Business of Well-being

Put on the brakes before going over your Stress Cliff

You wouldn't consider driving your car over a cliff, would you? Yet too much stress pushes you ever closer to your own Stress Cliff every day, making you vulnerable to illness and disease development. But if you create balance between your stress and rest away from it you'll protect yourself more from this potential damage. Because stress triggers the physical fight/flight response speeding up your body, it puts a momentary strain on it. If you could recover from these recurring events it would present no problem.

However, since most of us live in a world of near-constant stress, we're overtaxed leading to aches, pains, illness, disease, depression and decreased mental function. The scary part is that stressful living has become the norm so that you may not even notice the accumulation of damage. Over time, however, this underlying tension affects your thinking, emotions and behavior causing more mistakes and accidents and even depression for some. Everybody has a breaking point. I call this your Stress Cliff: where stress begins to damage you physically, mentally and emotionally.

My newly published book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain and Simple ( makes this very important yet simple point. The stress response, the fight/flight, creates energy in your body. Our ancestors used this energy in the manner Mother Nature intended by fighting and fleeing, not to mention living a far more active lifestyle.  But modern day humans live a very sedentary lifestyle in addition to having to slam on the brakes of our stress energy since it's inappropriate to punch out our least favorite people or to run away from our challenges.

The trick to protecting your well-being is to channel your stress energy in a healthier manner. There are four ways, not all positive, to channel this energy (mentioned in last month's article):

1. Problem-solve your stressors: This is the most important skill since it reaches and hopefully resolves the underlying reasons you are stressed. Once resolved effectively the situation will no longer trigger your fight/flight;

2.    Release the energy such as through physical exercise;

3.    Relax the energy through meditation, yoga, etc.;

4.    Not recommended is to dull the fight/flight energy through too much drinking, drugs, TV, sleep, etc.

The GREAT news The trick to protecting yourself is to create a balance between stress and rest away from it. Intersperse your day with what I call Stress Breaks like a few seconds of deep breathing to 20 minutes of yoga or deep relaxation to eight hours of restful sleep. Your rest patterns greatly influence the consequences of your stress. Don't wait for physical, emotional or mental symptoms to surface.

Assume you would benefit from frequent Stress Breaks throughout your day even if you're not particularly overstressed. In fact, by regularly practicing Stress Breaks you'll get yourself into better Stress Shape so you can handle whatever level of stress comes your way. Here are a few that are easy and free.

  • Deep breathe:  Deep breathing is physiologically the opposite of the fight/flight breathing, which is more shallow and faster in order to pump more oxygen throughout your body so you can fight or run better.

Try this, while standing put one hand over your abdomen and one over your chest. Take a couple of deep breaths and notice which hand goes out more as you inhale. If your chest hand expanded more as you inhaled or if neither hand did you need to change how you breathe. You're probably breathing too shallowly. Your abdomen hand needs to go out more as you inhale. Lie down on your back and notice which hand goes out more as you inhale. Invariably your abdomen hand does.

Model your lying-down breathing when you are standing and sitting. Deep breathe whenever calming down would be beneficial to you. 6-3-9-3 breathing exercise: Inhale to the count of six, hold your breath to the count of three, exhale to the count of nine, hold for three. Repeat this four times while standing. If you get light-headed it means you don't breathe enough.Shallow breathing over time can contribute to if not actually cause:

  • Depression;
  • Muscle tension;
  • Exhaustion;
  • Anxiety;
  • Panic attacks;
  • Headaches;

If you regularly have any one or more of these symptoms, wouldn't it  be nice if all you had to do was to breathe more and to breathe properly? Practice this 6-3-9-3 breathing exercise for four rounds while standing until you don't get lightheaded. Then, for deep breathing to reduce your stress go for five rounds and eventually up to ten rounds without getting lightheaded.

  • Yoga exercises that you do repeatedly can reduce stress a little at a time and add up to significant stress reduction over time. There are many choices of yoga classes in most communities.
  • Journal your deepest thoughts and feelings about your life: This has been shown to have a positive impact on asthma symptoms and arthritic pain. It is also one of the best techniques to look inside yourself for answers to reduce your stress.
  • Physical exercise done regularly and under the supervision of your physician is one of the two best ways to channel the fight/flight energy (the other is regular meditation).
  • Meditation (my subject for next month's article), it's the physiological opposite of the fight/flight;
  • Expand the skills required for your favorite hobby and spend more time on it. Develop one if you don't have one.
  • Connect with others in a positive way. When we bond with others we release the hormone oxytocin, which is believed to minimize the damage of too much of the fight/flight hormones.
  • Volunteer your time.

The more frantic your life schedule more rest away from your stress. Listen to Your Body Your body never lies to you. Commit to yourself that when you notice your body acting up in some way that you'll listen to it and do what is necessary to solve whatever is stressing you. This is particularly important when a stress symptom persists or worsens.

For instance, a former coaching client with three children noticed after significant challenges with one of them that she was having digestion problems. And this is a person who virtually never has digestion problems. Once she made the connection between her physical symptoms occurring when the conflict with her child erupted, she put her foot down to do what was necessary to solve the problem.

