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.