Friday, April 29, 2011

April 29, 2011 ~ Day 141
The Stress Response

I am so amazed and grateful for the myriad ways in which the church mothers' group I've been attending continues to bless and change my life.

It is fantastic that you can literally do something as simple as put boxes up for giveaway on and draw in one caring person who leads you to an entire community of support.

Call it synchronicity - call it God in the world - call it Fate or whatever works; every time I attend this mothers group and reap the benefit of its collective wisdom and humor, I interpret the amazing kismet that originally brought me to the group as evidence of a greater plan for my life in action.

Today's group was special... a seminar focused specifically on managing stress.

The workshop was led by a beloved member of the mother's group who happens to be an internationally recognized motivational speaker. She is a lovely, charming, down-to-Earth woman in her mid-seventies who has seen a lot of the world and gained valuable insights through the school of hard knocks.

Infusing her 90 minute talk with personal anecdotes from her travels, family life, years spent teaching, and stories of her friends and their children, she had us rolling in the aisles laughing.

I especially loved her description of the way in which her husband drives - so full of stress and anger at the other drivers on the road - and her ongoing attempts to relax him from the passenger seat. I saw a lot of my husband and myself in their interactions; although my husband loves to drive. In our case, he hates finding a parking space... it is the parking space, and not the drive, that frustrates him to no end.

For the purposes of privacy I will call our guest speaker today Elinor, but that is not her real name. She has her own professional website which I'd happily share with the people close to me who read my blog. She is just a lovely, lovely woman. In a way, she reminds me a bit of the actress Betty White. Seems like grandma until she opens her mouth and you realize you're talking to a sassy vixen. This lady was full of fire and humor and great stories... definitely young at heart.

Elinor gave many incredible nuggets of advice, and I took notes furiously. She talked about understanding the cycle of how stress develops and how your brain and body feed into it. She gave us a chart of the physical effects of the actual stress response - and I was chagrined to see that nearly every one of the health problems I've faced in the last two years is a direct effect of long-term stress.

Example? When you are stressed, your heart rate increases. The original purpose for this happening during fight-or-flight situations was to pump blood faster to the muscles, so you could either fight harder or run faster.

Unfortunately in modern times when we're dealing with long term chronic stresses rather than short-lived "Eat or be eaten!" moments, there are real health diminishing effects from long lasting stress. According to Elinor's sheet, the long term effect from a continually increased heart rate is an irregular heartbeat, or high blood pressure.

I don't have high blood pressure (thanks, fish oils!) but I DID find out last year that I have an irregular heartbeat and a heart murmur. In fact, I had to put a check next to the box with nearly every single stress reaction and its "long term effect" - because I had 8 out of 9 of them. All the way down to my poor circulation and increased risk of infections. Argh!

To drive the point home, she encouraged us to think of it this way: For every time you allow yourself to get stressed out, just take 10 minutes off of your natural lifespan. This concept really got to me. I've got some massive relaxation makeup to do!

Luckily Elinor didn't spend the entire session belaboring what stress feels like and what it can do to your body... because that might possibly have generated even more stress in the mothers and grandmothers sitting around the workshop tables.

Instead, she spent the bulk of her time giving examples and strategies for how to de-stress.

One of the main points she raised was that we as mothers (and people) need to take a look at what is working and what is *not* working in our lives and STOP doing what isn't working. She reminded the group that the actual definition of insanity is doing the same thing over, and over, and over and getting the same results... expecting that at some point, the results will change.

An example of this would be arguing with your kid about setting the dinner table. If every time you ask your child to set the table you get an argument, according to Elinor's definition it would be insane to keep asking them to do it in the same way. You'd need to switch things up, find a BETTER way to get through to your kid. Find a way to make the activity authentic for him or her, to either give it an incentive or make it into a game... but not to simply keep asking every day in the exact same way.

Or, in my own case, another good example of this would be having painful discussions with my husband about our family budget, which is chronically stretched too thin. These talks have in the past rarely gone well. Maybe the thing that doesn't go well though has to do with *how* we are having the conversation; *when* we are having the conversation (time of day); and *where* we are having the conversation! The essential truth that I take from Elinor's talk is that even though we can't stop dealing with money together as a married couple, we can change the tenor and framework of the discussion and definitely alter its venue.

Elinor gave us a fantastic strategy: to challenge our own perceptions about what stresses us out and what can be done about it.

First, she had us pick a single issue out of all of the many things stressing us out on a daily basis and focus on that one issue. On a single sheet of paper she had us make two columns: Things I Can Control / Things I Cannot Control around that particular topic. She had us list as many of both that we could think of.

