Thursday, December 27, 2007

Our garden makeover

Renovating our garden was a huge challenge, especially for me a first-timer. But with a little research and a healthy dose of patience, flexibility, and elbow grease, I turned what was once a monstrous bare backyard made up of a huge pool and lots of grass into a garden we love — and had fun in the process.

With four children already out the house, I found that the pool maintenance was just not worth it as we rarely swan and wanted to change it from a kids’ hangout into a dream garden.

I poured through magazines and started making a scrapbook of all the gardens that I liked. Once I had settled on a design, I started sourcing contractors to do the major work. I draw up a scaled picture of what I thought the garden should look like and gave this to the various contractors.

I wanted a more appealing view and a more practical swimming pool and lots of greenery.

Before: Huge pool with grass on each side and nothing else Picture taken - 11/01/2004 Under my
watchful eye, and combined with all the ideas into a master plan. I engaged t services of a pool builder to break in the old pool and create a rock pool in the deep end of the old pool. They came there with jackhammers and dumpsters and broke down the old pool on the 01/06/2006.

After: now the garden is an oasis. I designed the pool

The whole garden makeover took three months from start to complete and I will show you some of the steps in the process. It is always a work in progress but it is now at the stage (1 year later) that it is exactly as I envisaged it from the first scratchy drawings.

Breaking down the old pool. No going back now


Building the retaining wall inside the old pool’s deep end


Putting in the steel re-enforcing


Cement sprayed into the shell

Pool taking shape and had to dry for a couple of weeks. Winter is our rainy season so the cement
took a long while to dry.

Rock features finished and first paint applied.

Laying out the garden.

Pool filled

Some of the plants going in. A lot of the plants were indigenous to South Africa. I also put it an irrigation system
which is fed from a borehole.

Another view of the first plantings

Pathways taking shape and the walls painted

Entrance to garden being constructed

Gazebo completed

Trompe L’Oeil painted on one wall

Now – One year later. Entrance to the garden

Now – One year later. Bird bath

Now – One year later. View of the grass area

Now – One year later. View of the grass area

Now – One year later. View of the gazebo

Now – One year later.
View of the pathway

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Sàmhach an Oidhch'

(Silent Night ) in Gaelic

Rann a h-aon (verse 1):

Sàmhach an oidhch', naomha an oidhch'
Saoghal 'na chadal; 's a-mach bho ar soills'
Moire is Iòseph an stàball fàs
Faire os cionn an Leinibh le gradh,
Cadal gu nèamhaidh sèimh,
Cadal gu nèamhaidh sèimh.

Rann a dha (verse 2):

Sàmhach an oidhch', naomha an oidhch'
Buachaillean chunnaic an solas le boillsg',
Chual' iad an t-òran bho ainglean na Glòir,
Fada is farsaing an naidheachd ro-mhór,
Crìosd am fear-saoraidh tha dlùth,
Crìosd am fear-saoraidh tha dlùth,

Rann a tri (verse 3):

Sàmhach an oidhch', naomha an oidhch'
Aon Mhac Dhé, saor bho fhoill,
Failte a' ghràidh anns an aghaidh cho caoin,
Latha nan gràs nis air tighinn duinn dlùth,
A Shlànaigheir, bhon thàinig Thu nuas,
A Shlànaigheir, bhon thàinig Thu nuas,

Sàmhach an oidhch', naomha an oidhch'
Saoghal 'na chadal; 's a-mach bho ar soills'
Moire is Iòseph an stàball fàs
Faire os cionn an Leinibh le gradh,
Cadal gu nèamhaidh sèimh,
Cadal gu nèamhaidh sèimh.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

What is Christmas?

Christmas is the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, who is considered the Son of God, and the savior of all people. With the birth of Christ, Christianity essentially begins; thus, Christmas also celebrates the beginning of Christianity.

Though Christmas is normally celebrated on the 25th of December, strong evidence suggests that Jesus may have in fact been born in the spring. Though many Christians date Christ’s birth as the end of the "Before Christ" or BC era, most believe Christ’s birth can actually be dated to 4 BC. This is a bit ironic, since the Christian era is thought to begin with the birth of Christ, but actually begins later.

Some of the images inexorably tied with Christmas are things like shepherds in the snow, and the fierce cold of a winter night when Jesus was born. This is an unlikely scenario, though it is quite possible that the Jews participating in the census and taxation were extremely crowded in Bethlehem.

Sextus Julius Africanus, a third century Christian missionary, is believed to have first espoused the theory of Christ’s birth as December 25th. This worked well when the Romans later largely converted to Christianity because Christmas could be tied to pagan winter rituals, making it more palatable. Historical records suggest some forms of Christmas celebrations dating back to the early 4th century CE.

Some, however, argued that Christmas should not be celebrated as a feast date, because of the divine nature of Christ. This position is still held by some minority Christian groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Though most see Jolly Old England as the source for many modern Christmas traditions, England actually banned celebration of Christmas from 1647-1660 in an effort to free the holiday of what was viewed as its pagan trappings and the excess and corruption of the Roman Catholic Church. This, however, was not a popular decision. England reinstated Christmas as a celebratory holiday, though tensions still ran high between the Anglican and the Roman Catholic Church.

Charles Dickens must be mentioned as inspiring many of the traditions we now regularly practice as part of Christmas celebrations. His phenomenal classic The Christmas Carol published in 1843 changed Christmas to a moderate, family oriented holiday. This differed from past celebrations which often verged on the anti-Christian, and which involved pursuing hedonism with graceless abandon.

Clement Clarke Moore’s 1822 poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” firmly established the Christmas/ Santa Claus connection. Actually many Christmas traditions are based in Germanic pagan rituals predating Christianity. Many consider Thor to be a frontrunner as an early Santa Claus figure, and the Christmas tree was once a sacrificial tree to the gods, hung brightly with dead animals.

Today, some argue, Christmas has been inexorably corrupted by the commercialism with which it has come to be associated. For the poor, it may well be a time when, to quote Dickens, “want is keenly felt.” Dickens uses this as an argument for practicing charity and “keeping Christmas in our hearts” on every day of the year.

However, it can be stated that for the many joyous family celebrations where poverty is not a factor, there are still many where poverty is felt at Christmas, and where families despair that there is not even money to give their children basic necessities as Christmas gifts. Such a thought is sobering when one ponders the Christian message as one of personal sacrifice, kindness to others, and loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Still, many Christians feel that even a Christmas with the overt trappings of commercialization has a special feeling that can only be attributed to faith. It can be a time to renew one’s faith, or merely come closer to the birth of a religion which sustains many. In touching on Christ’s message, even small children may begin to understand the sacred nature of Christmas to Christians.

Christmas Memories

Marie Williams

On a cold and misty morning,
As I gazed upon the tree,
Memories of Christmas past
Came flooding back to me ...

Childhood days of peace and joy
As Carolers sang their songs,
Knowing that, with happy hearts,
A new day soon would dawn!

And, with each passing hour,
Soon the Christmas bell would toll.
We'd gather round the Christmas tree
And listen, young and old,
As Dad would tell the story
Of our Savior's birth foretold ...

Born in a lowly manger,
Dressed in swaddling clothes.
Shepherds came from far away,
The Lord to see, they rode.

Traveling by stars at night,
Angelic hosts proclaimed
Hosanna to the king of kings.
We praise His holy name.

Of peace on earth ~ good will to man,
Lord, help us to renew.
The peace that we are looking for,
We'll only find in You.

I smile as I remember
Dad kneeling down to pray.
Lord, bless each and every one
that's kneeling here, today.

May the peace and joy of Christmas
be theirs the whole year through.
May they be a blessing as they are blessed.
May they be a light for You.

Now, Christmas time is drawing near
and all I ask of thee
Is 'help me spread some Christmas cheer
And maybe plant a seed'.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Stress Relief

Stress Relief:

Yoga, Meditation, and Other Relaxation Techniques

Stress Relief: Yoga, Meditation, and Other Relaxation Techniques

The body’s natural relaxation response is a powerful antidote to stress. Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, visualization, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, and yoga can help you activate this relaxation response. When practiced regularly, these activities lead to a reduction in your everyday stress levels. What’s more, they also serve a protective quality by teaching you how to stay calm and collected in the face of life’s curveballs.

