Category Archives: Stress Management

Announcing a New Stress Management Resource For You

We’re taking this week off from blogging. But we wanted to let you know that we now have the information on Stress Management from our blog summarized for you on one topic page HERE. This stress management resource also has links to all relevant posts.

You might want to bookmark this page for future reference.

And Stay Tuned for our September Contest — to be announced soon!!

Here’s a hint:

PLUS SOME PAPERBACKS!!

Handling Stress, Part IV: How We Interpret Stressors (encore)

by Kassandra Lamb

As we’re launching our new misterio press Facebook readers group this month, I’m re-running my series on stress management. Definitely useful info right now!

Over the last three weeks, we’ve talked about the three components of stress: the stressors (stressful events) in our lives, our body’s response to those stressors and how we interpret stressors cognitively and emotionally.

And we’ve drilled down some on the subject of stressors and our body’s response, and last week, we explored some easy ways to add relaxation breaks to your daily schedule (and why that’s sooo important). If you haven’t read the three previous posts, they are full of helpful tips, so I hope you’ll check them out.

Today, I want to talk about that third factor: how we interpret stressors. What is our own take on the events in our lives? Because, for the most part, a stressor isn’t a stressor until we view it that way (a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned a few exceptions, some sneaky stressors).

This is why something can be sooo stressful to one person and someone else thinks they’re nuts for worrying about it. How we interpret stressors is unique to each individual, influenced by personality and past experiences.

This used to be one of my husband’s biggest stressors…

how we interpret stressors -- fear of flying
(photo by Dylan Ashe, CC-BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

When we were first married, he was a basketcase whenever we had to fly somewhere. We had to get to the airport extra early, so he could have a drink in the airport bar to brace himself. But once we were on the plane, he wouldn’t drink.

Now, this was back in the days when alcohol on the plane was free (Yes, folks, once upon a time, airlines fed you for free, and they would get you liquored up as well. No extra charge!)

Not only did I think the man was crazy, I was pissed that he was buying overpriced drinks in the airport and then not drinking the free stuff on the plane. One trip, I confronted him, and he explained that he couldn’t drink on the plane because he had to be able to concentrate.

“Concentrate on what?” I asked.

“On willing the plane to stay in the air,” he answered.

At that point, I truly thought I’d married a madman.

I later found out, as a psychology graduate student, that this wasn’t an unusual fantasy on the part of folks afraid of flying. It’s their way of taking control of a situation where they feel out of control. (Control is often a big factor in how we interpret stressors.)

Fortunately, my husband finally figured out what was going on with his fear of flying. I won’t go into details since it’s not my story to tell. Suffice it to say that he’d had some bad experiences with people being in charge of his life, who were incompetent. So having someone else in control of his safety made him very nervous.

how we interpret stressors
(photo by Peretz Partensky, CC-BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

I, on the other hand, am one of those people who will run you over to get to a window seat. Then I squeal, “Look at the cute little cars and houses down there. It looks like a Christmas garden.” (My husband wears earplugs on planes; I can’t imagine why.)

My attitude is that since I can’t control whether or not the plane stays in the air, I might as well relax and enjoy the ride.

Now, let’s talk about job stress.

My husband handles it fairly well. Why? Because he’s an easy-going guy (has to be, to put up with me!) who doesn’t mind having bosses, as long as they’re not an idiot. And if his boss is an idiot, he just figures out a work-around and moves on.

I, however, have no patience whatsoever with idiot bosses, and it seems like I have had way more than my share of them. Of course, my definition of an idiot boss is any boss who doesn’t leave me completely alone to do my job without any interference. That could be part of the problem.

Yes, I am cussedly independent! So much so that by the time I completed graduate school, I’d decided that I really needed to be self-employed. I went into private practice as a mental health counselor.

how we interpret stressors
(photo by ThisIsRobsLife, CC-BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

It was the best decision I ever made. For the first time in my life, I totally loved my job! There were plenty of other stressors involved in being self-employed, but they all paled by comparison to how I had felt when I was being micro-managed by others. So I was a happy camper!

Fast forward 15 years and I was burning out on listening to other people’s descriptions of their stressful lives. I had done a little teaching here and there and really loved the interaction with students. Applying to teach college part-time seemed a good solution. Then, I could cut my counseling hours back so it wouldn’t be so stressful.

I landed an adjunct position at Towson University. I  liked the department chair and the atmosphere in the psychology department, and was told there would be an ongoing need for my services as long as I did a good job.

Imagine my shock when halfway into the first semester I started having anxiety attacks any time I crossed paths with my department chair. Did I mention I liked him? I really did, so why was I so nervous around him? By the end of the semester, I was actually considering quitting, even though I loved everything else about teaching.

I finally figured out that having a boss again, even one I liked, was pushing my control buttons. I wasn’t completely in charge of my own destiny anymore, as I had been for years. Indeed, when you teach college part-time, your employment is completely at the whim of your department chair. You are a contractual semester-to-semester employee.

This was the source of my anxiety. And no amount of lecturing myself about how everybody at Towson liked me and said I was doing a good job seemed to help.

After much thought, I hit on a solution, a way to reframe the situation in my own mind. I reminded myself that there were roughly fifty colleges within commuting distance of my home (the Baltimore-Washington area at that time). So I should think of myself as a self-employed contractor, who was offering my expertise to these schools on a contractual basis. If I didn’t like a school or they didn’t hire me back, I would just take my expertise elsewhere.

It worked! I felt so much better and was able to relax and really enjoy teaching. I taught at Towson for 9 years, until my husband and I both retired and we moved to Florida. It turned out to be one of my favorite jobs ever!

Now if you’re thinking, “How silly. All you changed is how you thought about the situation,” you are exactly right. Except about the ‘silly’ part.

That’s the whole point. How we think and feel about a stressor very much affects how much it stresses us!

how we interpret stressors
(photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash)

Back to my husband and his fear of flying. His fears dissipated dramatically when we started using a certain airline that had two things going for it. One, the crews are trained to be super friendly; the pilot stands at the door and greets the passengers as they board. Two, a friend of ours is a pilot for this particular airline, and we know he’s a competent guy.

When my husband felt that those in charge of keeping the plane in the air were real people, friendly and competent, he was able to relax. Over time, his fear of flying completely disappeared. Today, he prefers flying over driving, whenever possible.

How about you? Any stressors come to mind that might not be so stressful if you were able to shift your interpretation of them?

Oh, and don’t forget to check out our new Readers’ Group on Facebook and to enter our August Beach Reads contest there. You get two extra entries by joining the group.

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press about twice a month, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please sign up via email (upper right sidebar) to follow us, so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )

To see our Privacy Policy click HERE. 

Handling Stress, Part III: Simple Relaxation Techniques (encore) ~ Plus our Contest!

by Kassandra Lamb

For the month of August, while our misterio authors are focused on launching our new Readers’ Group (pop over to enter our contest!), we are re-running my series on stress management. Today, in our third installment, we’ll be talking about the best antidote to stress—relaxation.

Over the last two weeks, we’ve talked about the three components of stress: the stressors (stressful events) in our lives, our body’s response to those stressors and how we interpret stressors cognitively and emotionally.

And we’ve drilled down some on the subject of stressors and our body’s response to stress. (Both of those posts are chock full of tips for reducing stress, so I hope you’ll check them out.) Next week, I’ll explore how we interpret stressors and how to change those interpretations to lower stress.

simple relaxation techniques -- woman receiving shoulder massage
(Rama Day Spa Frankfurt — photo by Thomas Wanhoff from Phnom Penh Cambodia CC-BY-SA 2.0 Wikimedia Commons)

But on to today’s topic…

What do you think of when you hear the word relaxation? A long soak in a hot tub, a massage, going to a yoga class, a vacation to the beach…

Those are excellent ways to relax, but they require some time and effort. So, if you’re like me, you may very well put off doing those things until you are “less busy.” (Which rarely seems to happen for me.)

