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Sure-Fire Mental Strategies to Fight Stress

By Karla Brandau

I distinctly remember my first experience with a tiger at the zoo. The tiger was a gorgeous creature. It moved with subtle power. The fur was radiant and I had an urge to cuddle up and stoke that soft coat like I would cuddle and pet our precious family kitten, Mollie.

Then the zookeeper came to feed the tiger and I stood in amazement as it grabbed a 30-pound steak and--without any manners--wolfed it down in two bites.

Satisfied with its meal, the huge feline opened its mouth and roared. The sound was deafening and I took four steps backwards with astonishment to make sure I was well out of harm's way. The strong steel fence separating us suddenly looked frail!

Stress can be as seductive as this tiger at the zoo. There is a very flimsy fence that separates us from the good stress that moves us into action (the fulfilling kind of stress called 'eustress' or urgency) and the bad stress that cripples productivity (that we experience as 'distress'). For instance, when we are seduced by a personal "pity party" - the magnificence of the tiger - we elicit unwarranted sympathy from others while excusing ourselves from taking action. We are figuratively stroking a fierce tiger that has the power to devour us in two bites.

Science has proven that distress affects your body in a myriad of ways from headaches to backaches. So figuratively speaking, the fierce tiger of distress eats at your body. How long has it been since you were still for a moment and "listened" to the tension in your body? Does your body have to ROAR like the tiger to get you to slow down and reduce your distress levels? Or can it whisper to you and have you take action?

Just last week I picked up a book I had not opened for years, The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck. Again I read the first paragraph: "Life is difficult. Once you accept that, it no longer matters." I was inspired to reevaluate my stress levels and stop stroking the stress tiger but rather, strengthen my stress fence.

Your stress fence, or the wall between you and the tigers of life, helps you accept the things you cannot change. This, in turn, helps you find life wonderful, even though it is definitely not perfect.

Five strategies to help you stop stroking the stress tiger are:

  1. Understand what you can and cannot control. Taxes, God, the weather, and whether your kid parts his hair on the right side of his head, are things you cannot control. When you stop and realize that you can't control something, this step alone puts you closer to mental health. You can stop banging your head against the wall trying to control events and people performing out of sync with your preferences. Once you accept the fact that you can't control an event or a person, you can take direct action by applying coping skills.

  2. Use your power of choice. Your mind is a phenomenal organ: it has the ability to make choices. Once you realize that you have a choice between stress or distress, or that you can see obstacles as opportunities, you have developed the ability to choose healthy alternatives to distress. You can choose to re-label events, see other viewpoints, and let go...

  3. Re-label events. Your mind labels everything that happens to you, assigning each event as 'good', 'bad', 'terrible', 'wonderful', etc. If you don't like the stress the assigned label is causing inside of you, use the mental technique of re-labeling. For example, imagine with me that you made a mistake at work, which was then dutifully brought to your attention by a co-worker. Your mind will probably quickly label this as a 'bad' experience. To re-label this event, consciously label it as a 'learning' experience.

  4. See other viewpoints. If your car battery dies - a bad thing - you take the attitude of gratitude that it happened at home, not at the grocery store or the edge of a major freeway.

  5. Learn to let go. Perhaps the hardest of all the skills discussed here, this may be the most difficult because, to a certain extent, we love our individual pity parties that enable us to feel sorry for ourselves. We wrongly think that no one else in the world has pain like our pain. One easy way to let go is to take a look around, observe someone else experiencing distress, step out of your world and step into theirs, and then help them. It is amazing how much better you will feel.

Karla Brandau, CSP, is an expert in change, leadership and team building in the flat world. She offers keynotes and workshops to move your organization forward. Karla is available for consultation on how to reduce stress and increase efficiency in your workplace. Call 770-923-0883 to schedule some time with Karla today.

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