My issue for the day was: "Overwork, Exhaustion, Feelings of Failure". I rated it as a 10 out of 10 for how stressed out it made me feel.

Here were my lists:

  • Time I go to sleep

  • If I am disciplined about housework

  • If I keep lists and stay organized

  • If I keep my children busy and focused

  • If I exercise

  • If I make time to prepare 3 healthy meals for myself

  • If I take my antibiotics and supplements on schedule

  • Whether I choose to go back to work to make more money

  • What time I am awoken by my children (or husband)

  • How my children respond to each other and fight with each other

  • How my husband responds to my children

  • If my kids track mud, dirt, grime into the house or stain their clothes

  • How my body responds to antibiotics and supplements

  • Extraordinary expenses for children, car trouble and healthcare

Elinor explained that we need to learn how to LET GO of the things that are not under our control, and to accept the things we cannot change. She also laughingly reminded us that people with the biggest control issues are the same people with the biggest stress issues.


I've just written this week in a blog about my own prominent, longstanding Type A control issues and here we have it - the concrete explanation for how my own need to control has generated the very same stress that set the stage for illness.

So, to get 100% well, what is the prescription Dr. Elinor?

That's right. It's time to change my thinking, challenge my own perceptions about what is under my control and what isn't. It's time to really let go.

This is a lot harder and simultaneously a lot easier than it sounds. It's easy to pinpoint the negative thought cycles that drive me down during the course of a day. It's a lot harder to catch myself in negative self-talk every time it is happening. Elinor shared with us that we have between 50,000 and 60,000 thoughts each day racing through our minds... with the potential for a lot of negative self-talk. "That's a lot of programming!" she exclaimed.

So I've been trying to catch myself in my thoughts, to be more aware of them. When my daughter and I got back into our car after we left the mother's group I looked at the clock, wondered what time my husband and son's plane flight to Georgia was supposed to land, and caught myself thinking with worry that "I hope nothing bad has happened." Immediately my heart began to race.

"STOP!" I commanded myself, thanks to Elinor. I then practiced her strategy of visualizing the outcome I wanted - the two of them safely descending from the airplane steps, a huge smile on my son's face. My heart rate slowed down.

(Happily, just an hour later I spoke to them both by telephone and they have safely landed and are having a marvelous time. Hurray!) So even within the first five minutes of leaving her seminar I'd caught myself backsliding into my Type A controlling/worrying/stressing ways.

"This is going to be a real challenge, to change my worry patterns."

One of the other interesting pieces of trivia that Elinor shared with us was that 97% of the things that people worry about NEVER HAPPEN. She advised us to make a notecard for every fear or worry we have and then file it. "Six months later," she smiled, "Take out those cards and calculate for yourself how many of your fears actually came true. You'll see that you've been wasting almost all of that energy and stressing for nothing."

These are just a few of the many, many helpful strategies and hard-won truths that she shared with us in our group this morning. Already I can feel many of them percolating in my brain, having an actual impact upon the way in which I think about things.

I've looked at the huge TO DO list I have for this weekend with my husband out of town and recognized that my time is limited so I need to analyze which things I can control and make the best of those.
  • I can control whether I put our rent check into the mail or drive it into the office. We're going with the good ol' USPS...

  • I can control whether I cook dinner every night or allow my mom to take us to dinner. We're going to gratefully accept.

  • I can control whether I go to sleep at a decent hour to be cheerful and energetic for my kiddos. Time to take a nap.

  • I can control whether I visualize my husband and son having a great time or being in danger so far from home. I'm picturing them hiking and climbing trees.

I can control whether I worry about the aches and pains in my body, or choose to believe that they'll take care of themselves. I'm getting well, and I choose to look at all the great things that have changed for the better recently.

Despite how many things in my day-to-day life are truly out of both my control AND my comfort zone, I can choose to accept and LET GO of the things I cannot change.

I cannot change the tornadoes that just wreaked havoc on the American South, right at the time that my husband and child are traveling there. I need to let go of my fear that another tornado will hurt my little boy. I cannot change the fact that he is now thousands of miles away and nothing I can do will save or protect him in any situation he encounters. Instead I can let go and trust that I'll be seeing him again in just a few days.

What I find so far is that after implementing Elinor's pearls of wisdom, I feel grounded. I feel sleepy. My heart rate is steady and methodic. I feel peaceful and relaxed.

Could it be? Yes, it's true! I've actually de-stressed. Thank you, Elinor!!! and vast thanks to the Divine plan that led me to this amazing group of women who are already changing my mind, heart and belief systems for the better.

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