Stress Management: Fast Track to Calm

Copyright 2007 Hueina Su, MS, BSN, CEC

Does your life look like a race car running at cut-throat speed and, to your horror, the brakes are broken? Do you feel like you are perpetually in a hurry, even when you are not in a hurry to go anywhere? Do you feel like all the items on your to-do list are dancing around in your head, and you can't seem to concentrate on any of them? Do you run around like a chicken without a head all day, and still feel like you will never "catch up"? Has it occurred to you that you have forgotten how to relax?

You are not alone.

Many of my coaching clients came to me, all frazzled and stressed, brimming with anxiety that they will never get it all done, or get it done the "right" way. They wanted to learn how to manage their stress, and create some balance in their lives, but they simply did not know how to relax. You'd be surprised how many people draw a complete blank, when I ask them what they do for fun, or what relaxes them. It's so sad that they have become so disconnected from themselves. A client once told me that even when she was at the spa, she could not totally relax, because half way through her massage she was already thinking about what she had to get done after the spa.

[Addicted to Speed]

With so much to do, and so little time, how do you deal?

Many people told me they tried to become more efficient so they could squeeze in more tasks in a day. Some proudly told me that they thrive on stress under deadlines. Can you relate to this?

What you may not realize is that, you have been running on adrenaline. When we are under stress (either physical or emotional), it triggers the fight-or-flight response in our body, which is then flushed with adrenaline to help us deal with the "crisis" at hand. Adrenaline is like caffeine that pumps us up with extra energy and alertness. It's referred to as adrenaline rush because it's highly addictive. You feel so much more productive and on top of everything. However, just like how caffeine affects our body, once the adrenaline rush is over, you'd experience a "crash" afterwards.

Some people try to stay in that "rush", so they wouldn't experience the "crash". The problem is, when you are running on adrenaline, your body is filled with stress hormone cortisol. Research has repeatedly linked chronic stress and cortisol to increased risks of heart disease, hypertension, weight gain, sleep disorder, etc. In other words, unchecked chronic stress can wreck havoc on your health.

[Haste Makes Waste]

There is a Chinese saying that's similar to "Haste makes waste". The fastest way is not necessarily the best way to get you where you want to go. Sometimes, when you try to rush somewhere, you end up not arriving at all.

When people asked me how to reduce stress quickly, I'd tell them to take a deep breath and slow down. Sounds very counter-intuitive, but, the fastest way to restore inner peace is to slow down. Slow w-a-y down.

Here are some ideas to help you practice what I call Tao of the Unhurried Way.

1. Watch Your Breathing

Research shows that when you focus all of your attention on one thing, your heart rate slows down and blood pressure is lower too. The easiest way to achieve this is to observe your breathing. We tend to hold our breath or breathe shallowly when we are stressed. When you find yourself tensed or holding your breath, take a few deep breaths. Then breathe normally for a minute or two, while focusing your attention entirely on breathing in and out. Your mind would probably try to interrupt you with all kinds of ideas and thoughts. When you notice a thought, just observe it, without judging it, and let it go. Return to observe your breathing.

This is a basic relaxation technique and the beginner level of meditation. Sounds simple, but it's not easy to do. We are so used to running and doing stuff all the time that most people have forgotten why we are called human "being", not human "doing". If you have difficulty focusing at the beginning, don't worry. Start with 1-3 minutes, and work up to 30 minutes if you can.

2. Practice Mindfulness

Years ago, a friend introduced me to Jon Kabat-Zinn and Thich Nhat Hanh's books on Mindfulness Meditation, and I fell in love with their work. Mindfulness is considered the heart of Buddhist meditation. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness is moment-to-moment, non-judgmental, awareness. It's a tool to bridge the gap between doing and being, and bring us back to here-and-now.

Our mind is often on auto-pilot, and we are not fully "awake" at the present moment. You might be physically here, but your mind is completely somewhere else. Without mindfulness, we are not fully present in our own lives, and in our relationships with others.

To demonstrate mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn asked his stress-reduction program participants how they eat raisins. Most people eat them by the handful. I'm sure you do too. However, he asked the participants to eat one single raisin, and really experience the full flavor and texture of a raisin. I tried that, and it opened my eyes. Now when I need a reminder of mindfulness, I'd take a raisin, or a very small piece of dark chocolate, and eat it as slowly as I can.