After making the tough choices to resolve this issue, her stomach went back to normal telling her she had made a healthy choice. Pay attention to what's happening in your life when your body exhibits physical discomfort or when you become ill. This will help you pinpoint the problem needing attention and resolution. Here's a great journaling activity to allow your body to communicate with you about what you need to do for it to feel better.

If you can do this now, please do. If not, remember to do this later. Before you begin, have a piece of paper and a pen handy.

  • Sit comfortably and take a few deep breaths to relax. When you feel ready, close your eyes and scan your body slowly. Start by becoming aware of the top of your head, move down to your forehead and eyes. Look for any signs of discomfort, tension or pain. Continue focusing down through the rest of your face, your jaws, your head and down through your neck. Move into your shoulders and down through your arms and into your hands and fingers.

Notice your torso, both front and back, continuing to look for signs of discomfort. Move down through your hips, down through your legs and into your feet and toes. Let your mind go back to just one part of your body that is particularly uncomfortable and focus on that discomfort for a moment . If this part of your body could talk to you, what would it tell you to do to decrease your stress?

Take your pen and paper and write a letter to yourself from that part of your body. Dear (your name), and let the uncomfortable part of your body tell you what to do to make it feel better. Let the words flow without conscious effort. It was through this activity that my coaching client discovered that she needed to resolve the conflict with her child and to stop denying the physical consequences she was suffering because of it.

After you write your letter, consider what it says. Generally, if you allowed the letter to 'write itself' without real conscious effort on your part, you probably have received good advice on what to do. Now you just have to follow your own good advice. You don't have time to take better care of yourself? You don't have time not to. The potential negative consequences to your well-being of too much stress over too long a period of time are too great.

Consider Maria. Blurry-eyed, she turns off the alarm that rings entirely too early. She drags herself downstairs to get a cup of coffee to pry open her eyes. She knows she has only a few minutes of peace before waking up her kids. An hour later she has done battle with each child to get ready for school. Maria's already exhausted and the day has barely begun.  But the coffee is kicking in just in time for her to climb into her car and hit the racetrack. Arriving safely at work she has more coffee and some delectable pastries someone brought in. She's starting to feel downright human.  She plows through hours of phone calls, emails, paperwork and meetings.

She's really good at what she does and she loves it. The day flies by and it's suddenly 5:00 p.m. when she remembers that her kids need rides to their respective activities tonight. She hits the racetrack again, swooping in to her grocery store to get a ready-made meal. Once home, she starts some laundry, tidies up the house and struggles to get her kids and husband to the table on time for dinner. They gulp down dinner, Maria tosses the dirty dishes into the sink, and they're off for the evening.

After returning home later that evening she does the dinner dishes, finishes the laundry while admonishing the kids to stop fighting. She then joins her husband for a little TV before she's off to bed. Too early the next morning, the alarm rings and she starts it all over again. Sound familiar? The more packed every moment of your day is the more you need to make time for rest away from your stress.

Remember, too much stress, especially chronic stress, can break down your resistance to illness and disease development. Throughout your day create time for the natural unwinding of your stress response. Maria would tell you she doesn't have time to rest. But she has plenty. She could:

  • Do deep breathing while driving to work and during other stressful moments of her day;
  • Use that early morning time for 15 minutes of deep relaxation, yoga or journaling;
  • Take 2 minutes several times a day to tense tight muscle groups for 10 seconds then relax them completely (repeat several times);
  • Use wind-down imaging before drifting off to sleep;
  • Arrange quiet time at home where everyone honors a nonverbal sign on bedroom doors (like a hotel 'do not disturb' sign) to give privacy.  During this time she could do 30 minutes of exercise, deep relaxation or take a nap;

Minimize the damage of stress by making the time for several small to more significant Stress Breaks throughout your day. You'll be more energetic, catch fewer colds and fevers and feel better while protecting your health in the short and the long run. Plus, you'll have more and healthier energy to keep up your crazy schedule!

About the Author

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M.S.In 1976, after returning from 2 years in the Peace Corps in Colombia, South America, Jackie earned her Master's degree in Community Counseling/Psychology from her home state of Minnesota. She worked for several years as a Program Director at the Ruth Cooper Mental Health Center in Ft. Myers, FL, and then founded InterAction Associates, a management development and training firm.

For over 25 years she has designed and presented keynotes and workshops on stress management, diversity including generational diversity, customer-service and communication skills. Her mission is to inspire you to live a conscious life of personal responsibility in your relations with yourself and others, which she weaves into every presentation to help you 'wake up' to your responsibility in making your desired changes.

Literally hundreds-of-thousands of people throughout North America, the United Kingdom, Australia and points in between have benefitted from her programs. She has also authored four audio programs and her recently published book, Let Your Body Win:  Stress Management Plain & Simple, is now available at

Jackie is also a Professional & Stress Coach helping people achieve more success with less stress. You can request her weekly emailed column, Stress for Success, which appears in a Gannett Newspaper, the Ft. Myers News-Press' Tuesday Healthy Living section.239-693-8111

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