Professionally Speaking

Reflect and Rejuvenate

As 2002 comes to a close, our columnists offer advice on how to succeed, personally as well as professionally, in the coming year.

Well, here we are in December, one of the most stressful months of the year (at least for me). There’s the end-of-the-year business crush, trying to make up in one month for all the misses of the past 11. On top of that, you might have use-or-lose vacation or personal leave time to fit in and, oh yeah, the holidays—cards, gifts, trying to make everything perfect. All this can add up to a tremendous amount of stress.

Not to say that your everyday life isn’t stressful enough—irate customers, budget constraints, the constant pressure of keeping up with new technology, the challenge of a server that’s down and you with no clue why. Is your stomach starting to knot? Got that tension headache running down your neck? For an afternoon snack, are you drinking that pink stuff?

I’m not saying that all stress is bad. Heck, without stress we wouldn’t feel challenged, and much of the stress-causing situations are beyond our control. But what you can control is your reaction to stress, how you deal with it in the short term, as well as the long haul.

As you already know, stress can cause physiological changes. During acutely stressful situations, your body reacts with the “fight-or-flight” response: increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, faster breathing and the rush of adrenaline and strength. But when the immediate circumstance changes, those symptoms go away. Much more threatening are the effects of long-term stress: high blood pressure and high cholesterol (risk factors for heart disease). In addition, some studies have shown that chronic stress can cause fat to be stored around the middle of the abdomen, which, besides being unattractive, can contribute to heart disease and type 2 diabetes. This is in addition to the other patterns that stress can accentuate: smoking, excessive drinking, aggression, violence and withdrawal.

So, how do you manage stress? Well, one clinically accepted way is to exercise regularly. I run. Not long and not far, but I run three to five times a week. I find it helps me in a number of ways: It helps burn off the beer calories but, more important, it’s an aerobic exercise that can counteract the heart-harmful effects of stress. In addition, I use the time running to work out my schedule and other problems in my head. Any type of regular exercise is a good antidote to stress, the other health benefits are just gravy. I imagine that pounding a racquetball against the wall could be quite therapeutic, as well.

At the opposite end of the stress-management spectrum, at least as far as exertion is concerned, are relaxation techniques. These can range from breathing exercises (designed to calm the body) to meditation. Many people think of meditation as a religious thing (and for many people it is), but it need not be. It’s merely a way of clearing your mind and getting rid of the pressures that are causing stress, at least for a little while. When you’re stressed, do you ever get the feeling that you’re thinking too much? That you can’t turn your brain off? Meditation techniques give you a way to shut it down for a while.

One of my students just gave me another way to think about our work in technology and the kind of stress we’re under. She’s currently an emergency room nurse looking to move into IT. Right now, when her customers’ systems crash, it has an entirely different meaning. Something like that helps me put the daily level of stress that I encounter into perspective.

Note: Some of the information presented here came from WebMD.com, a site I encourage you to visit.

About the Author

Steve Crandall, MCSE, is a principal of ChangeOverTime, a technology consulting firm in Cleveland, Ohio, that specializes in small business and non-profit organizations. He's also assistant professor of Information Technology at Myers College and a contributing writer for Microsoft Certified Professional Magazine.

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