Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Slaying the Stress Monster

By: Barbara Nickless

If you’ve ever had stress kick on like a pilot light in the middle of the night, or felt it stalk you with twenty-four-seven persistence, then welcome to the human race.

The Oxford Dictionary defines stress as a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances. The causes can be internal (fear of pubic speaking, worry about a medical procedure) or external (buying a house, taking a new job, suffering a loss).

So, yes, stress is part of being human. But in today’s hyper-demanding world of social media, twenty-four-hour news, and contentious presidential elections, we can find ourselves perpetually anxious. The flight-or-flight response that protected us from dire wolves has itself become a monster. Headache, chest pain, fatigue, lack of focus, depression, insomnia—these are only a few of the joys visited upon us by stress.

And, oh boy, am I intimately familiar with the havoc stress inflicts. A few years ago, a wildfire and other traumas kicked my personal anxiety into the stratosphere. After my life returned to some semblance of its pre-trauma state, my body didn’t get the memo. Even minor, everyday stressors like getting cut-off in traffic caused my anxiety to spike. This, I learned, was normal. The body holds onto trauma with the persistence of a politician with an applause-winning soundbite.

It was no way to live. I had to channel my inner Beowulf and slay the beast.

Enter hours of research and months of practice. Over time, I created a list of stress-busters that work for me. It’s an on-going effort—the struggle, as they say, is real. But now I have some tried and true tools to use the next time someone tries to take off my front bumper. 

If you look at this list and start thinking, yeah, that would all be great for people who have some time in their day, then recall the marshmallow story:

The moral of the marshmallows? Save time for the important stuff now, and you’ll get back double the benefit. More than double. A few minutes a day could add years to your life.

·       Back off those goals. It’s all about the process. Google “process versus goals” and you’ll finds all kinds of helpful ideas about this. The important thing to remember is that while finishing a novel is a worthwhile goal, you’re more likely to get there if you focus on the pleasure you feel in the process of a daily writing habit. Loving the process = progress = less stress.

·       Work efficiently. Schedule intense work, like writing a novel, in twenty-five minute segments with a five minute “mind wandering” break at the end to serve as a refreshing reset. This gives your brain a break and helps alleviate built-up stress. It’s also easier to push through tough or scary work if it’s only for twenty-five minutes at a time.

·       Don’t multi-task. Don’t even try. Humans can’t. And trying to do so actually reduces your efficiency. If you’re like me, well, just call me Pavlov’s dog. Every time one of my devices lets me know I have an email, message, or phone call, I’m all over it. I finally learned to turn off those helpful little pings. Be cognizant of how much checking your email or engaging in social media fractures your attention. Fractured attention means accomplishing less in the time you have. And what does that do to your stress level? Rocket ship to the moon, anyone?

·       Recognize your limits. Being overscheduled is a major stressor. Work and family take priority. Beyond that, sometimes we have to just say no. If you can’t help a friend or a cause right now, it doesn’t make you a bad person. Promise yourself you’ll make time when doing so won’t hurt your health.

·       Find your tribe. Just make sure it’s the right one for you. People who have a support network live longer, healthier lives. Work, hobbies, church, and, yes, Pokémon Go—all provide opportunities to connect. Social media can be helpful, too. Just be aware that online communities don’t offer the same level of healthy engagement. Get out there in person and express—and feel—the love.


. Yeah, I know. Who has an extra hour in their day? Here’s what I read that made me
change my mind: People with some of the worst stress in the world—combat veterans—are finding significant relief with yoga. Some are getting better results than they saw with traditional therapy or medications. And even a few minutes a day helps.

·       Meditate. Another, yeah, yeah. You force yourself to sit there for ten minutes while your mind races over your to-do list and your body is in sprint mode, waiting for the alarm to go off so you can get to the important stuff. But here’s the deal—just five or ten minutes of daily meditation (more is better) literally changes our brains for the better. Google it.

·       Fight for your body. It’s the only one you’ve got. Eat right. Drink water. Exercise. It takes time now, but gives you more time in the future. ‘nuff said.

·       Keep perspective. If some of your stress comes from keeping up with the Jones’ (or Stephen King or Harlan Coben or the guy in your critique group), remember, this is your journey. Lately I’ve been freaking out over whether people will like my debut novel or if I’m capable of writing a respectable second book. I worry that I’m not as good a daughter/mother/wife/friend as I want to be. This is one of those middle-of-the-night monsters for me, and when it leaps, I take a deep, meditative breath and remind myself that I am on my path, not anyone else’s. That’s something I can own.
All of the above ideas take awareness, willingness and some time. But they translate into more time on Earth. Which, in turn, means more time to write our stories. And isn’t that what all of us want?

I’d love to hear what stresses you out and how you cope with it. If any of these techniques work for you, please share!

For every comment you make, you’ll be entered in a drawing for an ARC of my debut novel, Blood on the Tracks. Our esteemed blog master, Donnell Bell, will pick a random winner on August 31.

About the Author:  Barbara worked as a raptor rehabilitator, instructional designersword fighter, astronomy instructor, and piano teacher before turning to writing. Now an award-winning author, she lives in Colorado where she loves to snowshoe, cave, hike and drink single malt Scotch—usually not at the same time. She is the author of the Special Agent Parnell series featuring a railroad cop and her K9 partner.