Stress Relief: Taking Charge or Letting Go?

David_Marat Chronic stress can produce a feeling of being overwhelmed. It makes it difficult to shift perspective and see the stressor from a different angle. Rather than seeing stress as a useful signal and address the cause of it, the tendency is to focus on the stress reaction itself as something that can be just pushed away. The results are often the very opposite of what is intended: rather than going away, stress continues as a flashing light on the dashboard that just won’t shut off, while its cause continues to wreak havoc on the mind, the spirit and the body.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Taking responsibility for finding a solution to the stressor is the answer, of course. But how can it be done if all that we can see and feel are the emotional and physical symptoms of the stress reaction? The following are proven ways that can help in shifting perspective from the signal (stress) to its cause, the stressor itself.

Take Charge, List, and Delegate

When I ask general audiences if they can control their stress level to make it work for them, no more than half say they can. If I ask audiences of pilots or neurosurgeons the same question, they all say they can. –Esther M. Sternberg, M.D.

Airline pilots are trained to use the stress response as a useful way to monitor their own behavior. When a pilot flies an airplane through a storm, her heart races, her breath becomes shallow, and her attention is intensely focused on the job at hand. The pilot experiences to the fullest the physiological arousal that defines stress, without necessarily labeling the situation as stressful. Having done this before, the pilot knows what to expect, takes full charge of flying the aircraft and remains in control. On the other hand, the passengers aboard the aircraft may be far more uncomfortable because the plane is bouncing around and there isn’t anything they can do about it. They are stressed, and their racing heart, shallow breath, and intense focus on every bounce and every noise of the plane is coupled with the feeling of being at the mercy of the elements and in the hands of the pilot. Two similar situations, two very different stress reactions. The difference? Being able to take control.

Whenever possible, a shift of perspective can be facilitated by taking charge and exercising a greater control over our choices. When we believe we might be able to control a situation, and step up to try and resolve it, chances are that the very act of acting on it reduces our stress levels. We are finally doing something about it, and it feels good. Have you noticed how the toothache seems to go away, at least to some extent, when we arrive at the dentist’s office? Or our problems take a different, and often less dramatic tinge, when we open up and just talk to someone about them?

Another useful technique for making use of stress signals instead of being overwhelmed by them is to make a list of the stressors that need to be addressed, and front-load it with the ones that can be taken care of quickly. As we check off accomplishments, the feeling of being in control rises and stress begins to ease. It is also useful to take the list a step further and classify each stressor into one of three categories:

  1. Stressors that can be eliminated by making a choice, e.g. taking time off from work, saying no to another request, getting out of a noisy environment.
  2. Stressors that can be reduced or modified, e.g. working on a relationship problem, cutting down on caffeine, lightening the work load.
  3. Stressors that cannot be eliminated or reduced and therefore have to be managed, e.g. working through a loss and the grief caused by it, searching for a job, taking care of our own or a loved one’s illness.

A third technique is delegating, not just to coworkers but also to children, spouse, and friends. This may be difficult, as it appears to contradict the previous suggestion of taking charge of the situation. While taking control is a good stress reliever, it requires moderation and good judgment. One’s anxious need to be in direct personal control of everything at all times, or at least attempting to gain it, can create a stress of its own. Our finite resources of time, energy, and motivation can become exhausted. Anxious control ceases to be a step toward resolving our stressors, and can simply become an attempt to reduce our anxiety about getting everything done. Delegating is the answer.

Accepting That Life Is…Well…Stressful

No one can control everything. A child’s schedule may inevitably conflict with a work deadline. Bad weather may flood the picnic. There are literally thousands of situations when one task interferes with another, is interrupted, must be postponed, or ends up producing unexpected results. Is this because of poor control skills? Sometimes that is the case, but more often than not life is just full of surprising and unexpected turns.

Chronic stress can have a physical impact on the body. Interrupting the sequence of stressful moments with moments of calm and relaxation, i.e. letting go instead of taking control, can lessen that impact. This letting go may at times feel counterintuitive but it produces results. When a series of crushing deadlines looms at work, we can take some time off in between them. A weekend at the beach or the mountains can do wonders for the equilibrium. Distracting oneself with something soothing, such as cooking, knitting, or breaking out the watercolors can bring a smile to our face and a balm to the soul. And if taking off an entire afternoon is just not in the cards, just getting out for a walk can be a powerful stress reliever. Even a short stroll can make a difference.

Anger and Sadness Increase Fibromyalgic Pain

Turner_1835_DidoBuildingCarthage Perhaps another study that falls into the “I knew it all along” category: Anger and sadness increase pain in women who suffer from fibromyalgia.

A recent study conducted at the University of Utrecht on 121 women, 62 of which were suffering from fibromyalgia, confirmed a significant increase in pain levels in response to both anger and sadness. A greater angry or sad reaction was associated with a correspondingly greater amount of pain response.

Results of the study showed that in half of the female patients, the experience of anger or sadness in response to a significant daily emotional event predicted more pain at the end of that day. The anger–pain link was more pronounced among patients with a longer duration of fibromyalgia and among those with higher average anger levels. 

