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The Present, Tense

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Helping professions are notoriously stressful. As a financial advisor, you have to help your clients deal with highly charged and taboo areas such as control, money, love, and death–subjects you may not feel completely comfortable with yourself. Adding insult to discomfort, once you are able to develop a plan that deals with these touchy areas, the feedback you often hear most loudly is about what doesn’t work.

Add more competition, more regulation, and other changes in financial services to the mix, toss in the tensions of the wider world, like terrorism and war, and you’re careening off the stress scale. That’s without factoring in your personal pressures regarding children, intimate partners, parents, and friends. Remember, stress-related symptoms can also be caused by “good” changes like a new marriage, a new house, even taking a long vacation.

By now you may be tempted to lie down and put a pillow over your head. The fact is, however, that stress is as unavoidable in the business of financial advice as it is in coaching and therapy. After years of helping people avoid “stress fractures” of both personal and professional origin, I’ve learned a few things I’d like to share with you.

Most of us need a certain amount of healthy challenge in our lives. Without opportunities to struggle and succeed, we grow dissatisfied and bored. By my definition, stress is the unhealthy result of living with challenges that we cannot hope to control, such as random terrorist attacks or an unrealistically demanding boss.

The negative effects of too much stress are everywhere. Obesity, hypertension, depression, reliance on alcohol or drugs, and anxiety affect our physical and mental health, and ultimately can shorten our lives. Home and work relationships suffer when we operate in a stressed-out mode. Compounding the problem is our cultural tendency to always do-do-do, instead of just to be.

Basically, if the challenges you face are making you feel helpless or even sick, you’re overstressed. It’s critical to understand the seriousness of this problem, and find ways to manage stress in your life.

Does stress affect you physically, with headaches, backaches, stomach problems, insomnia? Does it make you error-prone or unable to concentrate? How do you act when you’re stressed–highly emotional, irritable, or explosive? Or do you withdraw from everything around you?

An evaluation of personal coping patterns can be very helpful in developing a stress management repertoire. I firmly believe in the power and virtue of “practicing the nonhabitual.” For example, if you tend to isolate yourself when stressed, you may be able to escape this pattern–and some of your stress–by reaching out to a friend, a loved one, or a counselor. If you’re more likely to become overemotional or even frantic, it may help to talk calmly with someone you trust in a safe place.

To minimize physical or mental reactions to stress, learn to step back, take a few deep breaths, and re-center yourself with a thought, a place, or an activity that grounds you. In so doing, you may have to unlearn patterns that are actually contributing to the stress you feel today.

When you can barely juggle all your current responsibilities, how can you possibly squeeze out time to de-stress yourself? It may sound counterintuitive, but readjusting your priorities to include stress-busting activities can actually increase your positive energy and efficiency, so you end up taking less time to accomplish the other tasks on your agenda.

Trust me, and take a leap of faith. For a month, or at least a couple of weeks, try something that helps you relax: maybe deep breathing exercises, stretching at your desk, or a walk at lunchtime. Make a note of what feels different about your life afterward. If you’re still not sure whether to make time for this activity, you’ll have the wherewithal for a cost-benefit analysis that tells you whether the results were worth it.

There’s a lot you can do to manage stress better. First of all, identify some on-the-spot stress-busters that work for you. When you are really tense, what’s the very first thing you need to do to get back to connection, self-nurturing, and a sense of hope and healing? (Author Sheldon Kopp calls this “back to one.”) Is it five minutes of deep, slow breathing? A call to your partner or best friend? Praying? Meditating? Whatever it is, commit to doing it, no matter how busy you are, as the first step in digging yourself out of a stress hole.

It’s just as important to work on shoring up your reserves so that when stress hits, you are better able to take it in stride. Some of the activities that fall into this category include regular exercise, meditation, keeping a journal, maintaining a gratitude list, writing down daily successes, and volunteering. Here’s how these stress strategies can help:

Activity No. 1: Move

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who love to sweat, and everybody else. If you’re the type who cringes while others rhapsodize about the thrill of a pumping pulse and rampaging endorphins, the secret is to search for your own best form of exercise. In my case, I realized that the terrific workout videos I bought always ended up gathering dust in my basement. A weekly meeting with a personal trainer is perfect to keep me motivated. Tap dancing and ballroom dancing twice a week add to my “bliss.” Do what works for you.