The relaxation response

Whenever we encounter a stressful event, our bodies undergo a series of involuntary hormonal and biochemical changes. This automatic stress response, also called the fight-or-flight reaction, puts our bodies in alarm mode: heart rate speeds up, breath becomes shallow, muscles tense, and our digestive and immune systems temporarily shut down. The stress response is helpful in true emergency situations, but when it’s activated on a frequent basis it puts strain on both mind and body.

No one can avoid all stress, but you can counteract it by learning how to evoke the relaxation response, a state of deep rest that is the polar opposite of the stress response. The relaxation response brings your system back into balance, reducing stress hormones, slowing down your muscles and organs, and increasing blood flow to the brain.

When the relaxation response is activated:

  • Your heart rate decreases
  • Breathing becomes slower and deeper
  • Blood pressure drops or stabilizes
  • Your muscles relax

"Repeated activation of the relaxation response can reverse sustained problems in the body and mend the internal wear and tear brought on by stress."

Dr. Herbert Benson, Timeless Healing

In addition to its calming physical effects, research has shown that the relaxation response also increases energy and focus, combats illness, relieves aches and pains, heightens problem-solving abilities, and boosts motivation and productivity. Best of all, anyone can reap these benefits.

Relaxation techniques for stress relief

Many relaxation techniques can help you achieve the relaxation response. Those whose stress-busting benefits have been widely studied include deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, visualization, yoga, and tai chi.

Learning the basics of these relaxation techniques isn’t difficult. But it takes practice to truly harness their stress-relieving power: daily practice, in fact. Most stress experts recommend setting aside at least 10 to 20 minutes a day for your relaxation practice. If you’d like to get even more stress relief, aim for 30 minutes to an hour.

Keep in mind that there is no single relaxation technique that is best. Many techniques are effective, but only when practiced regularly: so choose a relaxation technique or combination of techniques that resonates with you and fits your lifestyle.

Starting a daily stress relief practice

The best way to start and maintain a daily stress relief practice is by incorporating it into your daily routine. Schedule a set time either once or twice a day for your relaxation practice. You may find that it’s easier to stick with your practice if you do it first thing in the morning, before other tasks and responsibilities get in the way.

All you need to start a relaxation practice are:

  • A quiet environment – Choose a secluded place in your home, office, garden, place of worship, or in the great outdoors where you can relax without distractions or interruptions.
  • A comfortable position – Get comfortable, but avoid lying down as this may lead to you falling asleep. Sit up with your spine straight, either in a chair or on the floor. You can also try a cross-legged or lotus position.
  • A point of focus – Pick a meaningful word or phrase and repeat it throughout your session. You may also to focus on an object in your surroundings to enhance your concentration, or alternately, you can close your eyes.
  • A passive attitude – Don’t worry about distracting thoughts that go through your mind or about how well you’re doing. If thoughts intrude during your relaxation session, don’t fight them. Instead, gently turn your attention back to your point of focus.

You can either stick to this straightforward relaxation exercise, or branch out into other relaxation techniques. Keep in mind that traditional relaxation techniques aren’t the only effective stress reducers. Spending time in nature, talking to a friend, listening to music, curling up with a good book, writing in a journal—anything that you find calming can relieve stress.

Deep breathing for stress relief

If you’d like to explore relaxation techniques, deep breathing is a good place to start, since it is used in many relaxation practices including yoga, meditation, and visualization. Deep breathing involves not only the lungs but also the abdomen, or diaphragm.

Most of us don’t breathe from the diaphragm. Instead, we take shallow breaths from our upper chests. When we’re stressed, our breath becomes even shallower. The problem is that shallow breathing limits the amount of oxygen we take in—which makes us feel even more tense, short of breath, and anxious. Deep breathing, on the other hand, encourages full oxygen exchange throughout the chest and lungs.

