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Surprise! Being Stressed-Out Is in!

There must be a lot of stress at The Wall Street Journal. I found two articles and a blog post on the subject of stress in the last two weeks, and well, it’s making me feel stressed. I mean, if the journalistic queen bee of American capitalism is feeling stressed-out, what hope is there for us worker bees?

It took a while for me to screw up my courage and actually read through the verbiage provided by Journal reporters, Sue Shellenbarger and Ruth Mantell, but now that I’ve gotten their reports under my belt (the two double cheeseburgers I had for lunch had to make room), I have learned that not all stress is bad. In fact, some stress is good — specifically, the kind of stress we scientists call “good stress.”

Good stress helps you focus. It makes you motivated. “It can propel you into ‘the zone,’ spurring peak performance and well-being,” according to Shellenbarger. In our competitive economy, with so many competing for so few jobs, stress is really our friend. Or it is right up to the moment when it “strains your heart, robs you of memory and mental clarity and raises your risk of chronic disease.”

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And how does one tell good stress from lethal stress? That’s not easy to do, or to explain. It all has to do with some very complicated physiology, which if you’re like me and believe that the human body is solid, like a banana, it is very difficult to believe, or endorse. I mean it seems really unfair to blame the damaging strain of stress on your poor, defenseless adrenal and pituitary glands for pumping hormones into your blood stream, aided and abetted by the hypothalamus. (I have to admit; I never did trust that hypothalamus.)

Once the hormones start pumping, your body becomes “a prisoner of your mind.”

“Can you turn it off?” asks Martin Rossman, a clinical instructor at the University of California Medical School, San Francisco. Not an easy switch to flip, apparently, in the case of the average person. Of course, you have long ago mastered the skill of turning off your mind, often for months at a time. So, why worry?

If you can’t master your stress, the consequences can be dire. According to the Journal, chronic stress “sharply increases the risk of insomnia, chronic disease and early death.” They don’t mention that a little insomnia can have its advantages — you’d be amazed at the wonderful products offered on cable channels at 3 a.m. — but early death probably should be avoided, especially when you work in human resources, where no one will ever notice.

Fortunately, for you, stress levels can be managed with another skill you already have mastered — relaxation. In the case of a California homebuilder and stress addict, reducing his stress levels required deep breathing and guided imagery. As he explained, “by practicing over and over, I seem to be changing the path my thoughts take from, ‘I’m doomed,’ to ‘Things will be OK.'”

In other words, you have a choice. You can be stressed and realistic, or you can be delusional and relaxed. Either option is better than your current situation — being stressed and delusional.

An interesting experiment noted in Shellenbarger’s article involved coaching a group of college student guinea pigs that “feeling nervous and excited before a presentation could improve performance.” You will be able to relate to what happened next. When everyone dumped on the presentations, the coached group “showed a healthier physiological response, leading to increased dilation of the arteries and smaller rises in blood pressure.”

What the mad scientists didn’t examine was the physiological effect on the audiences of these nervous Norbert presenters. If their anxiety-driven presentations were anything like the PowerPoint torture sessions your management inflicts, the audience’s arteries exploded and their blood pressure hit the roof.

Which brings us to the question — how are you going to manage to manage your stress in the days ahead? Let me make a suggestion. “Deep abdominal breathing” is one of the recommended techniques for moderating your stress level. Considering the current size of your abdomen, you certainly have plenty of room to breath deeply.

Try it! Breath deeply. It should keep you so calm and composed that no one will even think you’re working, and you should be blissfully relaxed until the day you are escorted out of the office by security guards. Golly gee, I hope I’m not stressing you out.

Bob Goldman was an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company, but he finally wised up and opened Bob Goldman Financial Planning in Sausalito, California. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at bob@funnybusiness.com.

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