You brush your teeth every day. But have you also deliberately placed stress management routines throughout your day to help you deal with the pressures of your life?
"Doing things for stress is the same as brushing your teeth, having a shower, and other elements of personal hygiene. You should do it every day," says London, On.-based mental health and wellness adviser Bethany Butzer.
"People say they don't have the time. But I think we can all make the time. You don't have to meditate for an hour a day. You can do it for five minutes."
Ms. Butzer knows from experience the dangers of putting off stress management as you desperately pursue career success. After seeing a movie as a teenager of Ivan Pavlov in his laboratory researching behaviour with dogs, the Cobourg, Ont.-native decided she would get a PhD in psychology. She had been suffering from anxiety and depression, and it intensified as she plugged along in her studies, until she got that golden PhD. But she felt burned out and had to take a break from academic work.
"I worked all the time in school, won the awards, was Valedictorian, but I felt awful. I was on anti-depressants, always sick and unhappy. I realized I needed to treat stress management like brushing my teeth. I do it every day. It's a fact of life."
She started her own meditation practice at five minutes. Now she's up to an hour a day. She took yoga classes, and now teaches. After a stint with an IT company following her academic studies, she took a break to recalibrate her life and hung up her shingle as a yoga and wellness practitioner. But she stresses that you don't have to give up your career to be better balanced, just lace the stress management techniques throughout your daily life. And stress management need not be meditation and yoga. It can be walking, running, or other activities, like soccer for her husband: "He says soccer is his yoga and meditation."
She suggests including stress management at the start and end of each day. "If you start the day frantically, reaching for your phone to check e-mail and fretting about your job, it will set the tone for the day," she warns. So meditate, try some yoga poses, head for a run, or linger over a coffee.
During the day, she advises you to pay attention to your breath. When stressed, we breathe from the upper chest, and can have a tendency to almost hyperventilate, breathing too quickly and too shallowly. Relaxed breathing flows, instead, from the stomach. "You take your breath with you all day. You can focus on slowing down, and breathing deeply wherever you are," she says. At her IT job, she would head to the washroom for a breathing break when needed.
In the evening, she recommends a Stop Time. For her, it's usually 8 p.m., after which she won't let work intrude. It's time for her, friends, and her husband, not e-mail. It's an opportunity to read something non-work-related, and escape the rigours of the day. "I try every day to do it. It may not always happen, but most days it does," she says.
We think of stress as something outside us, caused by others, like our boss or our job. But a lot of stress she insists exists in our mind. She was stressed recently as she prepared for a move next month to Boston, to take up a dream research fellowship at Harvard Medical School studying the effectiveness of yoga when put into physical education classes for youngsters. Her biggest worry was whether she would get tenants for their house in London. But she points out it's not an actual event that has occurred which was creating her stress. After all, she had not moved and left her home empty. It was just the fear of that possibility precipitating the stress. A thought, not an actual event.
To deal with such thoughts, she recommends a "thought records" technique from cognitive behaviour therapy: Examine every stressful thought that occurs in a day for how true it is. Write down the thought, so it's concrete rather than ephemeral, and beside the thought list the evidence for and against it being true. That will help you deal with the stressful cognitive distortions of the day. For example, she hasn't moved yet. She has a beautiful house, people love it, and it only takes a day or two to make a deal. Thought record apps are available for smart phones and tablets, but in time, she says, you won't have to write things down, as it becomes automatic to observe the thoughts of the day and provide a sensible reflection on how accurate they truly are.
It can also help to feed yourself some nourishing, positive affirmations during the day, since so much of the stress we face comes from the negative thoughts running wild. She observes that as humans evolved being alert to threats was vital, as we needed to be hyper vigilant to the proverbial sabre-toothed tigers that threatened us. "Now you view your boss as a sabre tooth tiger, and these negative thoughts can stress you out," she says. Instead, repeat some positive affirmations to yourself, realistic statements about your worth and your situation that you can buy. Put them on post-it notes that you can see on your mirror or your computer. Read, and relax.
It's as easy as brushing your teeth.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter