Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Master Stress Management for Maximum Performance

s strange as it may sound, many people are not even aware of the
moment when they cross their stress threshold. For some, stress has
become such a natural state that they are used to operating within a
state of high arousal. Indeed, some individuals actually become so
addicted to stress that they cannot summon creative energies or make
their deadlines without the additional push that stress gives them.
We’ve all seen this type of personality in people with high-pressure
jobs: the attorney, the emergency room doctor, the stockbroker, the
writer on a deadline, the working mom, the high-powered CEO.
Then there are those who rush through life overscheduling their
time, taking on more and more, leaving things to the last minute,
working twelve hours a day, telling themselves that they can do it all.
For all of these individuals, stress has become almost like a drug.
Manage Your Stress Threshold
I recently helped a client name Stephanie who deals with the high-
pressure world of contract law to manage her stress threshold. Con-
tract law involves getting both sides to agree to a certain level of
compromise. I have noticed that women tend to have a different
relationship to stress than men do. They tend to take stress into
themselves and then let it back out, while a little remains behind.
Stephanie would arbitrate with each side, internalize their stress,
then let it back out, each time inadvertently leaving a little bit more
behind in her body.
Stephanie’s body reacted to this accumulation of stress by devel-
oping immune dysfunction. She became much more susceptible to
colds and flus, developed painful rashes almost like shingles, and
suffered from migraines. She also developed cytomegalovirus, a
type of chronic fatigue syndrome that only presents when a person
crosses his stress threshold.
I created a three-part program to help Stephanie release her
accumulated stress:
• I put her on my Pro Circuit Exercise Program (see chapter 13)
to allow her to recharge herself. By training her at her appro-
priate target heart rate, we conditioned her body to learn how
to automatically deal with and release stress.
• I recommended that she take a course in transcendental med-
itation and, before every arbitration session, do a ten-minute
meditation, relaxing and repeating the mantra om to lower
her resting heart rate. I also taught her how to release stress
during sessions with clients by putting her hand under the
table, making a fist, and repeating to herself, “Release.”
• I instructed her to stabilize her blood sugar by always eating
breakfast before an arbitration and encouraged her to keep
on hand a supply of low-carbohydrate, high-protein energy
bars to eat on breaks so that she could stabilize her blood
sugar every three hours.
On this program, Stephanie transformed herself from a partici-
pant to a spectator and was able to keep the stress in the room where
it belonged, in someone else’s body, not hers.
How Much Stress Is Too Much?
Stress is an unavoidable part of life. Minimizing and managing stress
is a learned art. The point at which one crosses the stress threshold
into harmful stress is different for every person. A certain amount of
stress can be a healthy catalyst toward doing your best and surpassing
your limitations. Too much stress can be a ticket for early death from
burnout, heart attack, stroke, type 2 diabetes, emotional instability,
irritability, and depression.
The first step toward managing stress is to become more aware of
your daily states of arousal and relaxation and to pay attention to
how they make you feel. Your ultimate mastery in the battle of stress
management will be for you to find ways consciously to deactivate
the flight-or-fight response when it does not serve you, as well as acti-
vate the relaxation response at will.
Biofeedback: Feel the Difference between
Arousal and Relaxation
In her book The High Performance Mind: Mastering Brainwaves for
Insight, Healing, and Creativity, Anna Wise offers some simple exer-
cises to help you become aware of the difference between feeling
aroused, ready to fight or to flee, and feeling relaxed and in control
of the situation.
When a person experiences feelings of worry, excitement, fear,
anger, exhilaration, nervousness, panic, increased heart rate, faster
breathing, and/or anxiety, the sympathetic nervous system is acti-
vated. When a person feels a sense of relaxation, tranquility, calm-
ness, serenity, lightness, centeredness, clarity and/or a feeling of
being in control, the parasympathetic system is activated.
Wise suggests that you can achieve greater awareness of when
you are stressed and when you are relaxed by performing the follow-
ing exercises and observing your biofeedback—how your body feels.
• Hyperventilate by breathing heavily for a few seconds. (Please
be careful not to overdo it. If you start to feel faint, stop imme-
[Stop. Close your eyes. Notice what your body feels like. Make
a mental note of all the sensations.]
• Run in place for a minute or two.
• Think about something very upsetting.
• Think about something very exciting.
After each one of these, stop and notice what is happening
inside of your body.
The physical state of arousal you are in while doing these exer-
cises will be similar to how your body responds when exposed to
Next notice how your body feels when completely relaxed:
Close your eyes and exhale deeply. Let your shoulders drop.
Rotate your head gently and loosely until you find a comfort-
able balanced position for your head, neck, and shoulders. Let
your jaw relax and hang loose. Relax your lips, tongue, and
throat. Exhale deeply again and let go. Continue to breathe
easily, slowly, evenly, and deeply for one or two minutes.
Stop. Notice what your body feels like. Make a mental note of all
of the sensations. Compare these to the sensations you noted when
you did the arousal exercises.
Wise goes on to explain, “Arousal is not inherently better than
relaxation, or vice versa. Both states are important at certain times.
What is optimum is to be able to choose the level of relaxation or arousal
that you want and to be able to produce that at will.”
Negative Effects of On-the-Job Stress
For many of us, most of our stress is encountered in the workplace
because we spend so much time there. A lot depends on our ability
to financially support ourselves and our families and to achieve suc-
cess in the eyes of the world. Therefore it is important to develop
tools for managing on-the-job stress.
According to Dean Sunseri, individuals who do not manage their
work-related stress have a higher level of absenteeism, decreased
work performance, and emotional instability at their jobs. In their
personal lives, this inability to manage stress leads to relationship
problems, emotional isolation, substance abuse, verbal/physical vio-
lence, and increased high-risk behaviors such as alcoholism.
A recent study by Drs. Nicole A. Roberts and Robert W. Levenson
of U.C. Berkeley, published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, shows
that high levels of on-the-job stress seem to play a significant role in
marital problems and could potentially lead to divorce if the stress
isn’t acknowledged and managed. “These influences of job stress were
found regardless of couples’ marital satisfaction, husbands’ work shift,
and couples’ parenthood status,” the authors wrote. They went on to
suggest that when job stress levels become highest, couples should
make an extra effort to be attuned to themselves so that they could
find ways to handle their stress in a constructive manner. “This may
include employing stress management techniques, making an effort
to infuse positive emotions into marital conversations, and finding
ways to talk about job stress rather than avoiding it.”
This is often easier said than done. According to a recent article
in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, job stress can sneak up on you so
gradually that you don’t even realize it. Many employees entering
the workforce are young and single with ample time for leisure activ-
ities, exercise, rest, and sports. As they grow older, marry, have chil-
dren, and acquire a mortgage and other major responsibilities, their
stress load will build and their productivity levels drop. Add to this
the fact that many companies lay off employees during times of eco-
nomic recession, burdening those who remain with an increased
workload and even greater stress.
Recently I saw a dramatic example of this when a shipping com-
pany called me to inquire about my corporate program. Their top
salesperson, a middle-aged man named Arnold, had serious physical
problems. Arnold was 400 pounds, had a fifty-two-inch waist, and
had a blood sugar level of 126, which made him diabetic. Arnold
hadn’t been this heavy or this sick when he first went to work for
them. But the stresses of his workload and the amount of constant
traveling he had to do had brought him to this point. Arnold was a
prime candidate to drop dead of a heart attack. And if he had, his
company would have been in serious trouble. Fortunately, Arnold is
thrilled with the program and has already lost twenty-five pounds.
Dee Edington, director of Michigan’s Health Management
Research Center, has spent twenty-five years researching how major
corporations have saved literally millions of dollars in health care costs
by offering services to their employees such as wellness programs, on-
site gyms and fitness programs, and health newsletters. What Eding-
ton stresses, however, is that companies should not focus on just those
employees whose stress loads and health needs are the greatest. There
are tremendous long-term benefits in retaining relatively healthy
employees who eat right, exercise regularly, and manage their stress
healthfully. “It is much easier to help a low-risk person remain low-risk
than to try to change a high-risk person to low-risk,” Edington says.
Unfortunately, most corporations do not take responsibility for
their employees’ health. Even if you are fairly healthy, you cannot
count on your workplace to take responsibility to help you maintain
your health and emotional well-being. Ultimately, that responsibility
falls squarely on your shoulders.
