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A Better You | Living With Stress

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Strategizing to make stress a manageable part of your life

By Suzanne Martin, PT, DPT

Stress is a fact of life. We can’t live with it when it gets overwhelming, and we can’t live without it because it motivates us to stage the next big project. I tell my clients to go for the “athlete recipe”: alternate stress with relief, stress with relief. 

Finding ways to modulate stress is crucial. Too much unrestored stress (stress that’s not countered with relief) leads to chronic headaches, high blood pressure, diabetes, ulcers, even loss of fertility. Many physicians believe that most major illnesses derive from unaddressed chronic stress. Note the words “unrestored” and “unaddressed.” The idea is not to get rid of stress but to learn strategies to cope with it, balance it, and keep it at bay.

In the December 2008 issue we discussed how to identify unproductive thought patterns that can blow stress out of proportion. This time we will reach for coping mechanisms that help to balance the inevitable stress in our lives. Let’s look at three categories: avoiding, reducing, and relieving stress.

Avoiding stress
Avoiding stress can be as simple as training yourself to get up at least 15 minutes earlier each morning. For me, it’s a sacred time when exercise, meditation, and reading set up the day. Another strategy is to prepare for the next day as much as possible by preparing coffee pots, clothes, and lunches the night before. On Sundays I often fill refrigerator containers with fruit, nuts, cottage cheese, and salmon so that I can quickly throw lunches together.

Many physicians believe that most major illnesses derive from unaddressed chronic stress.

One hidden stressor is wearing clothes that don’t fit or feel good. It’s better to chuck or donate pinching shoes and clothes with itchy materials and creeping waistbands. It’s surprising how a few user-friendly “uniforms” can take the stress out of a morning.
 
Rearranging your commute times by just 30 minutes at either the beginning or end of the day can mean avoiding traffic snarls and so decrease your frustration. 

Most people keep their calendars on handheld devices these days; if you don’t, use a planner. Never rely only on memory, because when the multitasking inevitably starts, some important appointment is sure to be forgotten. Having a central wall calendar to coordinate family appointments ensures that everybody knows where everyone else is. Use color-coded highlighters to keep track of people or recurring events.
 
Setting appointments a little ahead of time can be helpful in getting clients to show up and not waste your time. Let people know your time frame and ask them to arrive 10 minutes beforehand. Ending a conversation with a frank “I have to let you go now,” or “That’s all the time I have for today” is clear and respectful and keeps appointments on schedule. Giving a 10-minute warning of “Do you have any other concerns?” is gracious and keeps you both on track.
 
Practical matters can be less stress filled if attacked proactively. Simple things like scheduling routine maintenance on washers, cars, and heaters can keep you out of emergency mode. Making duplicate keys and exchanging them with a trusted friend can be a lifesaver at times. Buy essentials in bulk and keep an emergency stash of toilet paper, tampons, and toothpaste on hand; only dip into the supply when necessary so you’re never caught off-guard. Have multiples of frequently needed items; for example, I keep lipsticks upstairs, downstairs, and in my purse. Most important, make copies of all legal papers, such as birth certificates, Social Security cards, insurance policies, and car or house ownership records and keep the originals in a safe deposit or fireproof box. Do get that crucial durable power of attorney and living will notarized and stored.
 
And last, the biggest stress avoidance tactic is never to shop for clothes with critical teenagers, skinny friends, or anybody who is a perfect size 0.

Reducing stress
The art of reducing stress means going with the flow and detaching from the stress-inducing person or situation. As comedian Bill Cosby says, “You can turn around painful situations with humor; if you can find humor in anything, even poverty, you can survive it.”

Waiting in line at the doctor’s office or bank can try even the best of us. Counting your blessings instead of the minutes is a great way to keep things in perspective. Take several deep breaths and treat the waiting period like your own personal break instead of stewing about going nowhere. When waiting on the phone, multitask by reading emails or organizing your calendar.
 
What about those long-winded phone calls or coffee appointments with a friend who needs a sympathetic ear? Keeping engaged but detached is a self-preserving tactic to ensure that the crisis—and the stress—doesn’t get transferred over to you. Use a paraphrasing conversational technique (rephrase what she’s just told you) to show your friend that you hear her and you care. As she gives gory details of her husband’s infidelity, tell her it sounds like it must have hurt her badly. If you keep gently reinforcing what she says, she’ll feel understood. Of course, what your friend really needs is to empower herself, not just take other people’s advice.

One great way to foster self-preservation and keep other people’s problems at bay is a nightly Epsom salts bath (1/2 cup Epsom salts in a warm bath for at least 5 minutes). A therapist client of mine suggested it to me since I work so intimately with others; it’s a technique to discharge other people’s energy from me. As dance teachers, you too take on a lot of energy from others, so give it a try. Whether this technique is New Age hooey or based in science doesn’t matter—it’s become my ritual of creating a physical and behavioral boundary, to let go of the day and restore and refresh my muscles and my spirit.

A final way to reduce stress is to lower your standards. Keeping in mind the rhetorical question “How important is it?” can’t be beat when selecting which battles to fight.

Relieving stress
Relieving stress requires lifestyle adjustments. Physical contact is the greatest stress buster of them all. I call my pets my “hairy stress relievers.” Stroking a pet, holding hands, hugs—they’re all good.
 
Exercise is a top-notch reliever and is of concern to many tired dance instructors. Cross training is the way to go so that you put your mind somewhere else besides the choreography and class plans. I’m a Pilates devotee, but I couldn’t live without early morning walks. Getting even 5 minutes of fresh air, a sometimes limited resource for studio inhabitants, can be immensely restorative. Swimming, yoga—you name it; but do it. 
 
Giving yourself a chance to get things off your chest is crucial. Think of all the hats you wear, and find an ear for every hat. I’ve gotten practice mentoring from two important colleagues, business mentoring from others, plus three health advocates for my various health needs. Find and nurture your team before you are in a crisis. Everyone needs counsel; even King Solomon said that a man is only as wise as his counsel.
 
Finding your health advocates ties in with structuring time for yourself away from your business. Scheduling local getaways and healthcare appointments such as massage and acupuncture, even months in advance, will help you pace yourself and provide psychological relief in knowing that help is on the way.
 
Last on the list of stress relievers is your nighttime routine. Sleep hygiene is essential to restoration. Creating a nighttime pattern of unwinding, as hard as it is after nighttime classes and rehearsals and performances, is a must. Sleep is a restoration of the oxidation that the body and brain have experienced during the day. The fourth stage of sleep, the REM cycle, is where most of the body’s and mind’s healing takes place.
 
Now you know how to avoid, reduce, and relieve stress. It may take a while to create your own version of this template. Get started, and have patience. I have faith in you. 

Stress-Management Tips

To avoid stress:

  • Get up earlier.
  • Organize your calendar.
  • Arrive early for appointments.
  • Anticipate others’ time-management issues.

To reduce stress:

  • Go with the flow.
  • Practice assertive conversation closers.
  • Take warm baths with Epsom salts.
  • Ask yourself: “How important is it?”

To relieve stress:

  • Unwind.
  • Get worries and frustrations off your chest.
  • Exercise (something other than dance!).
  • View the entire forest. Take off the blinders; you know what you are doing.
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