There are however, many simple relaxation techniques you can use throughout every day. AND it is important to relax throughout the day, every day. Those big relaxers are great, but they don’t last. I get a massage and the tension is back in my shoulders by the next day–sometimes sooner.

Why is it important to relax throughout the day? Remember that part of the nervous system that controls arousal vs. relaxation that we talked about two weeks ago?

Quick refresher:

The autonomic nervous system controls our body’s response to challenges and threats in our environment. When something is threatening/challenging us, the sympathetic branch of the ANS arouses our body to meet that challenge. Our heart rate, blood pressure, etc. go up, muscles tense, respiration increases, etc. When the challenge is over, the parasympathetic branch calms us down again so everything can go back to normal.

(photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash)

These two branches counterbalance each other, like the old-fashioned teeter-toters on children’s playgrounds. When one kid pushes off and goes up, the kid on the other side goes down.

Every time we activate the parasympathetic branch (relaxation) we are deactivating the sympathetic branch (arousal). And then it takes a little while for the body to get all stressed out and tense again.

Let me say that again—every time you take a couple of minutes to relax, it takes a lot more stress to get you all tense again.

In terms of our minds, when we use simple relaxation techniques throughout the day, we recharge our coping batteries so that we go back to the tasks at hand with a clearer focus. Thus the time spent on these short breaks will actually enhance our productivity.

simple relaxation techniques -- get comfy
Get comfortable! (photos by Ian Dooley, Sophie Dale, Kelly McCrimmon, and Bonnie Kittle on Unsplash)

So here are some quick and simple relaxation techniques one can use periodically throughout the day. All of these can be done in 5-10 minutes, some of them even less than that.

Btw, with all of these (except #4) it’s a good idea to be seated or lying down. It doesn’t matter where—you can even do these in a car (preferably not while driving!)—as long as each part of your body is comfortably supported.

1.  Progressive relaxation:

Close your eyes, take a deep breath, then focus on each muscle group, telling those muscles to relax completely. You can start either with your scalp or your feet. I’m a scalp person myself. I imagine the tension just flowing down and out of my body.

After my scalp, I tell my face muscles to relax (sometimes the jaw needs separate attention), then my neck, shoulders, etc. I imagine the relaxation slowly moving down my arms and hands, and down my legs, as all the tension flows out the soles of my feet.

2.  Guided imagery:

simple relaxation techniques -- guided imagery

No need to book a flight or pack your bags. Just close your eyes, take a deep breath, and imagine your favorite relaxing vacation spot. Build the imagery by engaging all the senses.

Lay on the beach and feel the warmth of the sun and the gentle breeze on your skin, hear the seagulls and the lapping waves, smell the salt in the air, etc.

Or perhaps you’re more the cabin-in-the-woods type. It really doesn’t matter where you go, as long as it is relaxing for you. Again, engage as many of your senses as possible to help put yourself in that place.

Can’t think of a relaxing place to go, or not the best at imagining things. Then try a little…

3.  Self-hypnosis:

simple relaxation techniques -- self-hypnosis
(photo by Danny Howe on Unsplash)

Hypnosis has this big mystic around it, that it really doesn’t merit. It’s nothing more or less than using the power of suggestion, while the mind is in a relaxed state, to influence our behavior/mood.

Close your eyes, take a deep breath and visualize a set of steps in your mind’s eye (or a hill gently sloping downward in front of you). Imagine yourself slowly going down those steps/that hill and tell yourself (silently inside your head, and repeat the suggestion several times) that with each step you will become more and more relaxed. Once at the bottom, tell yourself that you will relax completely for a certain number of minutes (whatever time you have available), and then you will ‘wake up’ refreshed and energized (again, repeat this suggestion several times).

Then just let yourself drift. You may want to set a timer or alarm on your phone, just in case, but 9 times out of 10, your internal clock will get it right and you’ll “wake up” at the time you designated.

If even imagining a hill or staircase is not that easy for you, then count slowly to 10 or 20, telling yourself that when you reach that final number, you will be completely relaxed.

4.  Deep breathing:

I’ve saved the easiest and fastest of these simple relaxation techniques for last.

Have you noticed a trend above? Each time you start with a deep breath.

simple relaxation techniques

That’s because deep breathing automatically engages the parasympathetic (relaxation) branch of the ANS and gets the ball rolling.

So if you don’t have time to stop even for 5 minutes, you can just do the deep breathing. Three slow, deep breaths in a row can do wonders!

I also saved this one for last because I have a fun story to share. A friend of mine was going through a really busy time (a new job plus planning her daughter’s wedding). I kept reminding her to take time to relax, and she kept saying she couldn’t do that. She would relax once XYZ was off her plate. Everything I suggested, she said she didn’t have time or wouldn’t remember to do it.

So I suggested that I hypnotize her and give her post-hypnotic suggestions that whenever she started to get tense she would automatically take a deep breath. She gave me a skeptical look, but she did sit still long enough for me to do this.

The next time I saw her was about two weeks later. I asked how the deep breathing was going.

“It´s wonderful!” she said. “I don´t have to think about it. I just automatically take a breath whenever I need to relax some. There was one problem though. Jim (her husband) kept looking at me funny. I finally asked him why and he said he was worried about me because I was so depressed.”

“‘I’m not depressed,’ I told him. ‘What gave you that idea?’ And he said, ‘Well, you’re constantly walking around the house sighing.’” 😀

I suggest trying all of these simple relaxation techniques and then focusing on the one(s) that work best for you. I mainly use #1 and #3 myself.

What do you think? Which of these techniques appeal the most to you? Or do you have other ways that you like to relax?

Oh, and don’t forget to check out our new Readers’ Group on Facebook and to enter our August Beach Reads contest there. You get two extra entries by joining the group.

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press about twice a month, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please sign up via email (upper right sidebar) to follow us, so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )

To see our Privacy Policy click HERE. 

Handling Stress, Part II: Managing the Stressors in our Lives (encore)

by Kassandra Lamb

As the authors of misterio press deal with the “good” stressor of launching our new Readers’ Group, I’m re-running (and updating) my series of posts on stress management from a few years ago.

Last week, I talked about the three factors involved in how stressed we feel at any given time. These are (1) the stressors in our lives, (2) the body’s response to them, and (3) our cognitive/emotional interpretation of those stressors.

Last time, I drilled down some on the body’s response to stressors (the flight-or-fight response), and I talked about how stress is good, energizing even, up to a point—that point being the stress threshold that we all have and beyond which we have maxed out our coping ability.

If we want to avoid stress overload, we have to keep our stress level below our threshold, and in order to do that, we need to understand the stressors in our lives.

Happy Events Are Still Stressful.

the stressors in our lives -- even happy events are stressors
Heading into the church just before my wedding. Note the spaced-out look on my face. My mother’s hanging onto my arm because I think I was staggering a bit.

Can I see a show of hands, folks? How many of you were in a bit of a daze on your wedding day? I know I was.

And it wasn’t a blissful, I’m-so-happy daze either. It wasn’t even an I’m-worried-about-what-can-go-wrong daze. It was more an I’m-so-overwhelmed-because-it-took-so-much-to-get-here daze.

