This is the week that’s going to tie together the Makeover for you and help complete your leap into vital good health. If you don’t smoke, it’s the last week of this first part of the Miracle Makeover program. It’s a critical week because learning to control stress is not only going to help fulfill the promise of the Makeover – a healthier and more vigorous life right now as well as in the future – it’s going to enable you to stick with the changes you’ve made for months and years to come.
Stress could be your most serious health problem because it affects every aspect of how your body works. If you have a tendency to cardiovascular disease, stress will increase your risk. Even if you’re in excellent health – and by now you’re feeling better than you have for years – uncontrolled stress will keep you from reaching your full potential physically and mentally. Of course, the converse is true: When you get stress under control, this amplifies the good achieved by each change you’ve made during the Makeover.
In addition to the important physical benefits of stress control, there’s a psychological bonus that you’ll enjoy as soon as you begin this week. We call it the “confidence factor”. As soon as you learn to control everyday stress, you’ll notice a welcome boost in your self-confidence. Many veterans of the Makeover have remarked on this exciting benefit of stress control. As you learn how to get on top of the nagging problems that used to wear you out, make you sick, and keep you from performing at your best, you’ll also learn how to focus your energy in a positive way to turn stress to your advantage. Therefore, this week represents an effort to control your life as well as the stress in it. By the end of the week you’ll be a calmer, more effective person – someone who, as one Makeover veteran said, feels “ready and eager for anything that comes my way.”
This Week’s Goal
In the beginning of the Makeover, we talked in detail about the effects of stress on the body and how it interferes with many aspects of good health. But now we’re going to focus on the practical: How you can save yourself from the damage of stress, how you can sometimes avoid it, and how you can often turn it to your advantage. You’re going to learn two simple exercises that will help combat the physical damage it causes. The exercises are easy, and the time they demand minimal, but you’ll find that they make an amazing difference in how you feel. In addition to the exercises, you’ll learn some special methods for coping with difficult people and situations. These methods are in the form of stress tips at the end of the lesson. These tips will free you from the mental baggage that makes you a victim of stress.
Because stress is the “invisible illness,” this week we’re going to learn how to make it visible. You’ll learn to recognize its visible symptoms. When you realize the many ways stress can make itself evident, you’ll be even more convinced of the important role it plays in your health. And because everyone’s reaction to stress is highly individual, you’re going to learn to become aware of your own reactions and be sensitive to your personal symptoms.
Remember one thing though: You have a head start in controlling stress. Many of the changes you’ve made during the Makeover have given you a physical advantage at least. You’ve improved your nutrition; you’ve eliminated caffeine, sugar, and alcohol – all of which are stress triggers; you’ve begun exercising; and you’ve initiated a program of vitamin and mineral supplements, including those geared specifically to fighting stress.
All these efforts have given your body ammunition to fight the effects of stress. But unless you come to grips with stress directly, you’ll find that over time it will weaken your resolve. Despite your new-found vigor, your life is still filled with pressures. Eventually, you’ll have an extraordinarily stressful day and you’ll yearn for a drink or a cigarette or a bag of Oreos. Mastering stress after conquering your other bad habits will give you the strength to continue in your new, healthy life-style.
Do you Recognize the Stress in your Life?
When we ask people if they’re under stress, many of them answer, “Sure, but it’s not bothering me.” In fact, these people, like so many, are ignorant of the ways in which stress takes its toll. Here are some questions that will help you recognize the symptoms of stress:
1. Have you been having trouble falling asleep?
2. Have you been waking at night and finding it difficult to get back to sleep?
3. Have you been more short-tempered lately?
4. Have you been feeling anxious for no particular reason?
5. Do you find it difficult to relax?
6. Have you been feeling irritable and easily upset?
7. Have you been working harder than usual?
8. Do you feel that you have more and more to do and less and less time in which to do it?
9. Do you find you’re more tired than usual, even after sleep?
10. Has there been a change for the worse in your health?
11. Have you been having more arguments with your spouse lately?
12. Have you been feeling particularly moody?
13. Have you been drinking more coffee, tea, or soft drinks in an effort to keep your energy level up?
14. Have you been smoking more than usual?
15. Have you been craving more sweets than usual?
16. Have you been drinking more alcohol than usual?
If you answered yes to three or more questions, you may be a victim of stress. The symptoms pin-pointed in these questions signal the fact that stress has caused a change in your biochemistry. Your ability to cope with stress has been compromised and you could be more likely to develop more serious medical problems.