Among the study participants, pain levels were highest on Fridays and lowest on Sundays, which might reflect a gradually increasing pain during the work week. However, patients who worked did not show a more pronounced weekly pain increase than unemployed patients. Relaxing activities and quality time during the weekends of both working and non-working women appeared to reduce the pain.

Can Comfort Food Reduce Stress?

MammothHotSprings_EN-US66686672 When eating is a way to tame anxiety instead of hunger, it is an emotion-driven behavior that adds calories, fat, cholesterol and inches to the waistline, while providing at best a temporary relief to feelings of stress and anxiety. So what is emotional eating, does it relieve stress or can it do more harm than good? In this post, we’ll take a look at its symptoms, learn how to distinguish it from real hunger, and how to prevent it from ruining our diet, our mood and our health by stopping it or simply bringing it under control.

How to Recognize Emotional Eating

The normal physiological response to emotional distress caused by a stressor is a noticeable loss of appetite. The stress reaction is a complex physiopsychological mobilization of resources that also causes the blood flow to be temporarily diverted from the digestive system to other parts of the body where it is most urgently needed to activate the fight or flight response, i.e. the musculature and the cardiovascular system. Thus, under normal functioning, the stomach contracts and hunger is reduced during times of stress and anxiety.

When there is an increase in appetite under stress, it may look like a real need for food, but in reality there are several differences between emotional hunger and physical hunger. The most significant difference is the speed at which the urge to eat is felt: emotional hunger appears suddenly or in a matter of minutes, while physically appropriate hunger occurs more gradually.

The next most significant difference is in the type of food that is usually craved during bouts of emotional eating. Specific high-calorie, high-fat and sugar foods, such as pizza, cookies or ice cream, are often the only foods that will satisfy the emotional need. When the appetite is caused by real physiological hunger, there is more willingness to eat a variety of different foods, even ones that we do not ordinarily like as much but that happen to be available (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, day-old soup). 

A third difference is in the way emotional hunger triggers the anxiety to eat right away, whereas normal physical hunger very seldom has an anxiety component attached to it. Another difference is in the way emotional hunger appears to shut off our natural ability to regulate the amount of food we eat at any one sitting, i.e. the ability to stop when the stomach is full. When eating to satisfy an emotional need, there is higher likelihood that the eating will continue until all the food is consumed. Last but not least, guilt often accompanies emotional eating. Physical hunger is very seldom associated with negative emotions such as guilt or regret.

Is Emotional Eating Just a Problem for the Waistline?

In theory, a simple food fix in times of high stress and anxiety does not appear to be a problem. Indeed, occasional use of food to self-soothe and comfort negative feelings is a proven remedy that has been known since the beginning of time. However, the prolonged recourse to food to assuage emotional needs carries significant health risks, chief among them an increase in levels of cortisol, insulin, and lipids, which over time can lead to obesity and the development of metabolic syndrome.

The repeated use of food to alter negative emotions, unfortunately, tends to become less effective over time. This is due to physiological changes that take place, but principally due to the ineffectiveness of food as a coping mechanism. At best, comfort food can act as a distraction from worry. Often, comfort food becomes a metaphor of the “hunger” for the emotional closeness with significant others that could provide the comfort and help that would truly benefit the individual under stress.

How to Stop or Control Emotional Eating

When emotional eating becomes a habit while losing its ability to reduce stress and anxiety, there are ways to manage it and eventually stop it entirely. This is often possible without counseling or medication, but the latter may become necessary when emotional eating has become compulsive and the person simply does not have the psychological resources to bring it under control. The following suggestions may be helpful and worth a try, before seeking professional help.

  • Recognize emotional eating, distinguish it from real hunger, and learn what triggers it.
  • Improve the quantity and quality of sleep by napping or getting to bed earlier. Tiredness may increase the need for an energy boost. Take a nap or go to bed earlier instead.
  • Use an effective stress management program, such as as yoga, exercise, meditation or relaxation techniques. Reducing stress is often the key to eating only when hungry.
  • Give yourself a hunger reality check by asking, “Is my hunger physical or emotional?” Check when you ate the last time, and calculate whether you should be hungry now. Give time to the sudden craving to pass, while trying to make sense of it.
  • A food diary where you note what and how much you eat may be very helpful in establishing the connection between stress, mood changes, sudden cravings, and emotional eating. Awareness is often the first step toward developing options and making better choices.
  • Connect to a support network. When food is a substitute for companionship, friendship, and interpersonal connections, it is more likely to be the one comfort that is readily available. It is a better approach to reach out to family, friends, colleagues or a support group.
  • Boredom can be a powerful trigger of emotional eating. You may snack healthy (low-fat, low-calorie, fresh fruit, vegetables with fat-free dip, unbuttered popcorn) or not at all by choosing to take a walk, watch a movie, play with your pet, listen to music, read, surf the Internet or call a friend.
  • If nothing but comfort food is available and you recognize it clearly as triggered by stress or anxiety, try to practice moderation by dividing the bag of chips into smaller portions and eating only one or two servings. Eating only four bites, according to studies at the Food and Brand Laboratory of Cornell University, may be sufficient to create a positive memory of food that is recalled as just as good an experience than eating the whole thing.