I actually remember very little of the ceremony itself, mainly the bloopers: my father tripping over my train, the fly buzzing around our heads, and my husband forgetting the vows we had written together and supposedly memorized. And no, I’m not remembering those things because I was upset about them. I actually found them to be moments of comic relief that brought me out of my daze a bit.

I have a fairly clear memory of the reception, however, because that’s when the stress level finally got down below my threshold!

So yes, happy events still add to our stress level, because they use our resources: time, energy and emotional coping ability.

And here’s another thing about stressors that most people don’t realize.

Stressors Are Cumulative.

the stressors in our lives are cumulative
Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash.com

You don’t have to have some major stressor going on in your life in order to end up too close to or even past your threshold. If we’ve got too much little stuff going on, it can push us over the edge.

And we Americans tend to carry around way too big a stack of little stuff, sometimes without even realizing we’re doing it. Then stress overload can sneak up on us.

So one of the things we can do—indeed, we should do—when we realize we are too close to our stress threshold or have passed it, is to reduce the number of stressors. More on this in a moment.

Some Stressors Can Be Sneaky

Some things in our environment are stressful without our realizing it, because we are “used to them.” And/or we may like those things and therefore assume that they are not stressing us.

These stressors include sensory stimulation, noise, environmental temperature, etc.

I’ll use noise as an example. Even if you love the hustle and bustle of the city (85 dB), its noise level is still stressing your body. You may love listening to loud rock music (90+ dB) in order to “relax,” but its noise level is still stressing your body. (For comparison’s sake, the average conversation is about 50 decibels.)

the stressors in our lives -- noise is a stressor
Photo by Dan Freeman on Unsplash.com

Regardless of how you feel about the source, any noise above about 70 decibels is triggering that flight-or-fight response.

Again, our nervous systems are designed for more primitive times, to protect us from roaring lions and marauding enemy tribes. So when it registers loud noises, it assumes something threatening is going on. (For more on how noise is stressful, check out this article.)

Reducing Stressors — Hafta vs. Wanna

I used to teach a community education class on stress management. The first session, I’d give my students a homework assignment—to list everything they normally did on an average weekday, including minor tasks like loading the dishwasher or making the bed. Then they were to divide that list into two columns, labeled “hafta” and “wanna.”

The next class, I would ask them how many things were on their hafta list vs. their wanna list. Often there were more haftas than wannas; sometimes they were about even.

I would then point out that if they had more than 3-4 things on their hafta list, it was too long. They’d all look at me like I’d lost my mind – until I started going down some poor volunteer’s list asking, “Do you have to make the bed? …go to work? …pack your children’s lunches?” (Yes, I’d even challenge the premise that they had to feed their kids!)

The conversation would go something like this:

  • “Why do you have to do that?” I’d ask.
  • Usually the answer would boil down to some version of because they were responsible adults.
  • “Do you have to be a responsible adult? What happens if you’re not a responsible adult?”
  • They’d list a bunch of dire consequences, such as losing their house if they didn’t earn a living, or people looking down on them if their kids went to school in dirty clothes.
  • “And you don’t like those things, right?”
  • “Right.”
  • “So you choose to do this other thing (pointing to the item on their hafta list) to avoid those consequences?”
  • “Well, yeah.”
  • “So it’s a wanna. You want to do this to avoid that, because you don’t like that.”
  • “Well, yeah.”

I highly recommend this little exercise. Make your two lists without thinking about it too much. Then go down the hafta list and ask yourself what the consequences would be if you didn’t do that thing, or if you did it differently, in a less stressful way.

One objective here is to take back your sense of power over your life. You are doing these things out of choice, not because you have to do them. Feeling in control of the stressors in your life has been scientifically proven to reduce the amount of stress experienced.

And you may identify some things that you really don’t hafta do, nor do you wanna do them. (Making my own spaghetti sauce from scratch got dumped the first time I did this exercise; why should I go through all that when store-bought sauce actually tastes better than mine.)

Through the years, I’ve gotten into the habit of asking myself if a task is a hafta or a wanna, and then I ask do I truly wanna be doing it. This habit has served me well. It’s kept me from tipping over into stress overload on more than a few occasions.

Dump, Delegate, Postpone and Pamper

When we find ourselves on the brink of, or actually in stress overload (i.e., we have exceeded our threshold and we aren’t coping with anything anymore), the first thing we need to do is reduce the number of stressors in our life.

The formula for this, that I developed years ago, is Dump, Delegate, Postpone and Pamper.  “Just remember, DDPP,” I would tell my therapy clients.

One client jokingly said, “That sounds like a pesticide.” And thus DDPP was dubbed “Kass’s stressicide formula.”

reducing the stressors in our lies -- dump, delegate, postpone and pamper
Photo by Ildar Sagdejev CC-BY-SA 4.0 Wikimedia Commons

DUMP: Is a particular task really necessary or can you simply stop doing it, temporarily at least?

When I’m stressed out, the first thing that goes is making the bed. I like a neat house and a bedroom with a made bed. But it’s not essential. I can let it go when other things are demanding my coping resources.

DELEGATE: Is there someone else who also legitimately shares responsibility for the task you are stressed about? Or is there someone you can trade off with to deal with some of the current stressors, and you’ll pay them back in kind later?

In the mid 1990’s I was getting burned out as a therapist, so I started teaching part-time and cutting back on my psychotherapy practice. My husband and I negotiated a little deal. During the last three crunchy weeks of the semester, when I had a gazillion papers to grade, final exams to write, etc., he would do pretty much all the household chores. Then during my winter and summer breaks, I would do pretty much all of them so he could have a break.

POSTPONE: I’m not advocating procrastination here. But if it’s something that can legitimately be put off without causing harm or making things more stressful, then do it!

After my husband retired from his long-term career, he began teaching part-time. He quickly came to appreciate just how bad that end of semester crunch can get. And in the fall semester, it came just as we were getting ready for the holidays.

One of his tasks was writing the Christmas cards. That year, he decided to adopt the European tradition of sending New Year’s cards instead—in January when he was on winter break. 🙂

PAMPER: Unfortunately when we’re stressed out, the first thing that goes is taking care of ourselves. But that’s when our bodies and minds need pampering the most.

reducing the stressors in our lives -- pampering
Photo by Perfecto Capucine on unsplash.com

We need to pay more attention, not less, to getting enough sleep and trying to eat a healthy diet. Because when we’re in stress overload we are past that health threshold I talked about last week. We are putting more wear and tear on our bodies than they can really handle.

A few minutes of relaxation, a few times a day, can do wonders. Stop, sit, put your feet up, close your eyes, take a deep breath. Read, take a bubble bath, or both, or just sit and daydream.

The time spent relaxing will be well invested, and not just from a health standpoint. You’ll find that you are more focused and productive when you go back to doing the tasks you need to get done.

More on relaxation next week!

How about you? What’s on your hafta list that’s probably really a wanna? And do you still wanna be doing it? What can you dump, delegate or postpone when you’re in or near stress overload?

Oh, and don’t forget to check out our new Readers’ Group on Facebook and to enter our August Beach Reads contest there. You get two extra entries by joining the group.

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press about twice a month, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please sign up via email (upper right sidebar) to follow us, so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )

To see our Privacy Policy click HERE. 

Handling Stress, Part I: Stress Isn’t Always Bad (encore)

by Kassandra Lamb

Misterio press has started a new Readers’ Group and we’re finding it a bit time-consuming getting it off the ground (Check it and our August Beach Read Contest out HERE), so I figured this was a good time to re-run some posts on handling stress.

Here’s the first one, on why stress isn’t always a bad thing?

I was more than a little shocked, years ago, when my graduate school professor informed my class that stress is a good thing, up to a point. You might—as I did at the time—find this hard to believe.