In this fast-paced, stress-filled world, the only answer is to de-
velop your own stress management skills. I have found the following
stress management techniques to be tremendously effective. I sug-
gest that you experiment with one or a combination of these until
you find what works best for you.
Eight Steps for Controlling Stress at the Office
It would be wonderful if all corporations provided their employees
with meditation rooms and built mandatory recovery breaks into
everyone’s busy schedule. In fact, studies have shown that these
kinds of activities actually increase productivity. Since that day is still
far in the future, Anna Wise offers eight meditation exercises one
can practice in the office to deactivate the stress response and
become more relaxed, creative, and balanced during the workday. I
have included that list here.
1. Make ample use of one-minute meditations. Obviously, this
will be easier if you are working in a private space than if you
are sharing an office. These include the following:
• Sit in a relaxed posture and breathe deeply, in and out, for
one minute.
• Focus on relaxing your tongue and jaw for one minute.
• Intentionally slow your breathing for one minute.
• Sitting comfortably with your eyes gently open, focus your
awareness on a spot outside of yourself for one minute.
• Sitting comfortably with your eyes closed, focus your aware-
ness on a particular location inside yourself, such as your
heart, your third eye, or your navel.
• Imagine a friend’s face smiling at you.
• Imagine receiving a warm hug from an old friend.
2. Breathe! The most calming action you can take when faced
with stress is to consciously focus on slowing your rate of
breathing. For example, while you are listening to problems
or complaints from a superior, you can at the same time be
aware of your rhythmical and slow breathing and your
relaxed heart rate. This not only helps to keep you calm, but
gives you the detachment that helps provide proper perspec-
tive when dealing with crisis.
3. When faced with stressful situations make a complete energy
circuit in your body. Sit with the palms of your hands together
or—just as effective—the tips of the thumb pads and middle
fingers touching one another. This helps contain the flow of
energy within your body and maintain centeredness and
4. Sit with your spine straight and relaxed, and your legs
uncrossed. This also unblocks energy, which can then be
called upon for use.
5. Sensualize! If you are facing a very difficult encounter or situ-
ation, take a few minutes to be by yourself before it begins.
Using all of your senses, imagine the situation occurring in
the most successful and healthy way possible. Imagine your
own actions and reactions to be calm, strong, creative, and
6. Use ordinary activity as a meditation practice. For example,
when you are going to the watercooler for a drink, take the
opportunity to be awake and aware. Be aware of each move as
you make it and be very present in the actual act—not drawn
back into the past or forward into the future. Be sensually
aware of the smells, tastes, sights, sounds, textures, and kines-
thesia of the situation. Savor every second of the experience,
while remaining in the present.
7. Look for allies among your coworkers. You might be surprised
to find other meditators more prevalent than you thought.
There is support in numbers—if meditation becomes an
acceptable and even pleasantly anticipated topic of conversa-
tion, your practices will be supported and you will feel freer to
practice more frequently and more openly.
8. Support others in the need for and value of contemplative
Attitude Breathing
Another resource I have found helpful are the techniques devel-
oped by Doc Childre, founder of the Institute of HeartMath. The
institute’s work has resulted in over a decade of leading edge
research on the connection between the mind, body, and emotions.
Many of their studies have been published in leading peer review
journals and led to a number of powerful techniques to help
neutralize stress in the moment. Below is one technique called Atti-
tude Breathing that Doc recommends for starting your day from a
point of balance. You can use this in any situation when stress is clos-
ing in on you.
Attitude Breathing: Sometimes it can be hard to stop negative
thoughts or draining moods. At these times, using the Atti-
tude Breathing tool helps you anchor your inner power and
bring your thoughts and emotions back into balance. Practic-
ing Attitude Breathing is like soaking your uncomfortable
feelings in a comforting bath. It takes the “fire” out of nega-
tive thoughts and emotions so they have less fuel and power.
To prepare to use this tool, take a moment to build an atti-
tude of appreciation for someone or something and imagine
you are breathing that feeling of appreciation through your
heart for two or three breaths. Next, follow these three steps:
Step 1. Shift your attention to your heart and solar
plexus/stomach area.
