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Stress Prevention

WHEN IS THE LAST TIME YOU HAD 4 HOURS TO RELAX?

STRESS PREVENTION CHALLENGES SPECIFIC TO HIGH ACHIEVERS

1.  Able to do many things + “If I can do it it, I should” = OVERSCHEDULED

2. Difficulty disappointing others  = OVERSCHEDULED

3.  Tendency to intellectualize emotions = UNAWARE OF STRESS LEVEL

4. Achievement orientation =  GOAL IS FIRST. SELF-CARE IS OPTIONAL.

 

SYMPTOMS

Irritability, “Short-fuse”
Difficulty Relaxing 
Sleep Disruption
Distractibility 
Short-term Memory Loss
Stomach Pain, Stomach Fat
Burning Feet or Tongue
Extreme Fatigue, Chest Pains 

A STRESS PREVENTION STORY

Ken was referred to me by his primary care physician. He had severe fatigue and ongoing digestive difficulties. Both his primary care doctor and a gastroenterologist had ruled out disease as a primary causation of his symptoms. As Ken told me about his background, I learned that he had been through a very stressful family matter several years ago and had coped by throwing his energy into his business.
In the last two years, the economy had shifted such that Ken had to lay off several of his employees. Ken was worried about being able to maintain the jobs for the rest of his employees while working additional hours himself to fill in the gaps.
First, Ken and I spoke about the physical nature of stress. I taught him diaphragmatic breathing so that he could begin regularly engaging the parasympathetic nervous system (the part of our nervous system that helps us to relax). I wanted him to practice this so that he could use it at the very beginning of stressful conversations or situations. Additionally, I asked him to do some basic tracking on situations, perceived stress, fatigue level, and stomach pain. I needed this information to ascertain his individual pattern and to help him begin tuning in to his body. High achievers are often so busy problem-solving and moving forward that they disconnect from physical sensations. They may remember that it was a bad day but be unable to pinpoint exactly when they began feeling sick. Helping Ken to identify the most stressful points of the day allowed us to engage the cognitive-behavioral approaches that increase successful coping. Additionally, we worked on sleep hygiene and exercise to increase emotional well-being. Finally, we focused on energy and margins. Identifying his energy drains allowed Ken to strategically eliminate some of them and to figure out methods for "plugging the leak" of others. Additionally, we assessed the activities that helped Ken to refuel. We focused on placing the refueling activities as priorities during the week, slotted for specific times just as Ken would schedule other appointments. As he worked through his obligations and priorities, Ken began adding margins into his week. We discussed the planning fallacy, that is, the tendency for us to routinely underestimate the amount of time it takes to complete a task. From this discussion, Ken was able to mathematically calculate additional margins that would allow him to feel more accomplished and in control at the end of each day.

COMMON MISTAKES:

1.  There are two common mistakes high achievers make in addressing stress. The first is the failure to develop a strong table of resilience for when things go wrong. It is the mistake of putting all of one’s effort into a single area of life without actively developing other areas. For example, a person may put all of her time into her career or business. She may have social relationships but they may all be connected to the work setting. What do you think happens if the business fails or she gets laid off? Investing in social relationships improves both our ability to cope with stress and our ability to recover from it.

2. The second mistake is the failure to maintain buffer. Buffer is the amount of emotional energy in our reserves. How much more stress can you handle without screaming horrible things at your family, walking out on your job, or developing chronic headaches/stomach aches? The answer to that question tells you how much buffer you have. High achievers frequently assume that energy is limitless and that they can continue to max themselves out without consequences. “I’ll catch up on rest later.” This assumption can be reinforced by years of using one’s intellectual prowess to make everything work out. What is unseen is the accumulated physical toll of this strategy. The common physical symptoms in high achievers include digestive issues, increased stomach fat (resulting from increased cortisol), and muscular aches. High achievers tend to intellectualize emotions, and their bodies pay the price. Because of the tendency toward rationalizing and trying to work through difficulties at a cognitive level, high achievers often under-estimate the degree to which an issue may upset them.

STRATEGIES TO INCREASE BUFFER

  1. Accept that emotional energy is finite. The rest of the steps won’t matter until you have accomplished this. EVERYONE’S emotional energy is finite. I don’t care how intelligent or fabulous you are…it’s like gravity, denying it can result in some broken limbs.

2. Start paying attention to what decreases your emotional energy and what fuels it. It is especially helpful to know what drains and refuels your energy the most quickly. This strategy helps to maintain buffer and also helps to optimize resilience after stress.

3. Figure out the specific warning signs that alert you when you are close to flat-lining. I have clients who become tired or notice that they are not excited about anything. Other clients get headaches or find themselves more easily frustrated or irritable.

4. Take action BEFORE you bottom out. Many people spend a lot of time and financial resources trying to figure out physical symptoms that manifest after extended stress. Keeping enough buffer helps to prevent the health symptoms in the first place.

Accepting limitations and building buffer may be one of your greatest challenges. It requires checking your ego for the sake of long-term success. The sense of peace and balance that results is worth the pain of change.

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