Chest Breathing vs. Abdominal Breathing

When you breathe from your chest, you inhale about a teacup of oxygen. Instead, you should breathe from your abdomen. When you breathe from your abdomen, you inhale about a quart of oxygen. The more oxygen you inhale, the better.

How you breathe also affects your nervous system. Chest breathing makes your brain create shorter, more restless brain waves. Abdominal breathing makes your brain create longer, slower brain waves. These longer and slower brain waves are similar to the ones your brain makes when you are relaxed and calm. So, breathing from the abdomen helps you relax quickly.

Source: University of Pittsburgh Medical Center

With its focus on full, cleansing breaths powered by the diaphragm, deep breathing can help you get your stress levels in check. The next time you feel uptight, try taking a minute to slow down and breathe deeply:

  • Sit comfortably with your back straight. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.
  • Breathe in through your nose. The hand on your stomach should rise. The hand on your chest should move very little.
  • Exhale through your mouth, pushing out as much air as you can while contracting your abdominal muscles. The hand on your stomach should move in as you exhale, but your other hand should move very little.
  • Continue to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Try to inhale enough so that your lower abdomen rises and falls. Count slowly as you exhale.

If you have a hard time breathing from your abdomen sitting up, lie on the floor, put a small book on your stomach, and try to breathe so that the book rises as you inhale and falls as you exhale. Breathing techniques can be practiced almost anywhere and can be combined with other relaxation exercises, such as aromatherapy and music. All you really need is a few minutes and a place to stretch out.

Progressive muscle relaxation for stress relief

Progressive muscle relaxation is another effective and widely used strategy for relieving stress. It involves a two-step process in which you systematically tense and relax different muscle groups in the body.

With regular practice, progressive muscle relaxation gives you an intimate familiarity with what tension—as well as complete relaxation—feels like in different parts of the body. This awareness helps you spot and counteract the first signs of the muscular tension that accompanies stress. And as your body relaxes, so will your mind. You can combine deep breathing with progressive muscle relaxation for an additional level of relief from stress.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation Sequence

  • Right foot
  • Left foot
  • Right calf
  • Left calf
  • Right thigh
  • Left thigh
  • Hips and buttocks
  • Stomach
  • Chest
  • Back
  • Right arm and hand
  • Left arm and hand
  • Neck and shoulders
  • Face

Most progressive muscle relaxation practitioners start at the feet and work their way up to the face. For a sequence of muscle groups to follow, see the box to the right:

  • Loosen your clothing, take off your shoes, and get comfortable.
  • Take a few minutes to relax, breathing in and out in slow, deep breaths.
  • When you’re relaxed and ready to start, shift your attention to your right foot. Take a moment to focus on the way it feels.
  • Slowly tense the muscles in your right foot, squeezing as tightly as you can. Hold for a count of 10.
  • Relax your right foot. Focus on the tension flowing away and the way your foot feels as it becomes limp and loose.
  • Stay in this relaxed state for a moment, breathing deeply and slowly.
  • When you’re ready, shift your attention to your left foot. Follow the same sequence of muscle tension and release.
  • Move slowly up through your body — legs, abdomen, back, neck, face — contracting and relaxing the muscle groups as you go.

Meditation for stress relief

Meditation has a long history in religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism. And while it is still widely used as a spiritual practice, it is also a powerful stress reliever. Meditation focuses the mind’s energy on a word, a sound, a symbol, a comforting image, or your own breathing. The goal is to produce a deep state of relaxation and tranquility while simultaneously enhancing mental focus. There are many types of meditation—both secular and sacred—so regardless of religious affiliation or beliefs, you can harness its stress-busting benefits.

Mindfulness meditation

Meditation that cultivates mindfulness is particularly effective at reducing stress, as well as anxiety, depression, and other negative emotions. Mindfulness is the quality of being fully engaged in the present moment, without analyzing or otherwise “over-thinking” the experience. Rather than worrying about the future or dwelling on the past, mindfulness meditation switches the focus to what’s happening right now.