But hang on! Here’s the definition of stress: The activation of our physical and emotional resources to cope with the challenges of life. Now when that challenge is a traffic jam or a deadline at work, that’s no fun.

handling stress -- it isn't always bad

But if we didn’t like getting activated now and again, why would we do things like ride roller coasters?

Or play sports, or read a mystery novel for that matter. If feels good to get the heart thumping a bit and the juices flowing.

But even when we’re not doing something quite as drastic as hanging upside down from a roller coaster, stress is a good thing, up to a point, in everyday life.

Let me go back and explain a few things first, so this makes more sense.

Why Stress has a Bad Reputation

Our bodies were designed to handle far more primitive challenges than we face today. Most of the challenges our cave-person ancestors encountered were physical, such as hunting for food or fending off wild animals and hostile tribes.

So our bodies have this thing called the stress response that prepares us for physical action to deal with those physical challenges. Heart rate and blood pressure go up, adrenaline’s released, muscles tense, you start sweating, and your digestive system temporarily shuts down (because it’s more important to deal with the sabertooth tiger trying to eat you than it is to digest what you just ate).

handling stress -- pacing tiger

Today, however, 90% of our challenges are psychological and emotional–coping with changes in our lives, relationships, deadlines, etc.

So you’re sitting at your computer all stressed out about the report/paper you’re trying to finish for your boss/teacher, while your body is preparing you to fight off tigers.

All those physical changes take a toll on your body, especially when you don’t actually do anything physical in response to the stressor.

There’s a part of our nervous systems, called the autonomic nervous system (ANS), that deals with all this. The ANS has two branches, the sympathetic branch (SNS) that causes all those changes listed above, plus several more (the flight-or-fight response), and the parasympathetic branch (PNS), that brings our bodies back to a calm state once the challenge or threat is over.

So after our ancestors fought the sabertooth tiger, their bodies would go “ah, time to relax.” (Assuming they won, that is.) Their PNS would kick in. Heart rate and BP came back down, muscles relaxed, digestion came back online, and life was good again. 🙂

In modern society, we tend to be stressed for longer periods of time, with no physical outlet. This is what does such a number on our bodies! You’ve probably heard the old expression, “All dressed up and no place to go.” Well, this is all revved up and no place to go!

Why Do We Feel Stressed?

We tend to assume that our stress level is dictated by how much we have on our to-do lists. But stressors are not the only factors involved when handling stress.

That grad school prof I mentioned above taught us a three-factor model to understand stress. His explanations regarding how stress works and what to do about it made so much sense, they have stuck with me for 30 years! And I’ve passed them on to hundreds of my students.

I’ll go into more detail regarding these factors in future posts. For now, a brief summary.

The first factor is the stressors. Some events–getting married, losing a job, etc.–are biggies in the stressor category, but a lot of little stuff can add up as well. And even good events contribute to our stress load, because they still require resources to deal with them.

photo credit: Lynn Kelley Author (from WANA Commons)

Take vacations, for example. We go on them to relieve stress, right? But they also cause stress! We’ve gotta plan them, pack for them, make sure stuff at work is organized to get along without us, deal with traveling hassles, worry about lost luggage… you get the picture.

The second factor in how stressed we feel is our body’s response to stress. There are several issues here. Do our bodies have any predisposed vulnerabilities to stress-induced illnesses? What is our innate tolerance for stress (called our stress threshold)? More on this in a moment. And last but not least, how often do we relax our bodies? This makes a huge difference in our stress level.

Third is our cognitive and emotional interpretation of the stressors. There are exceptions, but most stressors are not stressors until we interpret them as such. Quick example: I love to drive. I find it relaxing. For my husband, it is one of the most stressful aspects of life. How we perceive stressors is going to be affected by our personalities and our past experiences.

In later posts I’ll dissect these factors a bit more, plus talk about what we need to do to handle stress better. Today, I want to focus on the stress threshold aspect of the body’s response.

So Get to the Point; Why Is Stress Good, Up to a Point?

Okay, okay. Here it is.

We all have a stress threshold, the point at which our coping ability is exhausted. Below that threshold, stress is a good thing. It motivates and energizes us. Have you ever had a day (hopefully you’ve had many like this) when you’re feeling good, chugging along at a nice pace, getting a whole bunch of stuff accomplished?

I love days like that! The challenges are manageable and I’m being activated to meet them. That activation makes me feel alive and gives me a sense of achievement.

The problem arises when the stress level hits our threshold, and sometimes–no, make that often–we don’t see this coming. We may feel our best, the most energized and alive, when we’re hovering dangerously close to this threshold. And then one more little stressor comes along, and whammo, we’re over the edge.

This threshold is an on-off switch. When our coping ability is gone, it’s gone. One minute we’re handling everything, the next, we’re not handling anything.

So it behooves us to stop and think before we pile yet another stressor on an already full plate.

handling stress

Here’s another sneaky problem with this dang threshold thing. There are actually two of them. The one I just described is our psychological one.

The other is our health threshold. We’ve reached that one when our tissues and organs are suffering more wear and tear per day from stress than can be repaired that night while we sleep. When we’re past that threshold, we’re putting ourselves at risk for a whole slew of stress-related ailments, including heart disease and cancer.

And here’s the total kicker. The health threshold is lower than the psychological one. So we may still be handling stress well emotionally, may even feel great about all we’re getting done, when we are already doing our bodies damage from that level of stress!

Optimizing the Good Stress, Minimizing the Bad

So the moral of the story, folks: If we want to live long and prosper, we need to stay in the good stress level zone, comfortably below our threshold. That way, we’re not putting excessive wear and tear on our bodies, and we’re leaving some leeway for unforeseen stressors.

To accomplish this, one has to do two things. First, pay attention to your stress level for a while and get a sense of just how much stuff you can handle (i.e., where your threshold is). And while you’re doing that, pay attention to your early warning signs that you are not handling stress well, that you are getting too close to your threshold.

For me, it’s getting grumpy and short-tempered (my husband would say, getting grumpier and more short-tempered). The big flag is if I start losing it on the road when other drivers cut me off or are dragging their feet. Normally, I just mumble something sarcastic like, “Uh, ya see that pedal, the long skinny one on the right?” And then I let it go.

Beware of Cliff Edge sign -- handling stress
Sign at the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland.

But if I find myself yelling at them (inside my car; I’m not crazy enough to actually get in their face) and I’m still fuming about it when I get to my destination…

As Jeff Foxworthy would say, “Here’s your sign.”

I am way too close to the edge of that cliff. It is time to pare down the stressors in order to get comfortably back in the good-stress-level range again. (More on how to do this next week and other tips for handling stress.)

I’ve learned the hard way that it doesn’t pay to stand too close to that edge; the ground might just crumble away beneath me.

What about you, what are your early warning signs that you’re getting too close to the stress-overload cliff?

More on handling stress next week. Oh, and don’t forget to check out our new Readers’ Group on Facebook and to enter our August Beach Reads contest there. You get two extra entries by joining the group.

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press about twice a month, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please sign up via email (upper right sidebar) to follow us, so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )

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5 Tips to Help with Focus in These Stressful Times (Plus New Releases!)

by Kassandra Lamb

help with focus in these stressful times

Celebrating Independence Day this year was bittersweet for me.

I’ve lived through the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, multiple assassinations of leaders, the Gulf War, 9/11, the War Against Terror and never have I seen our society so disrupted for so long. And the end is not yet in sight.

I believe that good will ultimately come out of much of this upheaval, that our society will have a better appreciation of what is most important in life, and a better appreciation for others’ lives and experiences.

