Reducing Stress

How can leaders – or anyone – systematically reduce stress?  On this week’s radio show on Reducing Stress we got the input of two experts, John Chappelear and Dr. Greg Nigh.

John was a high-performing CEO of a multi-million dollar business who lost his wife, children and business before he learned to step back from his personal rat race and learn how to adopt new habits and practices that simultaneously reduce stress and increase effectiveness.  The story of his learning makes up his book, The Daily Six.

John brought up a recent New York Times article I’ve also read with great interest, the 18-Aug-2009 “Vicious Stress Loop” story by Natalie Angier.  Researchers find that, under chronic stress, the brain loses its problem-solving ability and becomes more prone to “rote” or habitual behaviors.

The good news is, we can replace bad habits with good ones.

John suggests starting with “willingness” — an openness, each day, to doing things better.  Don’t try to make some life-changing commitment to being different forever — just take on today and be willing to change today.

Next, pick up some sort of “mind-body technique” such as meditation, prayer, mindfulness, breathing, or the like.  Use your chosen technique for 15-45 seconds before you take an important phone call, going into a big meeting, or responding to a problem.

The idea is to practice this until it’s second nature.  And work into your life an end-of-the-day “Quiet Time” where you contemplate your successes on the day, note some lessons learned, and record them in a journal.  I’ve noticed that when I do this, I can easily cast my eye back over the past few days and remember my successes and feel a sense of victory and progress.

John contrasts a non-aware, rushing, hurrying life versus a well planned, self-aware, showing up early sort of approach.  The latter is far less stressful and far more effective at producing results.

Third is Service.  John spent time mentoring prisoners, and found it to be a very powerful positive experience.  Serving others is very rewarding.

Fourth is Love.  Love is a great way to succeed in business, because it puts us on the same side with the customer.  It’s the ultimate in customer focus.

Fifth is Forgiveness.  Forgiveness is not for others – it’s for us.  Carrying a grudge is just a needless burden that saps our psychic energy. You can still learn lessons and remember — it’s not about forgetting — however forgiving is greatly freeing.

Sixth is Action.  As John put it, “There is never a wrong time to do the right thing.”  Taking action will give you an immediate boost of improved attitude, and will allow your other work in the first five steps to take greater effect.

Once you’ve practiced some of these habits and enjoyed their positive impact on your life, you’ll become a believer.

My second guest was Dr. Greg Nigh.

Dr. Nigh deals with a lot of stressed folks.  Stress takes a physical toll on us, and there are things we can do physically to address both the root causes and the symptoms of stress.

While sickness puts stress on us, it’s also the case that stress weakens the body and makes us more susceptible to illness.  So often, Greg finds, chronic illness is connected with some level of stress, either causally or in some sort of mutual reinforcement.

I’ve read the manuscript of a new book by Dr. Kathryn Retzler, where she describes the very serious problems that come with excessive levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.  If your life contains sources of stress that act as an open faucet, pouring cortisol into your body, you’ll have symptoms.  No amount of treating symptoms will close that faucet — you need to turn off that tap.

With chronic stress and chronically high cortisol, you have

  • higher blood sugar that can lead to diabetes
  • mineral loss from bones
  • suppressed immune response – and increased risk of illness
  • interference with Vitamin D (and thus an increase in cancer risk)
  • interference with thyroid hormone (which can further boost cortisol, in a negative feedback loop)

Dr. Nigh sees good stress management as being a three legged stool, regarding nutritional deficiencies, food reactions, and mental state.

Leg One: Nutrition

The first leg is to notice the lack of key nutrients and other missing elements that can show up as a higher likelihood of having a stress response to an external event.

There can be big improvements in people’s lives just from correcting (say) a Vitamin B-12 deficiency or a Vitamin D deficiency.

The good news is, simple and standard blood tests can really open a window on where the body is.  The bad news is, many physicians just look for red flags on labs, and miss the yellow flags, or the patterns of numbers that, taken together, paint a clearer picture.

For example, if you’re low on B-12 you’ll tend to get red blood cells that get fat or “blimp up” — this shows up on the lab as the Mean Corpuscular Volume (MCV) — and an MCV over 100 will show up on the blood test as a red flag.  If your MCV is 98 you may be told “you’re fine” yet the reality is you could be feeling a lot better.

And one peculiarity of B-12 deficiency is that it’s unlikely be due to a bad diet — usually there’s something preventing the body from absorbing it.  That can become an interesting puzzle that differs from one person to the next.

Leg Two: Food Reaction

The second leg is noticing what foods can cause the body to react negatively.  The most reliable (and inexpensive) approach is to eliminate food types from your diet, then slowly re-introduce them one by one and notice how the body responds.  This “Elimination Re-Introduction Diet” can quickly reveal some foods that can be having remarkable effects.  Dr. Nigh has had patients eliminate egg or gluten or soy or whatever, and the patients will sometimes discover that their asthma, or their migraines, or anxiety or whatever, clear up and don’t return.

Dr. Nigh has written an e-booklet describing the Elimination Re-Introduction Diet in detail, titled “Quick Guide to Food Allergies & Elimination Dieting“.

Leg Three: Mental Stress Reduction

Dr. Nigh has found that much of external stress is caused not by our circumstances but by how we interpret and respond to our circumstances.  “Stress management is really thought management.  Stress is a pattern of thought we have about the world, and the physical manifestation of those thoughts,” says Nigh.

He works with patients to learn to interrupt the thought pattern, the story we are telling ourselves in our heads about the world.

“There is nothing about the job that will force stress into your life.  It’s the story you tell yourself about it,” he says.  When two people react entirely differently to the identical circumstance, it’s because they interpret those situations differently.

One of my favorite computer techs, whenever a computer would misbehave, would blurt out the word “Cool!”  He loved learning, and whenever he got something unexpected, it was an opportunity to learn.  He had very little stress in his job.

Dr. Nigh teaches folks to interrupt their thoughts, notice what the thought was, classify the thought (“I was thinking about my job”) and notice what part of the body tensed up or contracted.  Finally, he teaches them to concentrate on the physical sensations of their surroundings.  Focusing on the moment – the sights and sounds around you – removes all room for stress.

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