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Tearing down the walls of stress that attack us from within

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Posted: Sunday, November 18, 2012 12:40 am | Updated: 12:09 pm, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

Stress. It’s a feeling we Fairbanksans have come to accept as we try to survive our frigid, hyperactive, frenetic, event-filled, 2.5 child, 1.75 spouse, dual income lives, while simultaneously striving to stay sexy, thin and forever young.

Yet, the more we try to control stress at work and at home, the more overwhelmed, exhausted and literally sick we become. Being “stressed out” is reaching epidemic proportions in our arctic hamlet as we try to beat unsynchronized stoplights on Airport Way and crazy downtown traffic patterns, while we gently wave (sort of) to the driver of that truck running a yellow light. All the while, we might be wolfing down breakfast, shaving, talking on the cellphone and applying make-up in a last-ditch 52 mph effort to get to work on time. We tell ourselves “if only I was smarter, faster or luckier, then I wouldn’t be so stressed.”

Yet stress is no respecter of people — it attacks the rich and the poor, the boss and the janitor, the 25-year-old and the 65-year-old alike, and stress will win out and ruin our health, relationships and businesses unless we take control and learn to manage our stress response.

I went to a corporate stress and time management workshop last week and actually listened to, and learned something from, a handsome teacher. I taught the class that we live our lives between two imaginary walls. On one side is a wall containing all the events of our lives over which we have no control. The audience then described in sobering detail the events over which they had no control and the painful emotions consuming them when they were flat stuck on that wall.

Then we moved to the other imaginary wall of our life: the wall of events over which we have complete control. After a pregnant pause, we came up with a couple of examples: our clothes, our friends, etc. The common thread among all those events we have control over is that they are from within us.

The common thread among all those events we have no control over and which “stress us out” is that they occur from without and we then let them destroy our equilibrium.

Here then is the B-F-O (For those who didn’t complete college, that stands for “Blinding Flash of the Obvious”): Stress isn’t what happens to us, those stressors over which we have no control. Stress is our internal reaction, which is within our control, to those events that are on our wall we have no control over. The question that begs serious consideration and careful answer is: If we have no control over an event, why do we give it a stress response? In other words, we are surrendering the one thing we have control over to something that by definition, we have no control over. It makes no sense, yet you and I do it all the time, and we pay a high physical, mental and emotional price for that unnecessary stress response.

You and I will enjoy longer lives, have richer relations and enjoy more profitable businesses if we choose to adapt when we get plastered on the wall of events over which we have no control. That wall is real, and I regret to inform you that sometime soon you are going to crash into it. While learning to avoid the stress reaction, let’s focus energy on choosing to live on the wall of events we can control. Reinhold Niebuhr said it best: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

What are some ways we can control our stress response?

1. Since stress attacks us physically, exercise is a terrific stress reducer. A walk around the block while your family finishes throwing the furniture at each other usually will suffice.

2. We are what we eat. (I am a pizza.) A caffeine rush usually is followed by a case of jangled nerves.

3. Prayer and meditation work.

4. Having someone to talk to about what is causing us stress is helpful.

5. We need to be good to ourselves — pick up a hobby, go to a movie, etc.

6. Sometimes, it is helpful to allow ourselves to be upset, but only for 10 minutes — not the whole day.

7. Humor is one of the best antidotes for stress. Laughter produces endorphins, the purest, natural pleasure feeling.

Finally, a major tool to help control events in our lives is the 15 minutes we spend each morning planning out the day in our calendar. But then, time management is a good topic for a future column.

Until then, maybe we will meet on Airport Way. I promise not run a yellow or red light, if you do not either.

Charlie Dexter is a professor of applied business emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Community and Technical College. He can be reached at charlie.dexter@alaska.edu. This column is provided as a public service of the UAF Applied Business Department. Copies of this column can be found at www.AlaskaLS.com.

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