But in the meantime, how do we do the tasks we need to get done?

Especially the tasks that require a lot of focus. And especially when a lot of us are working from home, where structure, peace, and quiet may be harder to come by.

(Note: I’m using authors’ problems with focus as an example, but these tips apply to any focus-intense tasks.)

Like many other authors I’ve talked to recently, I’m having trouble focusing. Not surprising. The job of writing requires a lot of focus. So this thing we writers love, this thing that is often the refuge from other stressors in our lives, is now harder to do.

(For a quick explanation of why it’s harder to focus, check out this article on Fiction University; it’s a bit oversimplified, but basically accurate.)

Here are some things I’ve found that help with focus in these stressful times. I hope they work for you as well.

#1 – Don’t blame yourself

Don’t beat up on yourself for not being able to be as productive as you usually are. It’s not your fault. These are extraordinary times.

And self-blame is not motivating. It is depressing. It makes us want to curl up and forget about everything, not buckle down and get things done.

I love this quote I saw recently in an article from BookBub (emphasis is mine):

“Your writing is not garbage. Even your draftiest of drafts … And those few words you managed today? Not trash. Moving away from that thinking is one of the kindest things I ever did for myself. I am in the business of words, so I know words can be weapons. Why would I weaponize them against myself? My words are a part of me and I am worthy of grace, first and foremost, from myself. You are, too.”
—Samira Ahmed, NYT bestselling author of Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know

from Inspiring Words from Authors to Authors During Difficult Times, by Diana Urban, June 26, 2020, BookBub Partners Blog.

So be gentle with yourself. The obstacles to productivity and focus during these stressful times are real. And the most productive use of our brain power, instead of mentally berating ourselves, is to look for ways around those obstacles.

#2 – Break the tough tasks into chunks

One of the things I’m struggling with most is editing, either my own work or that of other authors I’m supposed to be critiquing/proofreading. Editing takes a different level and kind of focus than writing a first draft, or even a blog post like this one.

One of the tasks I’ve had on my desk this month was copy-editing the last two installments of Kirsten Weiss’s trilogy of Doyle Witch novellas. They were only about 150 pages each, and I love this series of hers. Should’ve been a piece of cake.

help with focus in these stressful times
Where I normally do the first read-through, on my chaise outside. Not this time, I couldn’t let myself get too comfy or I’d lose focus.

Normally, I would breeze through the first read-through in a couple of days, during my reading-for-pleasure time. Then it would take me maybe another few hours to do a second skim-through to make sure I didn’t miss anything.

Less than a week to get the entire task done, usually.

This time, it took me a week to get through the first read-through. And I had to schedule it during my work time, because if I was in read-for-pleasure mode, I couldn’t concentrate enough to catch the mistakes.

So I “chunked down” the second skim-through into 25-page chunks and set myself the task of doing two of them a day, if possible, but at the very least one a day. (Fortunately she didn’t need it back in a hurry.)

And it worked. I did a 25-page chunk the first morning and actually went on to do another 15 pages in the same sitting.

The psychology of this is that if we give ourselves goals that feel doable, we are more likely to attack them with gusto. And may even be able to exceed the goal, once we get rolling.

And if we’re dreading a task, we can tell ourselves that it’s just a little chunk—not that hard to just get it done and out of the way.

If it still feels overwhelming and de-motivating, chunk it down again into even smaller bite-sized pieces.

#3 – Rethink the timing of when you do the most focus-intense tasks

Usually when I sit down at my desk to start my workday, I go right for the toughest tasks that need to get done that day. To get them out of the way while I’m fresh.

help with focus in these stressful times

I’ve been rethinking that lately, when it is harder to focus in these stressful times. Now I will often do two or three little tasks first, to give myself a sense of accomplishment. Then I take a deep breath and knock out that tougher task.

Having had to change your work environment, say from an office to your home, may present other reasons for rethinking the timing of certain tasks. When’s the best time to create the privacy and quiet that a tougher task might require?

I’ve been doing a lot more writing lately after my husband goes to bed. 🙂

#4 – Stop and savor the little achievements

Have you ever stopped and noticed what a “sense of accomplishment” feels like in your body? For me it’s a full, proud feeling in my chest, sometimes accompanied by little bubbles of excitement. And I often feel warm and good all over.

Right now, close your eyes and recall a time when you accomplished something big. Let yourself sink into that experience again, recalling the details, and especially pay attention to how it feels in your body.

Then take a few moments, or at least a few seconds, to stop and notice that feeling after each task you complete. Even little things like doing a load of laundry or scrubbing the kitchen sink. Give yourself permission to stop and savor. It’s a huge motivator, and mood elevator too.

#5 – Give yourself little rewards for getting the tougher tasks done

Pick some self-care things that give you pleasure—a bubble bath, reading a magazine with your feet up, taking a walk—then take a break and indulge in one of those things after finishing a tough task.

help with focus in these stressful times

I know I shouldn’t be promoting the idea of food as a self reward, but the truth is, I’m a chocaholic. I allow myself one dose of chocolate per day. It may be a bowl of ice cream or a couple of cookies or candies (love me some Dove dark chocolate!) And I usually have it whenever the mood strikes.

But lately, I’ve been using that chocolate break as a reward for getting the toughest task of the day done.

As a matter of fact, I’m going to tackle another chunk of Kirsten’s last novella right now, and when I’m done I’m going to tackle some Famous Amos cookies!

Do any of these tips strike a chord for you? Have you found new ways to help with focus in these stressful times? Share with us, please.

And speaking of Kirsten’s stories, here are the first two of them. I really loved them!

OAK, A Doyle Witch Cozy Mystery (#7)

Doyle Witch Lenore has one job…

Destroy a magical book that threatens to devastate the world.

But try to tell that to her small-town sheriff.

When a decade’s old corpse turns up in the hollow of a haunted oak, Sheriff McCourt drafts Lenore into service. Since the coroner can’t identify the body, why not ask a shamanic witch who can see the dead?

Little does the sheriff know how dangerous the spirits of Middle World can be. And once they have Lenore in their sights, she can only keep moving forward – into a cold case at a local winery that threatens her sanity, and her life…

This novella is a witch cozy mystery featuring true-to-life spells in the back of the book, a trio of witchy sisters, and a dash of romance. Oak can be read as a standalone.

AVAILABLE NOW AT: AMAZON ~ APPLE ~ NOOK ~ KOBO ~ GOOGLE PLAY

AND STONE RELEASES TODAY!!

STONE, A Doyle Witch Cozy Mystery (#8)

A murder. A haunted house. A possessed spell book…

What could go wrong?

Since childhood, Doyle Witch Jayce figured the old stone house was haunted. Turns out, she may have been right.

A string of odd deaths in the house has culminated in murder, and newlywed Jayce is on the case. She is a witch after all. So what if it’s Samhain season, when the veil between the worlds is thin?

Right?

But when Jayce finds creepy connections between the old house and the spell book she’s sworn to destroy, she’s plunged into a conspiracy darker than anything mysterious Doyle has thrown at her before. Are supernatural forces at work? Or is Jayce facing a mortal foe?

If you’re a fan of Charlaine Harris, Heather Blake, or Amanda M. Lee, don’t miss this Halloween novella.

RELEASES TODAY ON: AMAZON ~ APPLE ~ NOOK ~ KOBO ~ GOOGLE PLAY

AND you can PREORDER STREAM (#9) ~ Releases 7/23/20

Will murder cancel this Doyle Witch’s Christmas?

Certain holiday spirits are keeping Karin’s hands full. And the challenges of motherhood and a cursed spell book have already put a dent in her usual good cheer.