In many animal and human studies the facts demonstrate that the brain is capable of turning on the body when we are under unrelieved stress. To condense and simplify the process described earlier in this Course: Stress causes measurable changes in bodily functions. Your body prepares for fight or flight by releasing the stress hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine, which speed the heart rate and constrict blood vessels. On a physical level, your blood pressure and heart rate increase; emotionally you feel tense and irritable.
If you don’t control the stress in your life, you dramatically increase your chances of having a heart attack or a stroke. Stress has also been linked to cancer, ulcers, asthma, a wide range of emotional difficulties, and a lowered resistance to infectious diseases because of damage to the immune system. One very revealing recent study assessed pregnant women, married, of similar age, race, and social status, all of whose babies were delivered in the same hospital. The finding: Those women undergoing a great deal of social stress and lacking strong social supports – measured by closeness of ties with husband, family, and community – had almost three times the frequency of complications of pregnancy or delivery. Some very common results of stress that people complain of include headaches, insomnia, irritability, impotence, and depression.
Finally, stress hinders long-term health by making you more prone to the very bad habits that the Makeover works to change. Some people reach for a cigarette when they’re nervous; some go on eating binges. One woman would eat an entire bag of cookies after a stressful day at work. As we pointed out earlier, these bad habits reinforce one another: A sweet snack will eventually cause a drop in your blood sugar that will make you yearn for a cup of coffee as a pick-me-up; a drink may make you crave a cigarette. All these are ineffective and ultimately dangerous ways of dealing with stress. When you learn how to cope with stress effectively, it will be easier to resist cigarettes, alcohol, caffeine, and sweets because your body won’t suffer the wild fluctuations of blood sugar that make you yearn for bogus energy producers.
The “Escape Myth”
You can’t eliminate the stress in your life. It is a component of normal living, and indeed a certain amount of stress is valuable to enable you to adapt to changing circumstances. But the kind of stress most of us endure in our daily lives is ultimately, literally, killing. Many of you who are taking this Course probably believe that if only you could escape to another, simpler life, you would be stress-free, much healthier and happier. You imagine yourselves living in a small town or on a farm, safe from the demands of high pressure urban life. I want you to stop and decide if you are a believer in this “Escape Myth.” If you are, recognize and discard the belief now because it will keep you from taking this week seriously, and it will interfere with the successful control of stress.
The “Escape Myth”, in my opinion, is almost as damaging as the stress itself. Why? Because when we believe that someday we’ll flee from our problems to another world, we’re tacitly accepting the idea that it’s impossible to do anything about these problems today. We come to accept the notion that there’s nothing we can really do about the stress in our lives, so we’ll just grin and bear it until we can finally escape it entirely.
The “Escape Myth” also ignores a fact of human personality. As we said in the beginning of this lesson, it’s how you personally react to stress that’s important. Even the most ardent believers in the “Escape Myth” must admit there’s no escaping their personalities. Stress-prone people are going to suffer as much when the well runs dry or the chickens don’t lay as they did back in the city from the crime rate or from their bosses unreasonable expectations.
If you think of yourself as immune to the damaging effects of stress, you’re probably suffering more than usual. In our experience, the person who prides himself or herself on working well under pressure, or staying cool in a crunch, is the one most liable to sustain long-term damage from stress. These people steel themselves to take on more and more stress, and greater and greater damage results.
Stress buildup is a common syndrome among career-oriented people. They believe they can handle much more pressure today than they could a few years ago. But many of these people simply don’t recognize their own symptoms of stress. Chronic headaches, fatigue, increased smoking, back pain, gassiness, cold feet, and premenstrual tension for women are just a small sampling of these symptoms. Many people never connect these ailments with stress.
But what is most troublesome is that stress build-up ultimately threatens your long-term health. If you try to adapt physically and mentally to ever increasing amounts of stress without compensating for them, you may not suffer the effects today or tomorrow, but surely at some point in the future you will pay the price with chronic disease. And finally of course, stress buildup takes its toll of your feeling of contentment and your ability to take pleasure in every-day activities.
Your Personal Reaction to Stress
Maybe you’ve heard of a book describing your reaction to stress in terms of Type A or B behavior, called ” Type A Behavior and Your Heart”, by Drs. Friedman and Rosenman. We’ve adapted the list of Type A behaviour patterns described by this book, not to help you decide if you’re a Type A, but rather to help you become more sensitive to behavior patterns that indicate a high susceptibility to stress. Read through the list below and see if any of these behaviours apply to you. If they do, you must look especially carefully for the stress symptoms, which we’ll discuss shortly, even if you think that you cope well with stress or don’t have much of it in your life.