The Rising Cost of War: Military Sexual Trauma

RioAlseseca_EN-US608673953 The latest research on the long-term health consequences of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan (OEFA) and Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq (OIFI) suggests that US veterans are bringing home a significant number of psychological problems. The most recent study published in August by the American Journal of Public Health estimates that 19% to 42% of returning veterans have one or more clinically-diagnosable mental health conditions.

Returning servicemen and women are turning to the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) for health care in record numbers, with nearly 40% enrolled as of the end of July. In addition to posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and stress disorders, and sleep impairment, another (somewhat overlooked until now) contributor
to this burden of mental illness is exposure to sexual assault or harassment during service. The newly categorized disturbance is referred to in military lingo as military sexual trauma.

This is not a new phenomenon, as military sexual trauma had been documented in veterans of previous wars. What is different this time, though, is that OEFA and OIFI veterans are the first generation of VHA users to return from a large-scale deployment and have access to comprehensive screening and treatment services.

The most recent study was conducted at the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and the Center for Health Care Evaluation, VA of Palo Alto, California. It was the  first comprehensive assessment of the mental health profile associated with a history of military sexual trauma among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

The results show high rates of postdeployment mental health conditions among all OEFA and OIFI patients. Women and men who reported military sexual trauma were significantly more likely than those who did not to also be diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), other anxiety disorders, depression, and substance use
disorders.

Additionally, and not surprisingly, the study shows that the co-occurrence of military sexual trauma and PTSD is substantially more frequent among female soldiers than among males, suggesting that military sexual trauma may be a particularly relevant gender-specific clinical issue in PTSD treatment settings.

Mild to Deadly: Stress At Work

CloudToGround_EN-US2741696585 Stress at work can take many forms and range in severity from mild annoyance to burnout. It may be relatively easy to tell if co-workers appear to be under severe stress by observing the appearance and persistence of certain characteristic behaviors. It may not be so easy to diagnose dangerous levels of stress in ourselves, however, especially when other considerations of self-esteem, personal ambition to succeed, economic pressure, deadline requirements, and career goals may interfere with a sound and unbiased self-diagnosis.

Mild vs. Severe Stressors: It’s About Control

The first consideration is the severity of the stressors. Are they mild and can they be addressed by making appropriate adjustments? Stressors such as a noisy environment, not knowing one’s job objectives, and skipping meals can be (although not always) addressed by closing the door, asking for clarification, and committing to take lunch and snack breaks as needed.

The second consideration is whether or not the stressors are under our control. The presence or lack of control creates an internal vs. external locus of control situation, with important psychological consequences (see this post on the difference between internal and external locus of control).

Stressors that are beyond our control are far more difficult to address, as for example when there are too many things to do and not enough resources to get them done. Its opposite, the situation when there is hardly anything to do at all, is also stressful and may not have an easy solution.

Other relatively difficult stressors that may not have a solution within our control is not enjoying the job, and not knowing what else one could be doing or being in a situation where a change of job is just about impossible. In the current job market, this may not be an uncommon situation, as jobs that used to be good have become more stressful and jobs that were bad to begin with have not gotten any better.

Another difficult stressor where external control may be an issue is the experience of being caught between conflicting demands, often with insufficient information or resources to address them appropriately. Not feeling appreciated or under-appreciated while putting in long hours and hard work can also create a considerable level of stress.

On the other hand, many stressors can be successfully addressed because they do fall within our control. The most common are interruptions and how they are handled (the well-known inability to say “no”). Another is poor delegation skills, or not sharing work responsibilities with others. These are two examples of stressors that, although not easily eliminated, at least can be controlled and limited in their impact by making changes that are well within our possibilities.  

When Stress at Work Is too Much: Burnout

There are times when the symptoms of stress are just too severe, too persistent and too intractable to be dismissed. They interfere not only with productivity and efficiency on the job, but they also have important negative health consequence in addition to being detrimental to interpersonal relationships at work and at home. The resulting complex cluster of psychological, physical and behavioral symptoms is defined as occupational stress or, for short, burnout.

The emotional exhaustion of burnout can result in diminished interest in work, fatigue, and detachment. Hopelessness is common: we "give in," "numb out," and "march like robots through the day."

The depersonalization of burnout, or the defensive distancing from the surrounding world, can result in diminished contact with coworkers and the public, withdrawal of psychological investment, self-absorption, and an overall negative attitude toward others.

The dissatisfaction of burnout, or the perception of unsatisfactory personal accomplishment, can result in feelings of failure, fatalism, diminished competence, and incapacity to respond to further job, personal and environmental demands.

Early Warning Signs of Work Stress

One of the first noticeable signs that stress is beginning to have a behavioral impact is irritability. Fellow workers will notice this first. They may or may not be able to point it out, but if they do, it is worth paying attention to their feedback and asking ourselves a few questions.

The second sign is fatigue. Even though it is hard to miss, fatigue very often goes unchecked not because it isn’t visibly affecting us but because we may refuse to acknowledge it. Pushing harder can become a mantra, a repetitive “principle-driven” set of behaviors that pushes rest and relaxation aside, with potentially serious health consequences.