But when she discovers the body of a man in a mountain stream, she’s swept into a mystery that will take all her magic and mental powers to solve. Because the dead man’s mysterious colleagues have taken an interest in Karin’s children…

This Christmas holiday novella is a complete cozy mystery and wraps up the story of the cursed spell book once and for all.

PREORDER AT: AMAZON ~ APPLE ~ NOOK ~ KOBO ~ GOOGLE PLAY

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press about twice a month, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please sign up via email (upper right sidebar) to follow us, so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )

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6 Tips to Shine as an Introvert or Extrovert When Working from Home

When employees were sent home to work remotely at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, most assumed they’d be back in the office within a few weeks. As the predicament drags its heels, predictions are being made that for many employees, working from home will become the new normal. Companies, large and small, are taking a hard look at their bottom line, as well as their work culture, and may stick with a remote workforce.

working from home

Photo by Wonderlane on Unsplash

I must admit, my life hasn’t changed all that much during the quarantine. Since I’ve been working from home for 8 years, I’ve grown accustomed to not going out much. True, I now see a trip to the grocery store as an exciting outing where before I saw it as a chore, but that’s about it.

And I’m okay with that. As a dyed-in-the-wool introvert (94% introverted, 6% extroverted), I’d be perfectly happy to visit with family and friends via Zoom most of the time rather than meeting in person. The Voxer app has become my new favorite, as I chat with clients, colleagues, and friends on-demand for free.

But not all introverts are the same. Personality types aren’t cut and dried—they exist on a continuum. Some of my introverted friends are experiencing just as many unique challenges working from home as my extroverted friends.

Whether you are an introvert or extrovert, if you’ve been forced to work from home for the foreseeable future, you are likely struggling to get your bearings. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to stay that way for the duration.

Introverts and Extroverts Defined

At the beginning of the last century, Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung coined the terms ‘introversion’ and ‘extroversion’ to talk about two distinct groups of people. Introverts tend to be quiet, thoughtful, and inwardly focused. They recharge by being alone with their thoughts and prefer a night in over a night on the town.

Introverts:

  • Enjoy solitude
  • Experience boredom rarely
  • Want outings to be meaningful
  • Appreciate deep conversations about topics of interest

The extrovert is quite the opposite. Their focus is outward, and they draw energy from being around people. Being in a busy, boisterous office is where they work best.

Extroverts:

  • Prefer to work with others
  • Experience boredom frequently
  • Think best out loud
  • Enjoy networking and small talk

Tips for Introverts

While the world tells us that we’re lucky, we might not be feeling it. Working from home can be stressful for the introvert. Back-to-back video conferencing can prove exhausting and having family members who aren’t in tune with the introvert’s parameters constantly around can feel invasive.

Get Some You Time

It’s too easy for an introvert to get so caught up in work they forget to stop at the end of the day. I learned early on that working from home could quickly turn into working all the time. Now I keep a standard 9-5ish schedule, using an egg timer to remind me to take breaks. Once I leave the office for the evening, I don’t check emails or respond to questions from my staff via our project management system. If this feels impossible, try deleting those pesky notification-type apps from your phone. Ignorance really is bliss sometimes.

Set Firm Boundaries

working from home

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

Constant distractions from housemates, children, and spouses can make us crabby. Even though it’s challenging, setting firm boundaries for what you need to be productive is better than the alternative—losing your cool and regretting it later. Even if you don’t have an office door you can shut, put boundaries in place for when you can be interrupted, and when you can’t. Be loving yet firm when explaining why it’s mission critical.

Design a False Sense of Aloneness

Since introverts need quiet, uninterrupted time to work and think, it’s essential to carve out a dedicated workspace. If you don’t have a spare room, you can still create a make-shift space by putting a barrier between you and the rest of the household. In a pinch, you can use a walk-in closet or hang a blanket to give yourself some privacy.

If you need to drown out the sounds from others in the house, try listening to soothing music (without lyrics) using earbuds or headphones. It’s incredible how in the zone I get when I do this. I feel like I’m totally alone with my thoughts even though my home office is in the loft of our home.

Tips for Extroverts

Being forced into social distancing is difficult enough for the extrovert, but when they can’t even interact with coworkers, it can feel like a prison. While they look forward to Zoom calls, what they really need is a good old-fashioned team meeting full of brainstorming and lively energy.

Create a Work Schedule

Working alone and without their usual structure, extroverts can feel they’ve been cast adrift.

working from home

Photo by Jessica Lewis on Unsplash

You will need to create a schedule and structure and keep to it so that you stay productive. If your job allows, design an unconventional work schedule that fits your preferences and needs. Or replicate as closely as possible the structure of your day when you went to the office.

Keep Moving

Extroverts can become anxious if they have too much time to think and too little to do. One essential way to keep your mind engaged in your work is movement. Try using a standing desk so you can move about while you work. Bounce on a mini-trampoline or yoga ball during breaks. Take a walk around the block when you start feeling confined and unfocused.

One fantastic strategy for extroverts working solo is to pace while speaking their ideas into a recording app on their phone. True, no one is there to bounce ideas around, but talking your thoughts out loud will at least partially reconstruct the way you work best.

Manufacturer Work Sounds

Extroverts prefer to work in a hustle and bustle environment. They are the ones who work best in a busy coffee shop with movement and chatter all around them. You don’t have to work in a busy office to experience an energetic vibe—you can create your own. Try listening to background soundtracks like this one on Spotify.

Take Breaks with a Friend

If you feel isolated while working from home, set up virtual coffee and lunch breaks with friends and coworkers. Most likely, your friends are stuck in their make-shift home office as well, so it will be good for them too. Heck, you can do this every day of the week with different people if you want.

So Where Do You Go from Here?

No matter what you find yourself struggling with as a remote worker, this unpredicted situation is an opportunity to learn about yourself. Learning to accommodate other personality types we are stuck at home with also gives you a chance to learn how to live more harmoniously with those in your household.

Since you can’t change the situation, you’ll be happier if you decide to learn from the experience. In this way, you’ll open the door to new growth and opportunity, no matter what comes next. This holds true for introvert and extrovert alike.

What challenges have you experienced since being forced to work from home? Share in the comments.

 

Gilian BakerGilian Baker is a former English professor turned mystery author and writing coach. She uses personality theory and brain science to help intuitive writers embrace their unique writing process so they can overcome their creative blocks and write books readers crave. If you are an introverted writer who is struggling to get their book finished, go here to schedule a free Story Strategy SessionTogether, we’ll dig into how you can crush your creative blocks!

Grab her first book, Blogging is Murder, for free on her website.

 

We blog here at misterio press about twice a month, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please sign up via email (upper right sidebar) to follow us, so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ email addresses. 🙂 )

To see our Privacy Policy click HERE.

Need a New Career or Side-Gig? Announcing the Freelance Writer Bootcamp!

Hi, all! Gilian Baker here.

When I asked myself how I could best serve the global community during this national emergency, teaching others a skill they could use to provide security for their families was at the top of the list. While talking with a friend and fellow entrepreneur, I came up with the idea to create a 30 Day Freelance Writer Bootcamp to help those who love to write and have lost jobs or need a side gig to help support their families.

Freelance Bootcamp

While other industries are slowing down or have stopped completely, there’s never been a bigger need for digital content! Companies, both large and small, are struggling to move their marketing budget from offline to online. This means a HUGE opportunity for those who have the skills they need to produce quality content.

As Part of the 30 Day Freelance Bootcamp, You Will:

Understand the freelance writing market  

Know where to find legit writing jobs     

Acquire a toolbox of free resources

Improve your writing skills

Build a portfolio to show potential clients

Gain experience as a freelance writer

Create at least one profile on a top freelance website

 *And have the chance to become part of my writing team!*

I have no doubt that those who take the chance to start a freelance writing business now will never again have to worry about earning a living! 