Step 2. Ask yourself, “What would be a better attitude for
me to maintain in this situation?” Then, set up an inner atti-
tude, like “Stay calm,” “Stay neutral in this situation,” “Don’t
judge before you know the facts,” “Make peace with this,” or
decide what attitude is appropriate for your situation.
Step 3. Next gently and sincerely pretend to breathe the
new attitude you want in through the heart. Then breathe it
out through the solar plexus and stomach to anchor it. Do
this for a while until you feel the new attitude has set in.
Attitude Breathing is an easy and useful tool you can use
in a wide variety of situations. Here are some of them:
• When you wake up in the morning: Thoughts and
emotions like anxiety, worry, sadness, hurt, or anger
can often try to creep in as soon as you wake up in the
morning, sometimes before you even get out of bed.
Practice Attitude Breathing within the first 30 minutes
to an hour after you awaken, as you remember it dur-
ing your preparations for the day. You can do it while
in the shower, getting dressed for work, or during your
commute. The reason for doing this is that those nega-
tive thoughts and attitudes you wake up with can quickly
increase in momentum if you don’t neutralize and
replace them with attitudes that are not self-draining.
Choose the thoughts and attitudes that would benefit
your day and breathe them in through the heart and
out through the solar plexus and abdomen area. The
outward breath through the solar plexus anchors the
attitude. Remember that you don’t have to stop regu-
lar activities to use the Attitude Breathing tool.
• Releasing tension or anxiety: A buildup of tension is an
indicator of being out of balance emotionally. Some of
us accumulate tension in the area of the chest. We may
experience shortness of breath, heart palpitations, or
irregular heartbeats. Others experience tension as a
headache or a knot in the stomach, back, neck, or
shoulders. Use Attitude Breathing to help release
tension in any part of the body. As you do this, ask
yourself, “What would be a more balanced feeling or
approach to what I’m doing?” Once you feel more
emotionally balanced, then pretend to breathe the
feeling of balance through the area of tension. You’ll
start to feel the tension release as more of your bal-
anced heart energy moves through that area.
• Stopping emotional reactivity: During stressful times,
many people are experiencing more negative emotions,
such as anxiety, fear, uncertainty, grief, and anger. This
can make us more edgy and irritable and sometimes
cause us to react strongly to others before we think
twice about it. When you feel yourself beginning to
react emotionally to someone or something, use Atti-
tude Breathing to take the excess negative emotion
out of your reaction. Anchoring your energy in your
heart and solar plexus will help you stay centered and
see calmly and clearly how best to respond.
You can learn more about HeartMath’s research and their tech-
niques at their Web site: www.heartmath.com.
Recite Calming Prayers and Mantras
A recent study published in the British Medical Journal reported that
age-old practices such as repeating the Catholic prayer Hail Mary or a
mantra decreased stress by regulating the breathing. Other studies bear
this out, such as one conducted at the School of Internal Medicine at the
University of Pavia in Italy, which found that slow rhythmic breathing—
about six breaths per minute—synchronizes internal heart-lung rhythms
and improves blood oxygen levels and cardiovascular responsiveness.
Reciting familiar prayers and mantras was found to have exactly that
effect upon the body of test subjects.
Dr. Herbert Benson, president of the Mind/Body Medical Insti-
tute and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School,
calls the physiological state achieved during prayer and meditation
the “relaxation response,” since it reduces metabolism, blood pres-
sure, and heart rate. It also induces slow and rhythmic brain waves.
Benson states that this state can be deepened further if the person
reciting the prayer or mantra attributes some kind of spiritual signif-
icance to these phrases. It is easy to understand why monasteries are
such places of peace, stillness, and repose.
Practice Detachment
Worry, anxiety, behaving compulsively, and being in an unhealthy
relationship with a friend, significant other, or coworker are all
forms of attachment that cause stress.
It is not easy to stop worrying about the present and the future,
to cease feeling obligated to those to whom we really aren’t obli-
gated, and to separate yourself from tasks and responsibilities that
really belong to others. The first step toward detachment is to iden-
tify the things in your life that do not belong there. This can be done
by sitting down and making a list with two headings: “My Life and
Responsibilities” and “Other People’s Lives and Responsibilities.”