The goal of mindfulness meditation is to develop a nonjudgmental, moment-to-moment awareness of what you’re experiencing: random thoughts, your passing emotions, the sensations of your body, sensory input from your surroundings. However, mindfulness meditation is not equal to zoning out. It involves a challenging balancing act between boredom and distraction. It takes effort to maintain your concentration and to bring it back to the present moment when your mind wanders or you start to drift off. But the very act of redirecting your attention is where the learning and growth occur.

With practice, mindfulness meditation teaches you to become acutely aware of your fluctuating emotions without reacting to them or letting negativity take over. For stress relief, try the following mindfulness techniques:

  • Body scan – Body scanning cultivates mindfulness by focusing your attention on various parts of your body. Like progressive muscle relaxation, you start with your feet and work your way up. However, instead of tensing and relaxing your muscles, you simply focus on the way each part of your body feels without labeling the sensations as either “good” or “bad”.
  • Walking meditation - You don’t have to be seated or still to meditate. In walking meditation, mindfulness involves being focused on the physicality of each step — the sensation of your feet touching the ground, the rhythm of your breath while moving, and feeling the wind against your face.
  • Mindful eating – If you reach for food when you’re under stress or gulp your meals down in a rush, try eating mindfully. Sit down at the table and focus your full attention on the meal (no TV, newspapers, or eating on the run). Eat slowly, taking the time to fully enjoy and concentrate on each bite.

Guided imagery

A variation of traditional meditation involves guided imagery or visualization. When used as a relaxation technique, guided imagery involves imagining a scene in which you feel at peace, free to let go of all tension and anxiety. Choose whatever setting is most calming to you, whether a tropical beach, a favorite childhood spot, or a quiet wooded glen. You can do this visualization exercise on your own, with a therapist’s help, or using an audio recording.

Close your eyes and let your worries drift away. Imagine your restful place. Picture all the details as vividly as you can—everything you can see, hear, smell, and feel. If your chosen spot is a dock on a quiet lake, visualize what it looks like as the sun sets over the water, the smell of the pine trees, the sound of the geese flying overhead, the taste of the clear country air, and the feel of the cool water on your bare feet.

Repetitive prayer

Monks are often the first thing that come to mind when we think of meditation, but any repetitive prayer—saying the rosary, repeating the Lord’s prayer, chanting a mantra—can clear the mind and elicit the relaxation response. Furthermore, you’ll be more motivated to maintain a meditation practice if you focus on a word or phrase that is deeply meaningful to you. If you’re religious, choose something rooted in that tradition (such as peace, om, The Lord is my shepherd, or shalom).

Exercise for stress relief

If you’re trying to reduce or relieve stress in your life, incorporate exercise into your routine. You can start with as little as 15 minutes, three times a week. But for optimal stress relief, try to build up to 30 minutes on most days.

Exercise relieves stress in several ways:

  • It allows the body to release tension and pent-up frustration.
  • It raises the output of endorphins, “feel-good” brain chemicals that ward off depression.
  • It decreases the output of stress hormones.
  • It helps you get better sleep.
  • It relaxes muscles and lowers your resting pulse rate.
  • It makes you feel better about yourself.

Ask your health care provider to recommend an exercise program that fits your needs, especially if you’re over 35. If you have heart problems, high blood pressure, or problems with your bones or joints, you should also seek advice from a doctor.

Any form of physical activity will help you burn off stress. However, certain activities not only relieve muscle tension but also activate the relaxation response. Such activities include yoga, tai chi, Qi gong, and repetitive exercises (e.g. walking, jogging, rowing, biking, and swimming).


There are many forms of yoga, but most Westerners practice hatha yoga, which focuses on the physical aspects of the discipline. Hatha yoga teaches you a series of stationary and moving poses called asanas and a form of breath control known as pranayama. Yoga trains you to build up a natural response to stress and bring the relaxed state more into your daily life.

Health benefits of yoga:

  • Relaxes the mind and body
  • Relieves muscle tension
  • Sharpens concentration
  • Increases body awareness
  • Improves flexibility and joint mobility
  • Strengthens and tones muscles

It’s healthy to challenge yourself in assuming yoga positions, but don’t extend yourself beyond what feels comfortable, and always back off of a pose at the first sign of pain. Since injuries can happen when yoga is practiced incorrectly, it’s best to learn by attending group classes at a yoga studio or hiring a private teacher.