Activity No. 2: Meditate

Before you start shaking your head or muttering, “Uh-uh, not for me,” let me reassure you that you don’t need to sit still in order to meditate, and you can do it anywhere. Many people listen to relaxation tapes; some join a group or meet with a friend to sit and breathe deeply; others practice walking meditation.

A recommended way to begin (or end) meditation is with an exercise in which you imagine being in some extremely peaceful place where you can drink in the warmth and restfulness. My own visualization exercise usually starts at my own private beach and moves on to a meadow. There, one or two animals (a different one each time) come to me and walk me from the meadow into the woods. We cross over a stream to a wise woman who answers a question that’s troubling me, or gives me a bit of wisdom that helps guide me through the day.

This restorative exercise doesn’t have to take lots of time. Fifteen minutes or so in the morning suits me best. For others, meditating after a long day may feel more relaxing. The key is figuring out what works for you, and committing yourself to do it regularly.

Activity No. 3: Write

Many kinds of daily writing help relieve stress. In her book The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity (Putnam, 2002), which is not just for artists, Julia Cameron recommends writing three journal pages first thing in the morning to clear your mind and heart for the day. Don’t worry about subject matter, grammar, or style; just write. I find writing these “morning pages” to be very refreshing.

Another early-morning suggestion is to jot down the positive qualities about yourself that come to mind. This can re-center you in an upbeat mental state and color the rest of your day.

If you often feel that nothing is working out for you, set your office alarm for the same time every day to keep a gratitude journal. By taking five minutes to write down things you are currently grateful for, you will find it easier to reconnect to the blessings in your life at times of tension, loss, disillusionment, disappointment, or heartache.

Another de-stressing exercise if you feel unappreciated is to write down every day’s small and large successes. If you do this at night, I can almost guarantee it will improve the quality of your sleep.

Activity No. 4: Connect

Connect: 12 Vital Ties That Open Your Heart, Lengthen Your Life, and Deepen Your Soul (Pantheon, 1999), by my friend and colleague Edward (Ned) Hallowell, is a wonderful primer for stress relief. In it, Ned outlines various ways that people need to connect with the world and with themselves in order to nurture themselves fully. He mentions family, friends, work, beauty, nature and special places, pets and other animals, spiritual belief, and creative activity as some of the connections that can help dissolve stress.

Spending quality time with the people who are closest to you often helps ease stress. In many cases, of course, these relationships are also the ones that cause intense stress in the first place, so be sure to choose your companions carefully when you feel uptight.

Sometimes a rather stressful relationship can be transformed by making small but powerful changes.

For example, instead of retreating after dinner to nurse the day’s tensions, a close friend of mine began to play cribbage, backgammon, and dominos with her husband. They’ve had a huge amount of fun, and have been able to reconnect on many levels.

In the workplace, finding or creating a support group can go a long way toward making your job more satisfying. I can testify to this from my own experience: despite an incredible variety of interests, styles, and personalities, the group of therapists I trained with in the 1970s has managed to stay connected for 30 years. We meet once or twice a month with a facilitator to share feelings about our lives and our work, hold three-hour retreats several times a year, and host quarterly potluck dinners for ourselves and our families.

If a peer group like this doesn’t exist where you work, or you are a sole practitioner, consider forming one with supportive colleagues. Don’t look for people who always agree with you, but those who make you feel good about yourself and have opinions you value. Truly supportive people can disagree with you without putting you down, soothe you when you are upset, and confront you, if need be, with gentleness, care, and concern.

I also firmly believe that every workplace should consider facilitated retreats or staff meetings so someone from the outside can “blow air into the system” and keep problems from building up. These facilitated meetings can be real stress-reducers.

Activity No. 5: Give

Community connections are also important in warding off stress and isolation. Volunteering your time in a good cause can help reverse feelings of hopelessness in the face of distressing events and trends. The many volunteer-supported organizations in every community are a reminder that there are good and worthwhile people everywhere, and that you, too, can contribute to making the world a better place.

Charitable giving is another way to connect with positive energy. You’re not only supporting an organization you believe in, but also passing on a legacy while you are still around to enjoy it. This can foster self-love and recharge your spirit.

