine them and eliminate stress. I think the results speak for themselves. I know I'm not stressed!

Earlier I mentioned traveling to Florida for client business. I have traveled for work for years, and have always taken the opportunity of being in a new region to take mini-vacations for pleasure and as research for the travel planning part of Global Organic Designs Lifestyle Services (first-hand research is the best source of advice and information for my travel clients). This time, after my business in Miami, I planned a vacation on Key Largo (and, in fact, during my visit to Miami itself, I knew I wanted to explore South Beach and its Art Deco architecture during my downtimes). However, my usually detailed planning of even the vacation part of this trip would have been stressful given my other obligations, so I intentionally chose to do very little planning. I just went with the Flow. I had done some basic research on Miami and Key Largo, but decided I would make do with whatever manifested. Was it a perfect trip? No. Was it relaxing? Yes. Did I gain lots of knowledge to share with future clients? You bet!

If you are not yet ready to pursue the hard work of counseling, what else can you do to deal with stress? There are many "temporary fixes" that you can employ. Meditation is good. Take some mini-vacations. Take some "just for me" evenings (dining out, going to the theater, attending a sports event, shaking your "groove thang" at a dancing venue, or whatever else suits your fancy). Enjoy a long bath. Go for a leisurely walk (or a run, or a workout, or other physical activity). Allow yourself to go to bed earlier and/or awake later. Take a "mental health day" from work. Treat yourself to a message. Sniff some lavender. And though I've warned about the dangers of substance abuse, if you are inclined to use any of these potentially addictive substances (caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, etc.), use them in moderation rather than habitually; enjoy a cup of excellent coffee, or a good cigar, or a fine glass of wine or whiskey, or whatever makes you smile, but enjoy them with intention, with purpose, in MODERATION.

Many take a spiritual approach to reducing stress. Consider the opening words of Reinhold Niebuhr's "Serenity Prayer": "God, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change; Courage to change the things I can; and Wisdom to know the difference." These are profound words that every human being can embrace regardless of one's personal spiritual tradition. Speaking from my own Path, implementing these profound words is less straight-forward, but worth pursuing. In fact, I cannot imagine "not" pursuing the goal of these words, as low-stress has been the fruit that I've reaped so far.

The final technique that I want to suggest is focusing on something positive. This time of year, so many of us are focusing on everything we need to do. I want to encourage all of you to focus on fun, Fun, FUN! One example I can offer from my own history is my traditional Yule letter, sent to friends to update them on the "Life of Bret" during the previous twelve months. Well, a few years ago, I had so many projects in the works that writing my Yule letter seemed intimidating, but a forced myself to do it. During the entire experience, which in previous years had been absolutely fun and joyful, I was annoyed and frustrated. I decided then and there that the tradition of writing a Yule letter would end; life is too short to spend time doing things that aren't required and also don't bring pleasure. My compensation is that almost everyone who would have received the Yule letter receives the Global Organic Designs newsletter, so we all remain in touch anyway.

I hope this overview has been helpful in illuminating the problems of, and solutions to, stress. Just say "No" to stress and all of its negativity. Work to take charge of the situation. Make every effort to take control of your life. Realize that excitement is different from stress, so appreciate the excitement from fun and pleasure while eschewing stress. Understand that if something doesn't work, it can usually be fixed.

I recognize that it was very useful for me to have experienced considerable stress in the past so that I can appreciate how mellow I am today, after having made great progress with healing. We are all works in progress. We need to make every effort to learn from our past experiences. By seeking healing, we can achieve a calmer, more accepting way of life, and that helps us achieve even more progress in our lives.

While I'm not qualified to provide "true" healing for stress (ie, psychological counseling), I CAN help you with stop-gap measures. I can provide techniques for calming down, for dealing with everyday stress, with prioritization and all aspects of your lifestyle. If you want this kind of assistance, just call me at 773.508.9208 or email me. Just say "NO" to stress today!