Tai chi

Tai chi is a self-paced, non-competitive series of slow, flowing body movements that emphasize concentration, relaxation, and the conscious circulation of vital energy throughout the body. Though tai chi was first developed as a martial art during the 13th century, today it is primarily practiced as a way of calming the mind, conditioning the body, and reducing stress. As in meditation, tai chi practitioners focus on their breathing and keeping their attention in the present moment.

Tai chi is a safe, low-impact option for people of all ages and levels of fitness, including older adults and those recovering from injuries. Once you’ve learned the moves, you can practice it anywhere, at any time, by yourself, or with others.

Health benefits of tai chi:

  • Reduces stress
  • Boosts energy
  • Enhances well-being
  • Strengthens and tones muscles
  • Increases balance and coordination
  • Improves flexibility

Massage therapy for stress relief

A massage provides deep relaxation, and as the muscles in your body relax, so does your overstressed mind. According to the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA), the most common type of massage is Swedish massage, a soothing technique specifically designed to relax and energize. Another common type of massage is Shiatsu, also known as acupressure. In Shiatsu massage, therapists use their fingers to manipulate the body’s pressure points.

However, you don’t have to visit the spa to enjoy the benefits of massage. There are many simple self-massage techniques you can use to relax and release stress.

Self-Massage Techniques

Scalp Soother

Place your thumbs behind your ears while spreading your fingers on top of your head. Move your scalp back and forth slightly by making circles with your fingertips for 15-20 seconds.

Easy on the Eyes

Close your eyes and place your ring fingers directly under your eyebrows, near the bridge of your nose. Slowly increase the pressure for 5-10 seconds, then gently release. Repeat 2-3 times.

Sinus Pressure Relief

Place your fingertips at the bridge of your nose. Slowly slide your fingers down your nose and across the top of your cheekbones to the outside of your eyes.

Shoulder Tension Relief

Reach one arm across the front of your body to your opposite shoulder. Using a circular motion, press firmly on the muscle above your shoulder blade. Repeat on the other side.

Source: Northwestern Health Sciences University

Monday, December 10, 2007

Stress Management:

How to Reduce, prevent, and Cope with Stress

Emotionally Intelligent Communication

Emotionally Intelligent Communication

If you’re living with high levels of stress, you’re putting your entire well-being at risk. Stress wreaks havoc on your emotional equilibrium, as well as your physical health. It narrows your ability to think clearly, function effectively, and enjoy life.

The goal of stress management is to bring your mind and body back into balance. By adopting a positive attitude, learning healthier ways to cope, and changing the way you deal with stress, you can reduce its hold on your life.

Taking charge of stress

In our frenetic, fast-paced world, many people deal with frequent or even constant stress. The overextended working mother, the hard-charging “Type A” personality, the self-critical perfectionist, the chronic worrier: they’re always wound up, always stretched to the breaking point, always rushing around in a frenzy or juggling too many demands.

Operating on daily red alert comes at the high price of your health, vitality, and peace of mind. But while it may seem that there’s nothing you can do about your stress level—the bills aren’t going to stop coming, there will never be more hours in the day for all your errands, your career will always be demanding—you have a lot more control than you might think. In fact, the simple realization that you’re in control of your life is the foundation of stress management.

Managing stress is all about taking charge: taking charge of your thoughts, your emotions, your schedule, your environment, and the way you deal with problems. The ultimate goal is a balanced life, with time for work, relationships, relaxation, and fun—and the resilience to hold up under pressure and meet challenges head on.

How Resilient Are You?

Your ability to handle and bounce back from stress depends on many factors, including a:

  • Sense of control
  • Optimistic attitude
  • Strong support system
  • Healthy body
  • Ability to adapt to change
  • Ability to handle unpleasant emotions
  • Belief in a higher power or purpose
  • Confidence in yourself
  • Sense of humor

Stress management strategy #1: Avoid unnecessary stress

Not all stress can be avoided, and it’s not healthy to avoid a situation that needs to be addressed. You may be surprised, however, by the number of stressors in your life that you can eliminate.