You can practice mindfulness meditation anytime, anywhere, in everything you do. Whether you are eating, reading, washing dishes, walking the dog, or pumping irons at the gym, try focusing 100% of your attention on what you are doing. Then, everything you do would be a mindfulness meditation. Needless to say, if your goal is relaxation and inner peace, multi-tasking is not the way to go.

3. Stop Speed-Eating

Even if you are not interested in practicing mindfulness, you should really slow down when you eat. Eating on the run produces anxiety and stress, which interferes with digestion. Studies show that when people eat fast, they tend to over-eat. That's because when you eat fast, your brain does not have enough time to register that you are already full, and that you should stop eating. As a result of stress (remember that cortisol contributes to weight gain) and over-eating, you'd end up gaining weight.

A recent WebMD article lists speed-eating as the No. 1 diet mistake (skipping meals is No. 2 on the list). Another study showed that when you sit down to eat a snack, you are less tempted to eat other snacks later on. It seems like when we are "eating on the go", our brain often doesn't register how full we are. Another reason to practice "mindful eating", instead of "speed eating".

So, try to sit down, and savor your food. If you don't have time to sit down and relax at every meal, at least make a conscious effort to eat one meal in peace every day. Unplug the phone, TV, computer and your Blackberry. Be fully present and eat in peace.

4. Allow Enough Time

In our over-scheduled, always-rushing life style, we often under-estimate how much time each task takes, or over-estimate how much we can get done in the amount of time we have. As a result, you are always running late and stressed out. When you schedule your appointments, try to allow 1.5 times of your original estimated time. Also, allow enough travel time between appointments. That way, if you hit traffic, you won't go crazy.

How about the transition between work and home? How often do you rush home and, without taking a break, jump right in to your "other job" at home? It's important to allow yourself enough time and space to make that transition. Perhaps you can take a walk, visit a cafe or book store, or go to the gym, before heading home. I know someone who would drive around the block, or sit in the car on his own driveway for a few minutes, until he is ready to re-join the rest of the family. Believe me, you will feel much calmer when you walk in the door.

5. Clear the Way for Calm

In order to slow down and have enough time, you need to de-clutter your home and your schedule. An organized home gives you a sense of serenity and provides a safe haven for you to relax and recharge. On the other hand, to cut down tasks on your schedule, you need to say no and set good boundaries.

Take an honest look at your schedule and commitments. How many of those do you really enjoy? How many of those can be done by someone else? Do you take on more commitments because you want to, or because you think you should? Or, perhaps you take them on just because you don't know how to say no? Protect your time like it's the most valuable asset you have. Since we all have 24 hours a day, when you say yes to something, you are saying no to something else. So choose carefully. What would you rather be doing?

6. Take Time for You

Last but not least, take time for you. Most people don't realize they are over-extending themselves and heading toward burnout. The truth is, you might not realize it, unless you can slow down enough to see your reality. Some clients came to that realization during our coaching sessions, after examining their schedules, values and priorities. Some told me that everything they did was all related to their responsibilities at work and at home, and they have not done anything just for themselves. They almost forgot what they used to do just for fun.

If you can relate to this, it's time for some Intensive Self-Care! Make a conscious choice to put self-care as a top priority. After all, if you don't nurture yourself, you won't have any more to give.

Schedule "Me Time" on a daily, or at least weekly, basis. Do something good for yourself every day. It could be something small, like buying yourself some fresh flowers, or spending half an hour reading, or taking a bubble bath. Or, it could be something big, like a spa day or girls night out. Do whatever pleases you. You deserve it.

Take time for you, and take the time to do what you enjoy. Savor every moment. Be fully present. Then you'll be on the fast track to true peace and calm.


Hueina Su, MS, BSN, CEC, is an expert in helping people find the missing peace and balance in their stressful lives. She is a Certified Empowerment Coach, Professional Keynote Speaker, Founder of Beyond Horizon Coaching, and Author of "Intensive Care for the Nurturer's Soul: 7 Keys to Nurture Yourself While Caring for Others." Written for nurses, doctors, moms, caregivers and other women nurturers, this book offers inspiration as well as practical solutions to prevent burnout and create more joy...

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