Once you have identified which things in life you are not responsible
for, you can start consciously disassociating yourself from them one
by one.
Many of us do not realize how addicted we have become to solving
other people’s problems and helping them to see how much easier,
less stressed, and efficient their lives would be if only they would do
things our way. In his book Growing Yourself Back Up: Understanding Emo-
tional Regression, psychotherapist and workshop leader John Lee shows
readers that it is arrogant and self-defeating for us to assume that we
can solve other people’s problems for them. It uses up our energy
reserves, causes us stress, and usually doesn’t help anyone anyway.
One of the most constructive things we can do for others—be
they friends, family, or coworkers—is to allow them to make their
own decisions, their own choices, their own mistakes, and to experi-
ence their own victories. How else can we expect them to learn
except by doing for themselves? We can’t control the amount of
stress in other people’s lives, but we can surely greatly reduce our
own by not assuming responsibility for the stress of others.
Cultivate Healthy and Loving Relationships
While codependence serves no one, working to create healthy and
emotionally stable relationships in our lives does much to keep our
stress levels low. In their book Feeling Good Is Good for You: How Plea-
sure Can Boost Your Immune System and Lengthen Your Life, Drs. Carl
Charnetski and Francis Brennan point out that we are at our happi-
est and healthiest when we have loving people in our lives. Studies
have shown that chronically lonely people have greater instances of
illness, lower levels of life satisfaction, and even earlier death rates
than people who have significant others in their lives. The authors
write: “Do you have people to lean on, people to talk to you, people
to tell you that, despite your doubts, everything will work out? That’s
emotional support, and it can come from anyone—a lover, parents,
other family members, friends, neighbors, acquaintances at the gym
or country club, members of a church group, coworkers, the bowling
league, even seemingly impersonal cyber-friends on the internet.”
Although the research is still in its infancy a growing number of
studies have shown that people who are in good marriages or love
relationships live longer. These individuals have stronger immune
systems, have fewer hospital stays and less serious diagnosis upon
admission, are less likely to die in the hospital, and are less likely to
be placed in nursing homes upon discharge. Even cancer does not
seem to progress as rapidly in their bodies.
On the other hand, getting out of a bad marriage or relationship
has been shown to be one of the best methods for managing stress
and improving your overall health and immune function. The stress
of a toxic relationship can make you physically sick.
Women: Stress Management through Bonding
For the last five decades 90 percent of all stress research has used
men as subjects, but a recent landmark study on women and stress
conducted at UCLA shows surprising differences between how the
two genders respond to stress. While men usually respond with the
classic “fight or flight” behavior, women more often manage stress by
seeking out bonding activities.
Dr. Laura Cousino Klein, one of the study’s authors, says that the
mechanism behind this response is the release of the hormone oxy-
tocin. While the large amounts of testosterone produced in men
during stress tends to counteract this hormone, estrogen enhances
its effect. Oxytocin buffers the fight-or-flight response in women and
encourages them to tend children and bond with other women
instead. These “tending or befriending” behaviors cause the body to
release more oxytocin, producing a further calming affect.
This new stress research may help to shed light on why women so
consistently outlive men. Study after study has shown that developing
close social ties reduces a person’s risk of disease by lowering blood
pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol. In fact, the famous Nurses’
Health Study from Harvard Medical School found that the more
friends a woman had, the more likely she was to lead a joyful life and
the less likely to develop physical problems and impairments.
If you are a woman in the business world, just be aware that one
of your most powerful tools for managing stress is the strength and
friendship of other women.
Bishop Morton: Treat Your Body
Like a Temple
Consistent exercise is one of the most important lifestyle changes
that can help in the management of stress. In fact, the physical and
emotional benefits of exercise can actually help you to increase your
stress threshold to a greater degree.
Just as stress weakens the body, so exercise strengthens it, giving
you more energy, greater emotional stability, and a higher level of
health. It also gives your body a chance to reduce the fight-or-flight
chemicals that have been collecting in your bloodstream during the
course of a stressful day. Exercise is key to achieving a greater level of
performance and creativity in your life and profession. Regular exer-
cise is especially important for those individuals who cannot avoid
high levels of daily stress.