Difficulty concentrating and forgetfulness are also early signs of severe stress. Sometimes, stress affects memory in such a severe manner that, by evening time, we can’t remember what we did all day, or what we ate for breakfast.

Sleep ceases to be a safe haven for regenerating and recharging and becomes a place of torture. Lack of sleep is linked to so many health consequences, and to stress itself, in a circular causality pattern. Less sleep means more vulnerability to stress, which leads to more stress by the time we get to bed, with even less chances of getting a good night’s sleep. A potentially deadly vicious cycle!

The body complains about stress, too. Its messages take the form of bowel irritation, chronic fatigue, asthma and other respiratory ailments, headaches, rashes, tics, cramps, and many more pains and problems that appear to come out of nowhere and stubbornly refuse to go away.

Finally, withdrawal and depression may raise their ugly head. Burnout has arrived. It may take a few years to get here, or maybe just a few months of severe stress. In any case, burnout may be the end game of one very simple losing strategy: ignoring the obvious, steaming through the warning signs and hoping that stress will just go away by itself.

Get Away From the Maddening City—Now!

Blackwell at Stresshacker.com Incidence of schizophrenia and other psychoses is greater in urban than rural areas, but the reason remains unclear. Various studies have found the link between living in the city and severe mental illness, and none have determined a specific cause. A new study claims to have the explanation. The study examined a group of over 200,000 people born between 1972 and 1977 whose medical history was cross-referenced with demographic, school, municipality, and county information.

The study, published this month in the Archives of General Psychiatry examined whether individual, school, or area characteristics could be associated with psychosis and whether the effects of individual characteristics on risk of psychosis varied according to location.

The incidence of psychosis was significantly higher among people living in urban settings as compared to those living in the country.  Further data analysis showed that psychosis appears to be a reflection of the increased social fragmentation that has become a feature of city living.

The principal researcher, Dr. Stanley Zammit of the Center for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics of Cardiff University, said that previous studies had found that the severity of schizophrenia risk depends on the context of the living situation, with increased risk found for those living in an area with few people of their own ethnicity.

Of this study, Dr Zammit says that "it was somewhat surprising that we found this sort of context-dependent effect across a range of characteristics: ethnicity, social fragmentation, and deprivation. Although it makes sense that such an effect would not be restricted to ethnicity but to potentially any characteristic that might define someone as being different from their peers as they grow up."

With the caution that is characteristic of studies that avoid the presumption of absolute revelation, the researchers point out that much more investigation is needed before it could be said (if ever) that living in the city causes schizophrenia. What can be said from this and other similar studies, however, is that there is a greater risk of developing a severe mental illness such as psychotic disorder for people who live in a predominantly urban setting. Is this enough to make you want to live in the boonies? Maybe not. But this may be another consideration for a move to the more distant ‘burbs.

eClass 5: Stress and Emotional Intelligence

3060893791_b4015ba15e_o We’re social creatures, and the life best lived often depends on our ability to create and maintain healthy relationships. Success, happiness, and the ability to give and receive love all hinge on our relationship skills. Most of us do a good job with relationships at the start. But why do we so often stumble down the road? Why do relationships develop into such stressful problems? Can emotional intelligence help?

Emotions are the building blocks of each relationship in our lives, and the power of those emotions cannot be overstated. Runaway emotions can override our thoughts and profoundly influence our behavior. Emotional intelligence (EQ) is the ability to recognize, control, and effectively communicate our own emotions, and to recognize the emotions of other people. Emotional intelligence skills enable us to use emotional building blocks to construct a solid foundation for communication. Well-developed emotional intelligence is a better predictor of success in all areas of life (and particularly in relationships) than the traditional measurement of high cognitive intelligence, or IQ.

At the foundation for all verbal and nonverbal communication, emotional intelligence can:
•    Empower us to build healthy new relationships
•    Help us strengthen existing relationships
•    Help us better understand other people
•    Help us better understand ourselves
•    Enhance our ability to communicate effectively

A Simple EQ Test

What is your current EQ level? Most of us have relationship problems at times with coworkers, acquaintances, friends, relatives, or other people about whom we care. Our emotional intelligence is a set of key relationship skills that help us establish strong relationships and deal with relationship problems.

Find your emotional intelligence skill level by answering “true” or “false” to the questions in this quick relationship quiz.

1.    I hold eye contact with the person to whom I am speaking.
2.    I am comfortable with pauses when others are experiencing emotion.
3.    I sense when someone feels troubled before being told.
4.    I am comfortable with my feelings of sadness, joy, anger, and fear.
5.    I pay attention to my emotions when making decisions.
6.    I have no problem expressing my emotions to others.
7.    I can reduce my stress to a comfortable level.
8.    I enjoy laughing, playing, or kidding around.
9.    I don’t feel threatened by disagreements.
10.    When others are speaking, I listen to them rather than working on my reply.

Answering “true” to at least 7 of these questions indicates a good grasp of the skills that will strengthen relationships and help avoid relationship problems. Less than 7 “true” answers indicates that there is a need for additional skills building to raise emotional intelligence ability. It is important to learn the key skills to use in improving our current relationships, and to forge strong new ones—in both our personal life and the workplace.