1. Scheduling more and more activities into less and less time.
2. Failing to notice or be interested in the environment or things of beauty.
3. Hurrying the speech of others.
4. Becoming unduly irritated when forced to wait in line or when driving behind a car you think is moving too slowly.
5. Gesticulating when you talk.
6. Frequent knee jiggling or rapid tapping of fingers.
7. Explosive speech patterns or frequent use of obscenities.
8. Making a fetish of always being on time.
9. Having difficulty sitting and doing nothing.
10. Playing nearly every game to win, even when playing with children.
11. Measuring your own and others’ success in terms of numbers, (e.g. number of articles written, deals concluded, etc.)
12. Lip clicking, head nodding, fist clenching, table pounding, and sucking in air when speaking.
13. Becoming impatient when watching others do things you can do better or faster.
14. Rapid eye blinking or tic-like eyebrow lifting.
While it’s important to recognize the behaviours associated with stress, we believe it’s considerably more important to recognize the symptoms of stress. These symptoms are clear signals that something is wrong, and although you may not find them dramatic, their implications are ominous for your health.
Here is a rundown of common stress signals, divided into physical, emotional, and behavioral categories. Please read this list carefully. Learning to recognize these symptoms is the key to success for this week.
Physical Symptoms—Oiliness of skin, cold hands, sweaty hands, cold feet, sweaty feet, burping, gassiness, need to urinate, diarrhea, tight or tense muscles, acid stomach, palpitations, face flushes, trembling hands, shallow rapid breathing, shortness of breath, pain in neck or lower back, dryness of throat and mouth, headaches, premenstrual tension or missed periods in women, exhaustion or elevated blood pressure.
Emotional Symptoms—Boredom, dullness, general lack of interest, depression, listlessness, constant fatigue, sense of unreality, weakness, fear, inability to concentrate, urge to cry or run or hide, irritability, feeling of hyperexcitation or mania, nightmares, feelings of impending doom, general feelings of resentment, apathy, general feelings of powerlessness or loneliness.
Behavioral Symptoms—Nail biting, teeth grinding, stuttering or speech difficulties, increased smoking, increased use of drugs or alcohol, decreased or increased eating, insomnia, loss of enthusiasm and/or sense of humor, constant hair pulling or twisting, accident proneness, high pitched or unprovoked laughter, trembling or nervous tics, clutching something tightly, foot jiggling, efforts to withdraw and/or isolate yourself.
Do you suffer from any of these symptoms? Most people find that they exhibit three to a dozen of them at various times. Check off the ones that apply to you and during this week reread the list a few times. Throughout the week notice any symptoms as they occur. When you become familiar with the effects that stress is having on your body, you’re ready to practice the coping exercises and also to turn stress to your advantage whenever possible.
Relaxation and Stress
Most people’s ideas about what constitutes real relaxation do them more harm than good. When I ask people what they do to combat stress, I usually get the same answers: “I collapse in front of the TV every evening.” Most of them suffer from the mistaken notion that this kind of relaxation combats stress. But the relaxation they’re describing is just another activity – more agreeable and pleasurable than work perhaps, but another activity nonetheless. Unfortunately, people who think that these diversions are “relaxing” are getting no stress relief at all, because they believe they have their stress problems under control.
The worst remedies to combat stress are the most popular. They include alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes. While it’s true that these solutions will provide temporary “relaxation,” in the long run they do far more harm than good by compounding the bad effects of stress. Of course, at this point in the Makeover, you have given up alcohol and, I would hope, any recreational drugs. Next week, we’re working on smoking, and if you’re a smoker, you’ll find that this week’s suggestions for stress control will help you give up cigarettes.
To combat the effects of stress, that cause short and longterm disease, you must practice a form of relaxation that’s active, not passive. Effective relaxation produces demonstrable physical changes that have been proven to be stress reducing. The goal has to be relaxation itself, not relaxation as a side effect. Real relaxation requires effort and practice. It’s not difficult or time consuming, but you have to work at it.
Stress affects your body and your mind. In order to fight stress, it’s important to take both into consideration. In working with folks, we’ve found that the most effective approach is to relax the body first. We do this by using a modified version of Dr. Herbert Benson’s “relaxation response.”