Activity No. 6: Be With Beauty

Spending time in beautiful places is a wonderful way to combat tensions. This doesn’t necessarily mean hiking through the wilderness or kayaking to Campobello. I’m sure I’m not the only nature wimp who gets stressed out just thinking about snakes, sharks, rip tides, and poison ivy. Brought up in and near New York City, I find my relaxation in beautiful gardens. The greenhouse orchids and Japanese rock garden at Hillwood, the former home of Marjorie Merriweather Post, make me feel totally safe and nurtured.

What kind of beauty turns you on? If it’s music or art, these can be wonderful connections to pursue. Just don’t let yourself be forced into “culturally correct” genres that do nothing for you. In other words, if you prefer Travis Tritt to Bach or Thomas Kinkade to Picasso, follow your bliss. In my case, bliss is sitting in a theater listening to the overture of a Broadway musical. Who cares if some people say show tunes are less “valuable” or “important” than classical music or opera? Find what you really like, buy season tickets, and treat yourself regularly to the kind of beauty, pleasure, and healing that works for you.

Activity No. 7: Create

One of the most effective ways to relieve stress is to nurture your own creativity. In fact, another important insight I’ve practiced from The Artist’s Way is to take myself on a weekly “artist’s date.”

Depending on your interests, this might involve any kind of creative activity: writing a poem, restoring a garden, composing music, drawing in the park, or just walking and observing in a peaceful place. I enjoy going to Hillwood and painting flowers in the greenhouse or on the grounds. When I take myself on an “artist’s date,” everything feels easier that week, and I’m much more at peace with myself and the world.

Why Is It So Hard?

No matter how much therapy or personal growth work you’ve had, stress will always make you revert to your primitive survival mode. You’ll need to work your way back to the rational adult thriving mode where you are functioning and working at your best. Daily rituals like keeping a journal, exercising, or volunteering help you re-anchor in a place where you like yourself, recall your blessings and your strengths, and recharge yourself with positive energy.

Some people have more trouble than others in struggling back to this positive mindset. In fact, it’s not unusual to prefer living with old pain rather than to make changes in hope of experiencing new pleasure. Stress is something we’re familiar with, whereas being stress-free may take us to a place we’ve never been before.

In addition, some of us are programmed with old messages that run counter to self-support and self-love. Unfortunately, my mother was like this. She never knew how to relax and do nothing. When I came in from playing, she would say to my six-year-old self, “How can you be so happy when children are starving in Europe?” Although it may be hard to imagine her intense disapproval of people who “liked to play all the time,” the fact remains that I have to consciously give myself permission before I can relax and have fun.

I’m sure that much of this won’t be new to you. You may well have tried exercise, meditation, keeping a journal, or one of the other approaches I’ve suggested. Maybe you felt it did you good. But somehow, you just couldn’t find the stick-to-itiveness to keep going.

I empathize. Our society is oriented toward 15-second product solutions, 22-minute room makeovers, and seven-day weight-loss programs. More seriously, we tend to reward such addictive pseudo-solutions as overwork (“It’s only five o’clock. What do you mean, you’re going home?”), overeating (“Can I super-size that for you?”), and overspending (“You are pre-approved for a personal loan of up to $10,000″). These patterns of overindulgence never really satisfy our deepest needs for self-love, self-respect, and self-worth, which continue to grow as we mature.

In order to train yourself to do what’s ultimately in your best interest, you may need to practice some behavior modification and reinforcement. For instance, suppose you set a goal of meditating or writing in a journal for 20 minutes three mornings a week. As the first step, put it on your calendar. Second, give yourself a reward (one that doesn’t undermine your progress) to celebrate when you do it. Third, write down how it feels to take on this commitment and practice this new behavior. By allowing you to monitor your resistance and your progress, this technique can help combat a lack of discipline that may have sabotaged you in the past.

In a September 12, 2004, article, The New York Times noted a survey showing that Wall Street brokers and traders had a rate of clinical depression more than three times the national average. However, this research was done in 2000, while the market was booming, cab drivers were day-trading, and investors checked their daily balances with glee. What in the world was there for investment professionals to be so stressed about? The Times concluded it was the feeling of being helpless amid “the grinding pressures of a rapidly changing industry.”

These pressures haven’t changed. By putting yourself first, however, I believe you can learn to manage stress. In the process, you will become more productive at work, experience more efficiency at home, and ultimately add years–happier years–to your life.

Olivia Mellan, a speaker, coach, and business consultant, is the author with Sherry Christie of The Advisor’s Guide to Money Psychology, available through the IA Bookstore at E-mail Olivia at [email protected]