The 5 Crucial EQ Skills

While every relationship is unique, there are five areas of emotional intelligence that are of vital importance to building and maintaining healthy relationships:

1.    The ability to manage stress in relationships

Stress shuts down our ability to feel, to think rationally, and to be emotionally available to another person, essentially blocking good communication until both parties feel safe enough to focus on one another. This damages the relationship. Being able to regulate stress allows us to remain emotionally available. The first step in communicating with emotional intelligence is recognizing when stress levels are out of control and returning quickly, whenever possible, to a relaxed and energized state of awareness.

2.    The ability to recognize and manage emotions

Emotional exchanges hold the communication process together. These exchanges are triggered by basic emotions, including anger, sadness, fear, joy, and disgust. To communicate in a way that grabs or engages others, we need to access our emotions. However, our emotions may be distorted, or unavailable, due to the influence of our earliest childhood relationships (chronic stress, i.e. high allostatic load). But they can and must be restored.

3.    The ability to communicate nonverbally

The most powerful forms of communication contain no words, and take place at a much faster rate than speech. Using nonverbal communication is the way to attract others’ attention and keep relationships on track. Eye contact, facial expression, tone of voice, posture, gesture, touch, intensity, timing, pace, and sounds that convey understanding engage the brain and influence others much more than our words alone.

4.    The ability to use humor and play in relationships

Playfulness and humor help us navigate and rise above difficult and embarrassing issues. Mutually shared positive experiences also lift us up, help us find inner resources needed to cope with disappointment and heartbreak, and give us the will to maintain a positive connection to our work and our loved ones. Humor can be a powerful stress reduction and relaxation technique.

5.    The ability to resolve conflicts in relationships

The way we respond to differences and disagreements in personal and professional relationships can create hostility and irreparable rifts, or it can initiate the building of safety and trust. Our capacity to take conflict in stride and to forgive easily is supported by our ability to manage stress, to be emotionally available, to communicate nonverbally, and to laugh easily.

Emotional intelligence skills can have a dramatic effect on our relationships at home and at work. As we acquire each one of these abilities, we will increase our overall EQ level and our ability to master the next skill. In the end, we will get to know a newly empowered individual—our social self—and become very comfortable with our ability to attract the respect and affection of others.

How Great Companies Minimize Employee Stress

How do truly outstanding companies minimize their employees’ stress? What programs do they implement that appear to make it easier to join the company, fit in well within the organization, grow and prosper as an employee?  In their book, Best Practices in Talent Management: How the World’s Leading Corporations Manage, Develop, and Retain Top Talent, Goldsmith and Carter provide a wealth of examples of on-boarding and talent retention programs that facilitate difficult transitions, demystify the process of change, and contribute greatly to reducing tension and work stress.

The book is the Stresshacker Recommended selection for this week.

[amtap book:isbn=0470499613]

Among the case studies highlighted as best practices:

Avon Products: Clear Objectives = Clearer Execution. This case illustrates the practical implications of defining objectives around “executing on the what” as well as “differentiating on the how.” In other words, simple, well-executed practices communicated through an executive coaching model.

Bank of America: A truly exceptional executive on-boarding program. The B of A’s new hire turnover rate of approximately 12% compares to estimates as high as 40% turnover in large corporations. On-boarding reduces the stress of being new to a large company because it is a socialization process rather than just an orientation program.

Corning Corporation: Making use of the collective wisdom of internal experts rather than relying solely on external consultants. Corning seeks to grow “innovation leaders” through a well-designed 5-step development process.

Ecolab: Employees are successfully integrated into the organization’s corporate culture and values. Values include spirit, pride, determination, commitment, passion, and integrity.

General Electric: To high-stress jobs, GE applies a process of sorting (separating necessary from unnecessary items), setting in order (arranging items in sequence of use), shining (maintaining the work area), standardizing (ensuring consistent application of sorting, setting in order, and standardizing), and sustaining (maintaining and improving the previous four steps).

Kaiser Permanente Colorado Region: A practical approach for addressing the not-uncommon problem of an organization that was too reliant on hiring new people without seeking to develop the people who were already there.

Microsoft: A judicious application of research conducted by the Corporate
Leadership Council (CLC) to real-world problems in the organization. Employee development is organized around five key areas: senior leadership commitment to developing people, managers continuing engagement in the process, promotion of open interpersonal contact among employees throughout the organization, communication of development plans with clear goals, and targeting of on-the-job work experiences to build skills and competency.

6 Worst and 6 Better Ways to Manage Time

How much can time management cost in terms of stress and health risk? It depends on how we choose to manage it. Some choices appear more effective but have short-term benefits and high cost. Others appear lower in stress and health cost but do not seem to use time efficiently. What’s the right answer?

Let’s look at some of the most popular time management approaches, their costs and benefits in terms of allostatic load and stress-related health risk, and an estimate of their long-term effectiveness in getting things done.