Relaxation: The Real Thing
When we searched for a method of relaxation for ourselves and for others we were helping, that would be simple to learn, relatively fast, and easy to do anywhere, we eventually selected Dr. Herbert Benson’s relaxation response as satisfying every criterion. Dr. Benson is a cardiologist associated with Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. Among the first to do extensive research on meditation, he reported on the connection between meditation and reduced blood pressure and the decreased use of drugs. After researching the literature on meditative practices in Yoga, Sufism, Zen, Judaism and Christianity, Dr. Benson distilled the technique, common to all those practices, that produced a quiet mind and a peaceful heart. He called the technique the “relaxation response.” It’s really a form of demystified meditation.
The relaxation response (RR) is the physical opposite of the flight-or-fight syndrome generated by stress. It decreases the activity of your sympathetic nervous system as it decreases your metabolism, heart rate, and rate of breathing, decreases the blood flow to your muscles, increases the alpha brainwaves that are associated with feelings of relaxation and well-being, and decreases your blood lactate levels, which are associated with muscular fatigue. Benson notes that these changes are distinctly different from the physical changes you experience when you sit quietly or sleep.
Some people initially scoff at the relaxation response. How could something so simple make a difference in the way you feel? Believe me, it does. One person who was reluctant to do the RR told me, “The truth is, I didn’t do the relaxation response for the first few days of my stress week. I thought that once I’d discovered my stress symptoms, knowing them would somehow help me to avoid stress. But, of course after a few days I saw this wasn’t happening. I tried the relaxation response because everything else on the Makeover had helped me even when I’d been skeptical. After a few days of the RR I felt a noticeable difference. I felt like the master of my ship. At first, I felt that way for a short while after the exercise, but eventually the ‘calm time’ got longer and longer. In a funny and certainly unexpected way, the stress exercises pulled the whole Makeover together for me. I can’t tell you how much better I feel than I did two months ago: I’m calmer, stronger, more energetic, and I guess best of all, happier.”
Here’s what you need to have to get the relaxation response:
1. A Quiet Environment. This can be anywhere – home or office. Many people sit at their desks and get the relaxation response. Just be sure to choose a place with no loud noises or distractions.
2. A Mental Device. Something like “God loves me – I love God” or, “Let go and Let God” – anything that removes yourself from logical thought and distractions.
3. A Passive Attitude. This sounds simple and it should be, but people sometimes make too much of it, defeating the purpose. A passive attitude means not focusing on how well you’re doing in the exercise or whether you’re really getting the correct response. When either of these thoughts occurs to you, let it go and focus instead on repeating your chosen word or phrase.
4. A Comfortable Position. You want to reduce any awareness of your muscles as much as possible. A comfortable chair that supports your head is good. It’s even better if you can lie down.
Now here’s how you get started:
A. Sit in a comfortable position in a quiet environment.
B. Close your eyes.
C. Relax your muscles, beginning with your feet, then your calves, thighs, lower torso, chest, shoulders, neck, and head. Pay special attention to the muscles in your neck and face, which tend to get very tense.
D. Breathe through your nose, paying attention to your breathing. As you exhale, say aloud or just think about your chosen word or phrase.
E. Do this for at least ten minutes, twenty if you’re able. You can open your eyes to check the time, but Dr. Benson cautions against using an alarm.
For the rest of the Makeover course, make time for the relaxation response twice a day. Think of it as a “mind break” that has taken the place of a coffee break. I think you’ll eventually feel that the RR time is the most important part of your day. Makeover veterans who practice the relaxation response regularly are always enthusiastic about its calming and invigorating effects. You will be amazed to find that such a simple exercise that takes so little time can have such an important effect on your body and mind.
Your Stress Triggers
But what about those stresses that hit like lightning? The driver who cuts in front of you, the plumber who won’t return your phone call? These stressful daily incidents need immediate action to help ease their harmful physical and mental effects.
The most effective time to combat such stresses is when they occur. But first you must make yourself aware of them.
How do you know when an event is stressful? Often you can tell because you feel anxious. The boss is yelling at you. The baby is sick. But don’t count just the obvious stressful events. Here is where you need the list of symptoms mentioned earlier in the lesson. When you become familiar with these symptoms, you’ll be able to pick out the stresses that you may not have expected were affecting you. For example, your jaws may tighten when you speak to a certain co-worker. You might not count this as stress unless you’re alert to your symptoms. Then, when you feel your jaws tighten, you may realize that feelings of competition or resentment make encounters with this colleague stressful.