I’m honored to offer you this opportunity to transform your life during these unprecedented times!  Click the link to learn more and apply: https://mailchi.mp/6f0a91fd329c/30-day-freelance-writer-bootcamp

Gilian Baker is a former English professor turned mystery author, freelance writer, and writing coach. She’s the author of the Digital Detective Mystery Series. Grab her first book, Blogging is Murder, for free on her website.

We blog here at misterio press about twice a month, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please sign up via email (upper right sidebar) to follow us, so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )

To see our Privacy Policy click HERE.

7 Tips for Handling Stress During Uncertain Times

by Gilian Baker

Our fast-paced modern life can keep our nervous system running on full-tilt. So, what happens when a global crisis like the Coronavirus comes at us from nowhere, changing our daily lives into something we can’t recognize?

Photo by Josh Riemer on Unsplash

Our nervous system ramps up even more, threatening to burn out or implode. Fear, uncertainty, and panic can leave us constantly living in a fight-or-flight state.

Not only is this dangerous for our overall health, but it interferes with our ability to think rationally and make powerful decisions that we won’t regret later. When we are in the fight-or-flight response, we can’t access our creativity, intuition, or clarity.

This happens when the endocrine system and limbic nervous system, beginning in the hypothalamus, is activated. You may have heard this called “the lizard brain response” in popular media. This part of the brain isn’t bad. It keeps us safe and is essential during an emergency. However, it was much more important when we were part of a tribe that was trying to survive saber-tooth tiger attacks.

In the modern world, it activates when we attempt to do things that are outside our comfort zone, for example. When we are stressed and rushing. When we feel overwhelmed by responsibilities. We can become so accustomed to living in fight-or-flight mode we get addicted to it.

During this time of widespread panic, our lizard brain response is having a heyday. We can easily get trapped in the psycho-cybernetic loop that it’s hard to think clearly.

There is good news, though! It’s called the relaxation response.

Each of us has the capability to stop this negative or worry loop going on in our heads. Yes, it may be more challenging during scary times like this, but it is doable. Better yet, we don’t have to do it without tools. Science has shown us that there are ways to tap into the relaxation response, even when we so easily default to “catastrophizing.”

To give you some help with this, here’s a list of tools I use with my coaching clients to move them back into “rest-and-digest” mode when everything in their life seems to be going haywire.

Photo by Eric Nopanen on Unsplash

Music

Listening to uplifting music, whatever that means to you, can help you move out of fear and into a hopeful place. There’s no wrong music to choose. The important thing is that it makes you feel good when you hear it. You might want to create a playlist on a free app like Spotify that you can listen to throughout the day. You don’t have to listen only when you are already feeling worried. Use it as a way to maintain a positive outlook! Here’s one of my favorite Spotify lists you can try.

Meditation

You don’t need to have your own personal yogi, sit cross-legged, or burn smelly incense to get the many benefits from meditation. One of the easiest meditations is the best. Simply get comfortable, either sitting or lying down (if you don’t think you’ll fall asleep), close your eyes, and focus on your breathing. Notice it going in and going out. Pay attention to that short gap in the middle when you are neither inhaling nor exhaling. When your mind starts thinking (it will, because that’s what brains do), gently bring your mind back to your breath without judgment.

You can also play relaxing music or use guided meditations too. These are especially helpful if your mind just won’t seem to settle. My favorite meditation app is Insight Timer. It offers thousands of free guided meditations and music tracks.

Breathe 

Some of the breathing techniques that are the most effective in stimulating the relaxation response are also very simple. Even when you find yourself in full panic mode, you can remember these simple instructions:

Technique #1

Inhale deeply in through the nose for four counts.

Hold the breath for eight counts.

Slowly exhale through pursed lips for eight counts.

Photo by Darius Bashar on Unsplash

It’s recommended you do a round of ten breaths and then gauge how you feel. If you are still upset, you can do another series of ten.

Technique #2

This technique comes from the Heart-Math Institute and is ideal for moving into a space of deep gratitude.

Sit or lay comfortably and close your eyes. Put your attention on your heart and imagine breathing in and out of that area. Let your breath come naturally—there’s no need to force it to slow down. After practicing this for a few minutes, you’ll notice a deep sense of calm and gratitude come over you. While continuing to breathe from your heart, allow the blessings in your life to come up in your mind. Take a few moments to appreciate all you have to be grateful for.

Movement

You don’t need to be a long-distance jogger to experience a “runner’s high.” You also don’t need a bunch of expensive equipment. Take a brisk walk in the park, bounce on a personal-sized trampoline or exercise ball, give yoga, or tai chi a go. If you’ve always wanted to try yoga, for example, there are tons of free YouTube videos you can use as your guide. My personal favorite is Yoga with Adriene. If you are so inclined, pick out an app and track your progress. That’s just one more way to focus on the positive right now instead of dwelling on “what if’s.”

Nutrition

It might be tempting to sit and eat chips while binge-watching Netflix right now, but it’s the worst time to be doing that. Besides lowering our immune system, a diet high in processed foods and sugar doesn’t give our brains the fuel it needs to function at its peak.

It’s vital right now that each citizen is thinking clearly for the long-term. We all need to be making wise decisions and to do that, we need to be able to calm our fight-or-flight responses so our frontal cortex can run the show. We need to take positive action, not just for ourselves, but for the global community. Only offering our brains toxin-filled fuel won’t get us there. Focus on stocking up on more fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and other tasty, highly nutritious foods and leave the Ding Dongs and Cheetos on the shelves. They have so many preservatives in them that they’ll be fine there for years.

This week’s veg from Imperfect Foods

We have our organic produce, and other items delivered to our door by Imperfect Foods. They are a company on a mission to stop food waste, which as a farmer’s daughter, I wholeheartedly applaud! It’s a fabulous feel-good way to get fresh, organic foods at a much better price while not having to put on real pants. 😊 You can get $10 off your first order by going here.

Nature
Now is the perfect time in many parts of the country to be outside. Get your garden ready for summer, mulch your flowerbeds, take a walk. Much of the last week has been gray and gloomy here in Ohio, but today, the sun is out. I enjoyed lunch on the porch while listening to the birds and enjoying the daffodils that are already in full bloom in my yard. I felt like a new woman when I came back inside. I personally believe we can absorb a great deal of life wisdom by looking at nature. The birds and squirrels don’t panic when a big storm is looming. Trees don’t worry that they will lose their leaves too soon in the fall. Animals live most of their lives in a state of rest and relaxation. They only take action when it’s absolutely necessary for survival. Oh, to be a robin!

Help Others

Right now, you may think there is little you can do to help others. But there are more opportunities than you might think. And helping someone who is in a worse situation than you is an excellent way to step out of thinking about your own ills and problems.

Some simple ideas include checking on your neighbors to make sure they are okay or picking up groceries for an elderly family member while you are out. Think about all the volunteers who are now stuck at home. Depending on where you live and your health, you may be able to help out places, like animal shelters, that rely on volunteers to meet the needs of your community. We recently heard that the National Guard might be activated in our area to fill boxes at local food banks. During a time of crisis, food banks will need all the help they can get. Think about ways you could help others to distract yourself while getting a hit of dopamine.

If you’d like to help but can’t think of a way, feel free to send me some of your hoarded toilet paper. 😊I still can’t find any anywhere!

What are some of the ways you keep worry and fear from overwhelming you?