  1. Manage time resources allowing for ample relaxation time and with the goal of avoiding all stress.
    couchpotatoAllostatic Load: Probably low to very low.
    Stress-related Health Risk: Probably low. There may be other health risks connected with low physical activity levels.
    Long-term Effectiveness: Probably not great at getting things done in a timely manner.
    Not all stress is bad and to be avoided. We experience the stress reaction not only in terms of frustration and anxiety, but also as excitement, thrill, energy and useful motivation. The attempt to eliminate all stress from our life would run counter to our biopsychosocial nature, which requires stimulation, interaction and activity.
    The Better Way: Achieve balance between work and relaxation, family and job demands, personal time and social time, activity and rest.
  2. Manage time resources on a moment-to-moment basis with little or no planning ahead because planning itself just takes more time. frantic-harrison-ford1
    Allostatic Load:
    Probably high.
    Stress-related Health Risk: Probably high, as stress symptoms may be ignored.
    Long-term Effectiveness: Probably very good at getting some things done in the short term, giving the illusion of long-term efficiency.
    Frantically going from crisis to crisis, handling each new task as it comes up, without assigning priorities or allocating resources is a reactive approach to time management. It can appear chaotic to the observer. Each new challenge is met head-on and is always “new” because there is little or no provision made in advance.
    The Better Way: Plan ahead for demands and challenges that can be predicted, anticipated and prepared for. Planning indicates self-care, not weakness.
  3. Manage time resources and get more done in less time by using caffeine, sugar, alcohol, nicotine, “energy” drinks or other chemical enhancers. crash
    Allostatic Load:
    Probably high, but masked by chemical “fixes.” Chronic stress.
    Stress-related Health Risk: Probably high, as useful stress signals for rest may be ignored, sleep suppressed, nutrition casual and expedient.
    Long-term Effectiveness: Probably very good at getting many things done in the short term.
    When using chemical means to increase energy and output over what the body can safely handle before needing to rest and replenish depleted resources, quality of output is likely to suffer and efficiency to diminish. The illusion of strength that can be derived from these forms of self-medicating fatigue may be merely postponing a crash,  intoxication, tolerance and, in some cases, addiction.
    The Better Way: Listen to the body’s signals. View natural sleep as vitally important, wisely use times of pause and relaxation to recharge depleted resources. Avoid becoming dependent on chemical substances to function.
  4. Take stress and inefficiencies to mean that there isn’t enough time to get done what needs to get done, and that just having more time would “easily” fix it.
    lastminuteAllostatic Load: Probably high.
    Stress-related Health Risk: Probably high, as stress symptoms may be ignored.
    Long-term Effectiveness: Probably okay to get some things done in the short term, but poor long-term efficiency.
    Actually, a time management problem is not using time to the fullest advantage, and to get done what needs to be done with just the right amount of energy expenditure, no more no less. Simply adding more time slots to the schedule, cramming a full to-do list, and shortchanging quality is a short-term strategy.
    The Better Way: Find an optimal schedule that fits available energy and mental resources levels, and stick to it. Say “no” to some demands as a key to preserving balance between rest and activity.
  5. View being always very busy, and generally busier than others, as a badge of honor and a sure pathway to success.
    workaholic Allostatic Load: Probably very high, chronic stress.
    Stress-related Health Risk: Probably high, as the need for balance may be dismissed.
    Long-term Effectiveness: Can lead to some success in the short term, but may take the highest toll on physical, mental and social health.
    Although this approach is by far the preferred one by type A individuals who take pride in being productive and getting a lot of things done, it has significant drawbacks. There is an an adjective that describes its devotees: workaholic. Being always extremely busy can result in poor allocation of resources, i.e. doing mostly what is considered urgent and too seldom what is truly important.
    The Better Way: Work is a means and not an end unto itself. Success is also measured by other yardsticks besides those of wealth and power. Balance is valued as a smart, resource-efficient strategy for long-term success in all facets of life.
  6. Pursuing time management strategies that ignore the truth: I feel pretty good, I am getting things done, so I must not be too stressed.
    IBS Allostatic Load: Probably very high.
    Stress-related Health Risk: Probably high, symptoms of stress go unnoticed.
    Long-term Effectiveness: Can lead to some success in the short term, but may take a high toll on physical, mental and social health.
    In reality, many adults don’t even know when they are at dangerously high stress levels until their bodies tell them so in a dramatic way, e.g. when sudden chest pains lead them to the nearest emergency room. It is easy to miss the early warning signs of chronic stress, as long as coping still works, more or less. Many psychosomatic illnesses are directly related to stress and overwork but are attributed to other causes or even ignored altogether.
    The Better Way: Listen to the body’s signals. View pain as a precious ally that alerts us to something in our system that requires immediate attention, and self-care as more than just a quick fix that kills the signal without addressing the cause.

Past: Regret. Present: Stress. Future: Worry!

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
–William Blake: Auguries of Innocence

Wasting time and time management, hourly wage, multitasking, deadlines, bank accounts, financial investments, insurance and retirement planning are all facets of the same way of thinking about time. They signify a linear understanding of time: present becomes past and present anticipates the future. The passing of time is conceptualized as the inexorable ticking of the clock, the falling away of calendar pages, the steady progression of weeks, years, centuries.