What’s the point of recognizing your stress triggers if you can’t change the sources of the stress? It serves two purposes. First it forces you to become aware of what those stressful situations are. You’ll probably find that just knowing what stresses you helps you to change your reaction to it. In some instances knowing something stresses you helps you resolve a nagging problem. When you realize a situation has become a real problem, perhaps you can suggest a different course of action to that “someone” whose behavior has caused the problem, or change your own reaction to the situation.
Relaxation: A Quick Fix
Now that you recognize your stress triggers, you can learn to deal with them in a positive way. A modification of the Relaxation Response is the solution I have developed. It works well for me and for others. Obviously you can’t do the relaxation response in the middle of a traffic jam or in a noisy meeting. But if you develop any of the physical symptoms mentioned earlier when you encounter these situations, here’s a modified Relaxation Response that will at least help relieve them.
When you notice you’re tensing up in a stressful situation, simply use step 3 of the Relaxation Response: Consciously relax all your muscles, beginning with your feet and working up to your head. Again, pay special attention to your neck and face muscles. Breathe deeply , slowly and regularly as you do this.
Just this simple technique can help relax you and deflect the wear and tear of stress on your body. Make it a point now to use this technique as often as you can. You’ll find that after a period of time it will become almost automatic, and in the long run it can be of real help in fighting stress.
The Stress Advantage
Now you’re working to control the effects of stress on your health. This, as we’ve mentioned, has a corollary benefit: It makes you calmer and more effective in handling everyday affairs. But you can do still more. You can learn to turn stress to your advantage. You do this mainly by working on the way you think about stress.
You’ve taken the physical approach to relieving stress. Now you’re ready to capitalize on stress by altering your state of mind. I have a series of tips gathered from the experiences of Makeover veterans. They will help you cope with many aspects of stress. They have one thing in common: They assume that stress is not something you’re trying to eliminate from your life. That’s an impossible task. Rather, these are tips that will help you face stress as a challenge, an opportunity. You have a choice as to how you react to it. If you can train yourself to view stress as a chance to exert your will and self-control so as to make things happen your way, stress can play a very positive role in your life. Remember, that God is working through this stress to bring you closer to Himself. Jesus died to bear our burdens of guilt, fear and shame; through Him we can find the best possible help against stress.
—-Focus on Your Goal: Many of the most stressful situations involve other people – the difficult salesperson, the irrational co-worker, the demanding relative. When we experience these moments, our tendency is to focus on how we feel – enraged, defensive, wounded, diminished, impotent. Unfortunately, by dwelling on these feelings, however justified, we intensify the situation and often wind up escalating the conflict too. Try doing this instead: As soon as you find you are in a potentially stressful situation, try to remove yourself emotionally from it. Forget about what that person did and what you did, and how you have a right to feel a certain way. Instead, ask yourself what you want to happen. How do you want this conflict to be resolved? Once you know what your goal is, then you can take action to win that goal.
—-Recognize that it’s not the major, catastrophic events that are the most dangerous as far as stress is concerned, but the everyday difficulties and how you react to them that will take a toll on you in the long run. Also recognize that not everything you do is of crucial importance. If your ego is always on the line, you’re shouldering an unreasonable level of stress that will have negative results.
—-Be Realistic. Too often we have what seems like a hundred things we want to get done each day, and always feel disappointed in ourselves because we accomplish only a fraction of the list. It’s much more efficient and less stressful to set realistic goals.
—-Try to do only one thing at a time. When you catch yourself talking on the phone and reading a letter or working on an unrelated project at a meeting, stop and focus on one task only.
—-Set Priorities and Goals. Make a list of what you want to accomplish each day in order of priority. Ignore the bottom of the list; work on the important things first. If you can view everyday hassles and tribulations as small problems on the road to a greater goal, you’ll have a better perspective on things in general.
—-De-escalate your negative emotions. This is a sort of game you play with yourself, but it can be very effective. If you’re enraged at someone, decide just to be angry instead and then pray for that person, submitting the negative emotion to our gracious God who understands.
—-Learn to share Your Concerns with people close to you. It’s remarkable how therapeutic a conversation with a friend or loved one can be when problems are looked at in a fresh light. Ultimately, even if you don’t have anyone near you that understands your feelings right now, Jesus died to make God’s love a reality to us and He always understands.
—-Accept the fact that you will fail occasionally. When you do, rather than blame yourself, examine the situation with as much distance as you can manage and analyze what you can learn from it. Ask yourself the question: “What is God trying to teach me through this situation?” And then try to take to heart this lesson; by faith laying hold to God’s mercy and goodness for He will “work all things together for our good, if we love Him and will be called according to His purpose for us.” Romans 8:28.