Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Procrastinating 101: Stress, Again

Chapter 8 in Marshall Cook's Slow Down...and Get More Done is entitled "Weapons in the War on Stress."  Though I might quibble with his word choice--"weapons" and "war" seem inherently stressful to me--I get where he's coming from.  

Cook begins by telling us something most of us know--and knew even seventeen years ago, when he was penning the book I didn't make time to read back then.  We're all pretty stressed. In fact
Treating stress has become a growth industry, with folks offering pills and potions, massages and mantras, retreats and renewals.
I've often wondered how far back women's magazines began predictably touting the latest "soothing stress busters" and "5 minute fixes" to stop stress.  Or if any of us can remember an entire day going by without using or hearing or reading the word "stress."  

Cook trots out the Holmes and Rahe rating scale, which assigns "stress points" to various life events, and predicts illness based on one's total points in a year.  Naturally, negative occurrences which we all recognize as distressing, such as divorce, the death of a loved one, and getting fired, contribute significantly to our overall stress level.  But even Christmas comes with a stress price tag, as do other positive experiences which involve change and effort.  

Cook mentions psychologist Georgia Witkin's work, which adjusted the Holmes and Rahe scale specifically for women.  In Witkin's version, many situations caused women even greater stress.  For example, Christmas--a 12-point item in the original--was associated with  56 stress points for women.  (Of course!  We're the ones most often stuck with making the whole thing happen!)  And getting married--the third most stressful life event for women-- adds 85 stress points to a woman's life, in comparison to 50 points in Holmes and Rahe's scale.

Cook reviews the work of Hans Selye, which most of us have seen many times by now.  Selye has been called "the father of stress," and was one of the earliest researchers on the subject.  He coined the term "eustress" to refer to the level of stress which is, as Cook puts it, "juuuuust right."  Eustress can enhance performance and heighten experience, and is not associated with negative physical effects.  Optimal levels of stress of individual, and affected by the duration of the stressor, and the way that we respond to it.  "Type-A" and "Type-B" personalities have become shorthand for those who don't and those who do handle stress with equanimity.  And, according to Cook, 
most experts now [sic] agree that to some extent these Type-A or Type-B behaviors are learned rather than inborn.
And that's good news, because, though it may not be easy, what has been learned can be unlearned.

Cook promises to help us learn to relax, get enough sleep, and treat imposed delays as vacations in subsequent chapters.  For now, he offers these three pointers:
Listen to your body.
Don't ignore signs of tension and fatigue.  They're a call for help.  Don't override the call for help with caffeine or alcohol.  Listen and surrender.
Give yourself a break.
Replace the artificiaul and ineffectual boosters and relaxers with a genuine break:  a brisk walk, some deep breathing, even a nap.
Talk back to the stressors.
Rather than serving as passive victim to your emotions and blaming others for your situation, take responsibility for your thoughts and feelings....Instead of reacting, stop and decide how you want to react....[B]reak the event-emotion-reaction thinking and evaluating before you react.
It's not like this information and advice are uncharted territory for me.  But for some reason, I am drawn to the message again and again.  You would think that at some point it would begin to percolate.  

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