Originally delivered as a lunch-time speech, this presentation has been republished widely since I posted it on David Baldwin’s Trauma Information Pages in the 1990s.
A lot of stress could be eliminated by the consistent practice of two basic skills: (1) “Saying No” and (2) “Asking for Help.” I challenge you to watch yourself today. How different would your life be if you said no and asked for help every time it was appropriate?
No one should say yes to all requests and everyone should ask for help with some tasks. Something is wrong when we feel as if we cannot say no or ask for help. If you are saying yes to things you shouldn’t and not asking for help when you need it, it is only a matter of time before your life becomes a mess. Most people whose life becomes a mess ask for help. I challenge you to take a short-cut and ask for help now before things get out of hand. Who can you ask for help? Three suggestions: a friend, a pastor, a therapist, and preferably all three.
Three Simple Movements
To deal with stress and stressful situations there are three basic moves to make: (1) “Step Back,” (2) “Take a Deep Breath” and (3) “Dive Back In.” You should repeat these basic moves as a sequential set as often as needed until you achieve resolution.
These movements belong together. To overemphasize or to neglect any one is pathological and invites trouble. Stepping back by itself is procrastination. Taking a deep breath by itself is preparation without application. Diving in by itself is a short road to burnout. These movements are meant to operate in concert. Effectiveness requires stepping back to take a deep breath to get prepared to dive back in to deal with the situation at hand.
Stepping back is well illustrated by the literal physical move. To deal with stress we need to step back from it literally. There are also some mental steps to take:
1. Ask yourself, “Is this really going to matter a month from now? a week? a day? In the broad scope of my life, how much does this matter? Is there anything anybody can do? Am I taking too much responsibility for this situation? What is the worst thing that can happen? Have I done the best that I could under the circumstances?”
2. Look at your expectations. Often enough when we have the courage to look at them we find that our expectations of others and life in general have become unreasonable or even irrational.
3. When things look bad, think about the future. If things are bad now, statistically speaking they’re bound to get better. You might call this extending your perspective.
Take a Deep Breath
There are a number of things we can do to help us repair from and prepare for engagement with demanding tasks. One of them is literally taking a deep breath or, even better, taking a series of deep breaths. One of the most common things that we do when upset or scared is to hold our breath or at least to breathe with short, shallow respirations. Something healing is experienced in breathing deep. Other steps include:
1. Eat right (good food at least three times a day).
2. Exercise regularly (30 minutes of aerobic exertion at least three times per week). For support make a commitment to work out with a friend.
3. Sleep adequately (for most people this means 8 hours per night). For support get a good mattress and a fan to make “white” noise.
4. Practice progressive relaxation (sit quietly, close your eyes, relax all muscles from feet to face, breathe through your nose, continue for 15 to 20 minutes, practice once or twice a day).
5. Put yourself in the hands of a professional massage therapist.
6. Spend time with friends and talk about what is going on in your life and how you are feeling. Look for friends in places where you do not compete. For support consult a therapist.
7. Get a dog or a cat who will love you unconditionally. A dog will be more obvious and a cat more subtle. Choose what suits you best.
Dive Back In
When there is much to be done nothing replaces diving in and going to work. Finishing tasks is a marvelous method of stress management. Additional guidelines include:
1. Invest yourself in a job or career you like. We spend too much time working to burden ourselves with tasks that do not fit our personalities.
2. Aim for a pace that suits your personality. Some of us enjoy tight, full schedules. Others prefer more space. We have some choice about these things. Exercise yours.
3. Use a day planner to organize time usage and to keep track of phone numbers, addresses, commitments, “to do” lists, etc. Plan ahead, from tomorrow to retirement.
4. Divide tasks into easily accomplished units to reduce procrastination. This also allows you to feel good about getting things done more often.
5. Do something for somebody else. Philanthropy puts us into a better frame of mind for handling pressure and stress and helps us to maintain perspective.