The Linear Time Trap

HaroldLloyd_Time Our focus on the passing of time has behavioral consequences, in that our choices and preoccupations reflect its linearity. We think of the past with either longing or regret, we are concerned for our individual and collective future, and we seek to squeeze every second of the present time (at the expense of sleep, relaxation, vacations, the view, smelling the roses) in securing a safer and (it is only hoped) more peaceful (and more relaxed) future. It is a quest that never ends, so long as there is a future ahead of us.

How are we managing linear time? Many have observed that many people seem unable to adequately make sense of their past or fulfill their plans and hopes for the future. The missed opportunities or perceived failures of the past, the demands of what appears as a shrinking present, and the worries and uncertainties of the future can manifest emotionally as guilt, regret, stress, anxiety, and unfulfilled expectations. Behaviorally, they may result in often futile attempts to “manage time” (understood simply as ways to cram more activities into our day), attempts to forget about the passing of time (with various pleasure enhancing products and activities), and earnest pursuits of that one thing (or two, or ten) that will insure and ensure a safe future.

The Endless Chase After the Future

Thinking of time in a linear fashion, we can reflect upon the past as well as make plans for the future. The only true reality is the present time and that’s where anything that is going to happen happens, just before it becomes part of the past. It would seem that a focus on the present is our best choice. In reality, however, it is the endless preparation for the future that consumes the majority of most people’s lives. Most human activities are undertaken to help make a better future, rather than as ends in themselves.

While there are clear benefits to thinking of time in a strictly linear manner, with an emphasis on what is yet to happen, this approach is not devoid of problems.  For many, the present is burned quickly by and becomes little more than planning for the future, which, in reality, never exists.

Is There Another Way to Think About Time?

The linear perception of time appears to be more of a Western cultural phenomenon. Larger portions of humanity perceive time as polychronic. Contrary to linear time, a polychronic view of time sees it as more fluid and not as rigid or precise, allowing for plans to be changed more easily and without much trouble. Schedules and timetables are not as important, and lateness is more acceptable. Many actions are performed at the same time, and completion of tasks is more important than preset schedules.

A polychronic perception of time is more prevalent in Latin American, Native
American, and Middle Eastern cultures, as well as in Asian cultures that view time as circular. Nature itself appears to keep a circular rhythm of time, with the return of day after night, warmth after cold, growth after fallowness, in a repeating cycle that seems to know no beginning and no end.

It is not unusual for Westerners accustomed to linear time to feel psychologically stressed when coming in contact with a culture that follows polychronic time. It seems more chaotic, disorganized, and far less predictable. Even leaving aside the fact that these cultures tend to have fewer problems with time-induced stress and anxiety disorders, the alternative of what is now being called “slow” time has an almost magic appeal. Minimalist approaches to life, slow food movements, flexible work time… perhaps an end to the slavery of the clock is near. Happy Labor Day!

People Who Lie Under Stress And How to Tell If They Are

tborig17pe People who make public statements are generally expected to tell the truth, and most of the time that’s the case. Severe stress, however, can override ethical obligations. People in public positions, such as CEOs, political figures, athletes, entertainers who are under media or legal scrutiny may and do lie about facts and circumstances. How to tell if and when someone is not telling the truth? Conducted by a team of researchers at the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, a detailed analysis of over 29,000 public statements by CEOs made between 2003 and 2007 which turned out to be false or deceptive sheds some light on the process.

Results of the study show that, in general, public figures who are not telling the truth use more references to general knowledge (“as you know”), fewer non-extreme positive emotions words (great, good), and fewer references to ethical values and value creation.  Deceivers use significantly fewer self-references (“I believe,” “I think”), preferring to use more third person plural and impersonal pronouns (“it is believed,” “many people think”), fewer extreme negative emotions words (terrible, disastrous), more extreme positive emotions words (fantastic, terrific), fewer certainty words (“to be specific,” “as a matter of fact”), and fewer hesitations.

This and earlier studies on the language of deception suggest that the use of “I” statements implies an individual’s taking ownership of a statement, whereas covert liars try to dissociate themselves from their words by using general attributions (everyone, everybody, anyone, nobody). Dissociation is also evidenced by a greater use of group references rather than self-references, as for example in saying “we, as a company, believe…” Not surprisingly, liars are less forthcoming with their own opinion than truth-tellers and refer to themselves less often in their stories. In extreme cases, people using deceptive statements may choose to omit references to themselves entirely.

The Liar Unmasked

Behind the words chosen by public figures to deceive their audience, say the researchers, are severe stress, a cognitive effort to misrepresent the facts, an attempt to control the audience’s perception of the liar, and a desire to distance themselves from the situation.

The severe stress experienced by deceivers is a consequence of the guilt they feel and the anxiety of being caught in their deceptive act. The high stress level is manifested not only in their negative comments but also in their negative emotional state, which they may or may not be able to hide from the audience. Because of their guilty feelings and their desire to dissociate themselves from the lie, deceivers are also likely to use general terms and not to refer explicitly to themselves. As a result of this dissociation, their statements are often short, indirect, and evasive.