One of my clients, Dr. Paul Morton, presiding bishop of the Full
Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship, is a prime example. He joined my
program because he felt overwhelmed with the stress of his demand-
ing position. Bishop Morton has one of the largest followings in the
country. He started out with one church, but now his churches have
moved into several surrounding states. Although the bishop is a quiet
man when you speak with him privately, in his public persona, he’s a
man who captures your attention, throwing energy out right and left.
His sermons are filled with energy and dramatic power—and he
often gives more than one a day because they are being videotaped.
Bishop Morton told me that he had spent a lifetime teaching and
preaching about how to balance things. But while he was an expert
when it came to spiritual issues, he didn’t know very much about
how to balance the physical side of life. “Sometimes,” he said, “even
ministers and bishops can overwork themselves. And it is important
that you have a plan to counteract this. I found that the right kind of
exercise relieves your mind of a lot of stress, that and learning how to
eat right.”
Doing my Pro Circuit Exercise Program, which I describe in
chapter 13, was liberating for the bishop. Regular exercise gave him
a focus for his mind, an escape from stress, and a renewed sense of
peace, energy, and physical well-being that he hadn’t felt in a long
time. Learning how to eat nutritionally also helped the bishop
reduce his stress load. Before, he had skipped breakfast, eaten spo-
radically, and eaten all the wrong kinds of foods, which left him deal-
ing with a stressful schedule without proper fueling. Since the
bishop was constantly in the public eye, he also had to deal with his
weight gain and the stress of his constant attempts to diet. “I was
teaching, from the spiritual end, that your body is the temple of
God. So many times we think about drugs and alcohol and your
body. But we really have to be careful about what we eat. I was always
suffering, going up and down, up and down with my weight. That
would wear me down and depress me.”
When I asked the bishop how long it took him to experience
results from the Pro Circuit Program, he told me that he began feel-
ing more energized, less stressed, and less exhausted within two days,
but that it took about thirty days for him to see the full benefits.
These included noticeable weight loss, satisfaction with his appear-
ance, better performance, a lack of depression, greater emotional
evenness, and an increased ability to cope with the demands of his
busy schedule without feeling overwhelmed with stress.
Raise the Bar of Your Performance
I often ask my clients to visualize life as a series of high-jump bars. In
many situations we can control how high the bar will be, setting it at
a level we know we can handle. But situations constantly arise when
we are forced to “raise the bar.” At such times, when we are being
asked to perform above our perceived capabilities, our stress levels
rise. The boss at work might challenge us with an especially difficult
project. Our significant other might suddenly demand a greater level
of investment in our marriage or love relationship. The bar is raised
when we have our first child, when money gets tight and we must
come up with creative solutions to juggle our finances, when we want
to buy our first home or a bigger home. Sometimes we raise the bar
ourselves when we demand more of ourselves creatively, and we want
to achieve greater accomplishments than we ever have before.
Everyone expects athletes to continually meet—and even sur-
pass—their past performance levels. That’s why athletes require the
support of performance enhancement specialists such as myself who
train them for peak performance and longevity. No athlete would
ever go onto the field without training for the season. Nor would
they be able to deal with the cumulative effects of injury and physical
stress without a solid nutrition and exercise program to help them
stay balanced and continue to get the most they can from the assets
they have.
Everyone who has a demanding job or lifestyle—and who
doesn’t?—needs to begin thinking of himself or herself as a different
type of athlete, one that is in training for the game of life. No high
jumper would try to clear the bar while carrying around burdens
such as excessive weight, poor health, smoking and alcohol abuse,
improper nutrition, high cholesterol, or high blood sugar. All of
these factors put the body under terrific strain.
Just as boxers train themselves to endure greater and greater lev-
els of stress and physical exertion in the ring, so you can use the tools
in this chapter to increase your own stress threshold. To avoid the
physical and emotional effects of debilitating stress, you must learn
to take your nutrition, exercise program, and stress management sys-
tem very seriously and to constantly work at improving your on-the-
job performance. This is the only way you will have the stamina,
health, and clarity of mind to consistently clear the bar.

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