One of my international readers from a Middle East nation sent me a very gracious thank you for my blogging. A Gen-Yer with an MBA and out of school barely three years, he asked me a very important question: I feel like I’m over-stressed all the time. What can I do to manage my stress better? First of all, it’s not just Gen-Yers who are over-stressed. I meet people from all walks of life and all the generations who tell me they’re overstressed. Although I have a lot of background in stress management and have taught the subject, that doesn’t keep me from occasionally having to deal with the stuff. But it does make it possible to deal with it more effectively.
First, some stress background. Be aware that some stress can enhance performance, whether we’re saddled with a new project, presenting to the CEO, arguing in front of a jury, participating in a triathlon or negotiating the terms of a business deal. That adrenalin surge, triggered by some situations, increases our stress and enables us to focus better, become more efficient and perform at the top of our game.
Yet we also know that some stress undermines our performance. We can’t concentrate, creativity fizzles out, frustration sets in and we become forgetful, moody and irritable.
So what does stress do to us? Well, one thing is that it activates the fight-or-flight responses: our heart rate and blood pressure go up and hormones, especially adrenalin, can take over. As I said, some stress can be very positive. But too much means that all the benefits disappear and we start to go downhill.
Learn to identify your personal stress-response patterns so you can take steps to intervene. Pay attention to your mood. Getting discouraged, and excitement gone? Check your stamina. Feel like you’re running out of steam–and hitting a brick wall? Listen to your body. Headache? Back pain? Dizziness? Or a racing pulse?
I assume that most of us don’t have to deal with chronic stress which can result in really serious problems, but that in the new economy most of us have to deal with more “occasional” stess–task and project related stress.
Here are six tips for managing your stress successfully in a stress-filled environment.
- Prioritize your tasks on a daily and weekly basis. It takes time to learn how to prioritize effectively, and it usually requires input from your boss and your colleagues to do a good job. But I’d suggest that one of the most basic ways to start the process is to figure out what you’re NOT going to do today. Do that first thing in the morning, and just set those things aside for another time–or never.
- Do what you most hate first thing in the morning–or as soon as possible. I learned this from a wise client years ago, and I’ve found that it’s a wonderful stress releaser. I can mull and fret over something for hours, lowering my efficiency and wasting time if I don’t get the thing done that I most hate to do. And all of us have what I call shit-jobs–or grunt jobs–sometimes every day.
- Put an end to thinking in worst-case scenarios. We can get emotionally worn down, fatigued and terribly discouraged by spending a lot of time worrying about them. Set them aside. Practice the toilet mentality–out of sight, out of mind. Start your day by playing out scenarios in your brain that are in your own best interest. There is plenty of useful research that supports the role of “thinking positive” about our tasks. Optimism can be learned.
- Get enough sleep. I think it was the philosopher Voltaire who once said, “I’ve got so much to do that I’ve got to take a nap.” In today’s 24/7 work world a full night’s rest may be an impossible dream. Still, whenever possible, routinize your sleep. Go to sleep at the same time every nite, and watch your long nites. If you’re still dating, an overnite often kills off two-to three days, leaving you satiated and happy, but profoundly fatigued. As one of my young friends puts it, dating requires a lot of energy. He’s right. Plan it! Manage your hormones.
- Eat a balanced diet. There’s a reason that a lot of Greeks live to old age. It’s their Mediterranean diet. Fruits, vegetables and meat merely as an accompaniment to the meal rather than the main entre. Fish and chicken can be a major part of the diet as long as they’re not deep fried. Stay away from a lot of grilling. Heavy beef and pork are ultimate killers. I’ve always loved lamb–and it’s very low in animal fat. You might try bison. Many grocers are beginning to carry it regularly. It’s tasty and very low fat. If you’re Middle Eastern, goat is also very low fat. My undergrad college served goat for occasional meals, and I developed a taste for it. And watch the portions of food.
- And finally, regular exercise. There’s a reason you feel refreshed after a run or a long walk. More brain neurons are being created. The research says a minimum of three sessions of thirty-minute exercise per week. Do it even when you’re tired. If I’m worn out and emotionally fatigued, the sofa and TV are a disaster. I simply put my butt into gear and go exercise, even if I’m dragging. I always feel better as result.
The fundamentals of stress management are nutrition, exercise and sleep. Don’t ignore them. After that, there are a lot of tips out there.