Stress Management for the Holidays and Beyond
by Dawn Groves

The word "stress" conjures a variety of unpleasant images: workaholism, muscle pain, exhaustion, short temper, sleeplessness. Stress management rivals weight loss as topic du jour for magazines, newspapers, even books. As a result, now there's another familiar association to stress reduction: boredom. That's because despite the compelling new research about its long-term effects, the most effective tools to manage it haven't changed for eons! They are: 1) getting enough sleep, 2) eating healthful foods, 3) exercising regularly.

Go ahead, yawn. These topics are covered ad nauseam in just about every magazine. We already know they're important. So why don't we actually do them? We're bored. Most of us would prefer something more exotic or entertaining. We have self-improvement burn-out. Some of us have successfully changed a few habits; we're tired and that’s enough. We're impatient. We don't want to work with nature cause it’s too slow. We're waiting for the perfect time. We put off developing new habits until the holidays are over, classes are finished, bills are paid, etc. We don't like anything that’s too hard. We've lost touch with the value that comes from effort and we've gotten a little lazy.

Changing your lifestyle to reduce your stress level is no small task. However, we now know that it is more than just preferable or even important - it's crucial. Research clearly demonstrates that long term chronic stress emotionally and physically breaks us down. Our sleep cycle - the foundation of mental and physical health - is the first to go. Next comes an increased risk of bacterial infections, susceptibility to viruses, respiratory problems, and gastrointestinal problems, increased insulin levels causing fat deposits around your waist, increased risk of heart attack, insulin resistance and diabetes, high blood pressure and higher cholesterol levels. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 75 to 90 percent of all doctor visits are prompted by stress-related concerns.

Dharma Singh Khalsa, MD, president and medical director for The Alzheimer's Prevention Foundation International in Tucson, AZ, believes that current research supports a disturbing theory: ongoing elevated levels of cortisol can destroy optimal brain function and block memory. "This is why I believe that the inability to recall names, numbers, and memories, as people enter the baby-boom generation, is increasing," Dr. Khalsa writes. "While I used to see patients primarily in their sixties or seventies, now folks as young as fifty are requesting help from me."

Despite the overwhelming evidence that long-term stress is seriously bad for us, most of us still have a hard time changing our behavior. We can't scare ourselves into sustained healthy habits. So the question is, how can we motivate ourselves to change what we know needs changing? Buddhism may have an answer: It involves the conscious development of a mental state known as a "beginner's mind." A beginner's mind looks at old material with new eyes. It consciously sets aside the jaded, sophisticated, often cynical mind-set that dampens enthusiasm and devalues the tried and true. A beginner's mind understands that every day you are a different person. Today, this moment, old information can reach you in a new way, with greater depth and more power. A beginner's mind says, "There's more to this. Maybe there's something I've missed." Beginners mind is really an attitude. Because attitudes can be cultivated, even the most stressed psyche can find a way to open up to possibility. When it comes to stress reduction, a beginners mind is a great way to start.

Here are a few suggestions: * Use information to jumpstart motivation. Learn why you should reduce stress. The motivation it generates may not have staying power, but it can help jumpstart change. * Create a morning "wake-up" phrase. Positive self-talk is powerful. For example, you might say "I'm a different person today; I can walk a different path." * Take it one day at a time. Don't make this too complicated. Beginner's minds can't be forced; they must be nurtured and practiced. When you fall into old patterns, use a beginner's mind to view them from a new perspective. * Develop a daily meditation practice. Meditation is one of the best ways to grow a beginners mind because it places teaches you how to de emphasize the old mental tapes that drive unconscious behavior. Explore the meditation classes in your area and find a style that suits you. * Go into a situation intending to receive value from it. Remember that your attitude shapes intention and intention affects the outcome of a situation.

Dawn Groves is a minister, author and educator. She is also a keynote motivational speaker well known for her dynamic teaching style, warm presence, and accessible wisdom. She is author of the new book due to be released in February 2004 entitled: STRESS REDUCTION FOR BUSY PEOPLE: Finding Peace in an Anxious World (New World Library; $12.95; 1 800-972-6657 Ext. 52; www.newworldlibrary.com).