Gilian Baker is a former English professor turned mystery author and writing coach. She uses personality theory and brain science to help writers overcome their creative blocks so they can write un-put-down-able books. If you are a writer who is struggling to get their book finished, go here to schedule a free Story Strategy Session.

Grab her first book, Blogging is Murder, for free on her website.

We blog here at misterio press about twice a month, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please sign up via email (upper right sidebar) to follow us, so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )

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10 Tips for Making Your Imperfect Holiday a Happy One (encore)

by Kassandra Lamb

Here’s an oldie-but-goodie post. I’m posting it partly because I’m busy with my own holiday preparations, but the message bears repeating — how to make your imperfect holiday a happy one!

This time of year is supposed to be joyful – full of good food, time spent with family, tinsel and bright lights, and lots of packages under the tree.

We tend to have high expectations for the season, and also to feel that we have to meet others’ expectations so that everyone has a fabulous holiday. The reality sometimes falls short, and all too often in our attempts to make the holidays perfect, we end up short – as in short-tempered… and major stressed out!

Maybe we need to loosen up on some of those expectations and prioritize what’s most important for ourselves and our families. It’s okay to have an imperfect holiday, as long as it is a happy holiday.

First, let’s break things down a bit, to look at what makes an imperfect holiday a happy one. We have gifts, decorations, food and family (I refer to Christmas below, but the same ideas apply to other holidays of the season.)

Tips for making your imperfect holiday a happy one -- cull your gift list and shop early.
A shopping mall in Toronto, Canada (photo by Benson Kua, CC-BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

GIFTS: Some people (like me) love to shop; other’s loathe the process. If you fall into the latter category the first thing you can do is…

1. CULL THE GIFT LIST. Do you have people on your list for whom you have no idea what they want or like? Then you probably don’t know or like them well enough to be spending money on them. Are there relatives on the list with whom you exchange token gifts, neither party really caring whether the other likes what they get?

See if you can get them off the list without offending them. Suggest that you not exchange gifts, just enjoy each others’ company. (They may very well agree with great relief.) Or buy them something inexpensive and consumable, and repeat next year. You don’t have to be creative when nobody cares. (My mother-in-law got scented hand lotion from me every year. She was fine with that.) Suggest your extended family draw names and each person gets, and gives, just one gift.

2. SHOP EARLY. Whether you love or hate shopping, this is good advice. Yes, there are great bargains closer to Christmas but there’s also a lot more pressure. And these days, retailers often have sales going off and on throughout the fall.

Christmas shopping tends to bring out the procrastinator in many of us. It feels like such an overwhelming task. But the longer we put it off, the worse it will be. On the flip side, the sooner you start, the less pressured and the more fun it can be.

I begin in October, usually with an all-day shopping trip. It’s a fun, low-stress day, because it’s only October and I have lots of time to find those items that didn’t jump into my cart that day.

3. DO YOU HATE TO WRAP? Or do you love it? If you love it (as I do) starting early on your shopping means you have plenty of time to enjoy the wrapping process. I make it part of my evening routine as I watch TV. Wrapping three or four packages a night, I’ve got it done in no time. And it gets me in the holiday spirit!

Tips for Making Your Imperfect Holiday a Happy One -- gift bags!
Photo by Melinda & Cristiano, CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr/Wikimedia

But if you hate it, I have two words for you…

Gift Bags!!! For a buck or two apiece, your wrapping is done!

DECORATIONS:

4. DECORATE FOR YOU AND YOUR FAMILY, NOT THE WORLD. Unless you totally get off on decorating (I know a couple of people who do), keep it simple. Ask yourself what is most important for you and yours?

For years I struggled with those #%@&* outside lights, stringing them over trees and bushes and freezing my tuckus off in the process. Today, the inside of my house is a Christmas wonderland, because I enjoy putting up those decorations. But outside, there’s a wreath on the front door and a pre-lit table tree in the dining room window. That’s all my neighbors are getting from me.

And you know what? None of them have complained.

5. MAKE IT A FAMILY AFFAIR. When I was a kid, my father was in charge of decorating the tree. He was meticulous. All the ornaments had to be balanced, the tree totally symmetrical. (He was an engineer.) He would carefully put one strand of tinsel on each branch.

Tips for Making Your Imperfect Holiday a Happy One -- let the family decorate the tree, even if it does end up lopsided
A slightly off-kilter tree, but still gorgeous! (public domain–Wikimedia)

He made my mother nuts!! And my brother and I fled to our rooms until the tree was done.

The blinkin’ tree doesn’t have to be perfect. Get the whole gang involved and it will be done in no time. And if you must have symmetry, you can move a few ornaments after everyone else is in bed.

FOOD: If you love to cook, go for it. If it’s not so much your thing (like me), look for ways to keep it simple.

6. PREPARE AHEAD OF TIME. I learned this from my grandma. Every year, she came over to our house on Christmas Eve. She made the dressing that night, and prepped the turkey. The next morning, Mr. Turkey just needed to be transferred from the fridge to the oven.

7. IS THAT BIG MEAL REALLY WHAT YOU WANT? Again, ask yourself what really matters. You just had a big turkey dinner on Thanksgiving. Is it crucial that you have another one a month later?

A few years ago, my family was facing some stressors around the holidays that made us want to simplify things as much as possible. We decided we would have a cold buffet for Christmas dinner, for just that year. I baked two turkey rolls the day before and my daughter-in-law and I made or bought various salads. I was sure it would be a letdown not to have the traditional big Christmas dinner.

Guess what? We didn’t miss it one bit! The meal was just as tasty, and so much less stressful. Instead of spending inordinate amounts of time in the kitchen prepping and then cleaning up from a big meal, we spent that time balancing plates on our laps and laughing and talking as we enjoyed each other’s company. We’ve been doing Christmas dinner that way ever since!

FAMILY: Being with family is the heart of Christmas and perhaps the most important component in making an imperfect holiday a happy one. But how do we define our families?

8. SPEND CHRISTMAS DAY WITH THE PEOPLE WHO MATTER THE MOST. One of the mistakes I sometimes see people making on Christmas is that they spread themselves too thin. Christmases were special for me as a kid because they were relaxed. We opened our stockings, then had a leisurely breakfast. We opened our presents, then had a leisurely dinner.

Tips for Making Your Imperfect Holiday a Happy One -- celebrate Christmas with the extended family on a different day.
Christmas with the extended family, on 12/26. We’re having a ball, can’t ya tell? 😉

We went to visit the extended family the day after Christmas, or the following weekend. We saw everybody eventually, but NOT on Christmas Day!

The first year I was married, my husband and I tried to keep everybody happy. We got up extra early to exchange our own presents, then went to my parents’ house for brunch. Then we jumped in the car and drove for two hours to have Christmas dinner with his family.

Never again!

9. WHAT IS YOUR FAMILY OF CHOICE? If you don’t like your biological family, do NOT spend the most precious day of the year with them. Politely tell them that you want to spend Christmas with just your spouse and your children. If you’re not married, it’s okay to make your close friends your family of choice. If it feels too hurtful to say no to your biological family on December 25th, then designate another day—perhaps Christmas Eve or the day after Christmas—as your “family of choice” Christmas.

Last but definitely not least…

10. BE JOYFUL. The bottom line here is that this is supposedf to be a joyful time of year. So do your best to set it up so it is fun and relaxing for you and those who are most important to you. A less stressful, imperfect holiday makes for a happy holiday!

Any other ideas for simplifying Christmas preparations and minimizing holiday stress?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, and the cozy series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press about twice a month, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please sign up via email (upper right sidebar) to follow us, so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )

To see our Privacy Policy click HERE.