Monday, December 7, 2009

Put "Take-a Breath" on Your List

Here's a scenario many will find familiar: you have carefully complied a list of "things-you-absolutely-must-do-or-the-world-will-come-to-a-shuddering-halt." You set out with grim determination to see them accomplished. You actually believe you will, against the odds, get them done--quickly, efficiently, and without complaint. And then....

Your list evaporates the moment you get to your desk (or enter the cluttered kitchen, the frantic construction site, the busy store, etc.). You stand there for several minutes, nonplussed, wondering what the heck it was you needed to do today. It's like your brain has stopped working. You consult your list, only to be baffled by your own dashed off hieroglyphics. Is that letter a "s" -- or is it the number 8? And why did you write, "Moo-lah get, base flight"? You know it meant something (or at least you hope it did) when you wrote it down, but you've since forgotten what your own short-hand was meant to describe. It's about a thousand times worse if your a left hander with atrocious handwriting (ahem, such as yours truly): not only can you not understand what you meant, but you can't read a single letter of a single word.

Such is my life these days. I am running around frantically half the time, doing a bunch of stuff not on "the list" because I can't read my own handwriting--or I've left the list "somewhere safe" only to forget where it is. Thus, I spend much of my life feeling like I'm whirling around, actually accomplishing very little. Or so it seems on certain days.

And the resulting feeling? Stress--mind-numbing, heart-pounding, headache-inducing, sex-drive-killing stress. And I'm not the only one pulled asunder by this particular bugaboo.

According to a November 2009 study released by the American Psychologicial Association, 75% of us (Americans, in this survey, although I would be surprised if it was much different in other countries, considering how interconnected we are all these days) suffer from moderate to high levels of stress in the last month: 24% extreme and 51% moderate. Imagine that: waking us, day after day, feeling that wrapped-in-a-straitjacket pressure. Especially after spending a night tossing and turning, as 47% of survey respondents reported. Or, here's more:
  • 45% report irritability or anger
  • 43% report fatigue
  • 40% report lack of interest, motivation or energy (sounds like depression to me, which, I suspect, is also an outgrowth of sustained stress)
  • 34% report headaches
  • 34% report feeling depressed or sad (see? Told ja)
  • 32% report feeling as if they will burst into tears (I've done this myself, several times, in the last few moths)
  • 27% report upset stomach or indigestion as a result of stress
So what happened to us? Oh, sure, life has never been the bucolic, fluffy-cloud existence we'd all like to believe it was at one point. But there have been times that the collective American stress-level has been relatively low. So what's the change?

The dire economy is a handy scapegoat--and does, legitimately, play a role in the reported increase of stress from fall 2007 (when the Great Recession began). But there's more to it. According to some psychologists, the ever-increasing pressure brought to bear on workers by 24/7 access to electronic devices is a major source of stress. There is simply no getting away from the job. Period. (my husband received four work -related "emergency" calls ON Thanksgiving--and he sells silicon chips. Biiiigggg emergency. And did he answer take the call mid-turkey? You guess.) Email is a huge source of stress for many people--and studies have shown people can actually become addicted to checking email. 43% of people in the survey actually sleep with their email devices nearby, to listen for incoming email. That's just wrong. Add to that 24/7 cable news, where with the click of a channel you are treated to horrifying disasters from every corner of the world, bloviating commentators intent on ripping our society into enemy camps, and the soft-core porn of vicious celebrity gossip, and it's little wonder our brains are close to bursting.

Even the good things cause stress--having a baby, buying a house, and Christmas have a score of 40, 31 and 12 points on the Holmes-Rahe scale, respectively. Actually getting what you want, in and of itself, can cause stress. (On a side note, I follow the satirical website "The Onion" and watched the funniest "report" about Pres Obama going out for cigarettes and never coming back. Very funny stuff--yet with a grain of truth, as all jokes have. If there was ever a man who is under stress, it's that poor man. I swear, his hair gets more gray every day. I wonder if when the Pres looks back on it, if he's ever sorry he got his wish to step into the highest office in the land? Inheriting a recession, two wars, a healthcare system in shambles, et al.? A perfect example "be careful what you wish for...")

So what to do about it? Health care professionals proscribe diet, exercise and valium. Maybe not Valium--Paxil works pretty well (do I speak from experience? I'll never tell). I'm just kidding about the Valium and Paxal. The vast majority of doctors turn first to recommending exercise and relaxation to help with stress. But despite our doctors admonitions, fewer Americans actually are taking time out for themselves. In fact, I do believe that "taking time out for myself" is on my famous list, but seeing as how I can't find my list, I'll never know. EHealth MD advocates "Tuning In, Analyzing, Responding" to deal with stress, but to be quite honest, that's just three more things to put on my list of stuff I'll never get to. Plus, if I start that, then I'll probably find even more things in my life that stress me out than I was even aware of .... thus, causing more stress. Sigh.

So here's my proposal: make a new list. What??? Seriously. Take your list (if you can find it, that is) and rip it into many tiny little pieces. You'll note two things right away: 1.) the world does not come to a shuddering halt if you don't get the things on your list done and 2.) your brain will (fingers crossed) suddenly begin working again. Now that the dreaded list is gone, make a new list. Really. With just three tasks:

-Take a breath.
-Turn off the email device.
-Stop watching TV.

That's it. Simple. Yet of all the tasks in the world, these as possibly the three hardest to actually accomplish. But I can (virtually) promise that if you do, you will find that all the other things you need to accomplish suddenly will seem easier. And you won't even need your old list at all.

Which is just as well, because if you're like me, you've either lost it or can't read your own handwriting anyway.

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