A cognitive effort is necessary to misrepresent the facts because fabricating a “good” lie is inherently difficult. Especially when a liar has little or no opportunity to prepare or rehearse, his or her verbal statements are likely to lack specific detail and include more general terms. Thus, a liar may sound implausible, vague and non-immediate, telling a story that avoids mentioning any personal experiences.

roger-clemens-congress The attempt to control the audience’s perception of the liars themselves induces them to avoid making any statements that are self-incriminating. As a result, the content of deceptive statements is tightly controlled so that listeners would not easily perceive it to be a lie. To achieve this deception, deceptive statements contain more general, non-specific language, fewer self-references, short statements with little detail, and more irrelevant information as a substitute for information that the deceiver does not want to provide. For example, a liar will speak with greater caution, using a greater number of unique words to restate the same information. In contrast, truth-tellers often just repeat the information they have provided, using the exact same words.

The attempt to control may also lead to a very smooth speech when a narrative is prepared and rehearsed in advance, whereas truth-tellers often forget (or adapt) what they have said previously. In contrast to the cognitive effort perspective, the attempted control implies that the deceiver’s well-prepared answers are likely to contain fewer hesitations, more specific statements, and a reduced number of general claims.

In their desire to distance themselves from the situation, liars often appear to lack conviction because they feel uncomfortable when they lie, or because they have not personally experienced the supposed claims. This implies that liars use more general terms, fewer self-references, and shorter answers.

Something Needs to Be Done About Hostility!

Ginetto at Stresshacker.com Hostility is stressful, both ways. To giver and receiver alike, hostility metes out its toxic charge of badness. Far from being a true relief for frustration, pent-up anger, or unexpressed emotion, a sudden explosion of hostility merely releases a burst of energy and briefly discharges some muscle tension. Beyond these ephemeral effects, it is hard to find a good justification for hostility in everyday situations. So why is it so prevalent?

Two reasons account for hostility’s “popularity.” The first is the genetically programmed aggression instinct, which, in its proper setting and situation, can be useful (in a competitive physical sport like football), or downright vital (in combat situations, to fight off an aggressor, or in other situations of danger when a calm and relaxed demeanor would be clearly out of place). We can be aggressive and hostile by design, but we are also given a brain that helps mitigate the limbic system’s rage of emotions, and the amygdala’s watchfulness against aggressors, real or perceived as they may be.

The second reason for the pervasive presence of hostility is a misfiring of the very structures of the brain that are supposed to help us regulate it. Poor regulation of negative emotions can unleash hostility. Notoriously so, antisocial personalities have little to no self-regulation of hostility and most of the times this lands them in jail. Many more individuals, though, fall short of law-breaking hostility but still exhibit plenty of it in everyday situations (behind the wheel of their car, while waiting in line, with customer service people, with their spouses, children, friends) to make life more stressful for themselves and for anyone they come in contact with.

Steve Slater on Stresshacker.com At the other end of the spectrum, hostility, while present as a natural emotion, can be sublimated into a more productive and less threatening display of displeasure with someone or a situation.  Well-regulated hostility and aggressive instinct become assertiveness, standing up for one’s right, engaging in an passionate discussion. It can also sublimate into artistic pursuit, an all-out workout at the gym, or humor. A recent example of the latter was portrayed by JetBlue flight attendant Jeff Slater. Justifiably enraged by an unjustifiably aggressive passenger, Mr. Slater regulated down his hostility, expressed himself aloud on the plane’s PA system, grabbed a couple of beers, activated the emergency slide, slid down to the tarmac, ran for his car and drove home.

Hostility and (Bad) Health

Negative emotional states, such as anger and hostility, when they persist over time and become chronic, can negatively impact health. The risk to health comes through a number of mechanisms, including engaging in high-risk behavior (verbally provoking, physically attacking others), loss of social support (no one wants to be with a chronically hostile individual), and social isolation.

Chronic negative emotions also induce a semi-permanent activation of the stress reaction and cause sustained systemic inflammation, both of which increase the risk of disease. Research on hostility and aggressive personality has clearly established a link between these emotional states and heart disease, heart attacks, and cardiac-related mortality. Hostility not only contributes to a higher incidence and increased severity of heart disease, but is also related to symptoms of metabolic syndrome, including insulin resistance.

What Can Be Done?

Taking a page from Mr. Slater’s playbook, humor is one of the highest levels of sublimation that can be achieved in down-regulating aggression and hostility. Other forms of self-regulation of hostility (which incidentally are also ways of dealing with stressful situations in general) can be listed as follows:

  • Anticipation (the ability to anticipate the consequences of hostility and evaluate alternative responses)
  • Affiliation (turning to others for help and support, initiating a dialogue instead of a confrontation)
  • Altruism (taking into account the needs of others, and being able to contain rather than meet their aggression head on)
  • Humor (finding the amusing and the ironic in the situation)
  • Self-assertion (expressing feelings and thoughts directly and openly, but without resorting to verbal or physical violence)
  • Self-observation (reflecting on one’s own reactions and regulating them appropriately, before the explosion occurs)
  • Sublimation (channeling negative feelings into positive behaviors, i.e. taking it out on gym equipment, a good run, a distracting activity)
  • Suppression (intentionally avoiding catastrophic, negative and pessimistic thoughts that can lead to aggression).