  • Learn how to say “no” – Know your limits and stick to them. Whether in your personal or professional life, refuse to accept added responsibilities when you’re close to reaching them. Taking on more than you can handle is a surefire recipe for stress.
  • Avoid people who stress you out – If someone consistently causes stress in your life and you can’t turn the relationship around, limit the amount of time you spend with that person or end the relationship entirely.
  • Take control of your environment – If the evening news makes you anxious, turn the TV off. If traffic’s got you tense, take a longer but less-traveled route. If going to the market is an unpleasant chore, do your grocery shopping online.
  • Avoid hot-button topics – If you get upset over religion or politics, cross them off your conversation list. If you repeatedly argue about the same subject with the same people, stop bringing it up or excuse yourself when it’s the topic of discussion.
  • Pare down your to-do list – Analyze your schedule, responsibilities, and daily tasks. If you’ve got too much on your plate, distinguish between the “shoulds” and the “musts.” Drop tasks that aren’t truly necessary to the bottom of the list or eliminate them entirely.

Stress management strategy #2: Alter the situation

If you can’t avoid a stressful situation, try to alter it. Figure out what you can do to change things so the problem is avoided in the future. Often, this involves changing the way you communicate and operate in your daily life.

  • Express your feelings instead of bottling them up. If something or someone is bothering you, communicate your concerns in an open and respectful way. If you don’t voice your feelings, resentment will build and the situation will likely remain the same.
  • Be willing to compromise. When you ask someone to change their behavior, be willing to do the same. If you both are willing to bend at least a little, you’ll have a good chance of finding a happy middle ground.
  • Be more assertive. Don’t take a backseat in your own life. Deal with problems head on, doing your best to anticipate and prevent them. If you’ve got an exam to study for and your chatty roommate just got home, say up front that you only have five minutes to talk.
  • Manage your time better. Poor time management can cause a lot of stress. When you’re stretched too thin and running behind, it’s hard to stay calm and focused. But if you plan ahead, you can avoid these stress-inducing pitfalls.

Time management tips to reduce stress

Create a balanced schedule

All work and no play is a recipe for burnout. Try to find a balance between work and family life, social activities and solitary pursuits, daily responsibilities and downtime.

Don’t over-commit yourself

Avoid scheduling things back-to-back or trying to fit too much into one day. All too often, we underestimate how long things will take.

Prioritize tasks

Make a list of tasks you have to do, and tackle them in order of importance. Do the high-priority items first. If you have something particularly unpleasant to do, get it over with early. The rest of your day will be more pleasant as a result.

Break projects into small steps

If a large project seems overwhelming, make a step-by-step plan. Focus on one manageable step at a time, rather than taking on everything at once.

Delegate responsibility

You don’t have to do it all yourself, whether at home, school, or on the job. If other people can take care of the task, why not let them? Let go of the desire to control or oversee every little step. You’ll be letting go of unnecessary stress in the process.

Stress management strategy #3: Accept the things you can’t change

Some sources of stress are unavoidable. You can’t prevent or change stressors such as the death of a loved one, a serious illness, or a national recession. In such cases, the best way to cope with stress is to accept things as they are. Acceptance may be difficult, but in the long run, it’s easier than railing against a situation you can’t change.

  • Don’t try to control the uncontrollable. Many things in life are beyond our control— particularly the behavior of other people. Rather than stressing out over them, focus on the things you can control such as the way you choose to react to problems.
  • Look for the upside. As the saying goes, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” When facing major challenges, try to look at them as opportunities for personal growth. If your own poor choices contributed to a stressful situation, reflect on them and learn from your mistakes.
  • Share your feelings. Talk to a trusted friend or make an appointment with a therapist. Expressing what you’re going through can be very cathartic, even if there’s nothing you can do to alter the stressful situation.
  • Learn to forgive. Accept the fact that we live in an imperfect world and that people make mistakes. Let go of anger and resentments. Free yourself from negative energy by forgiving and moving on.

Stress management strategy #4: Adapt to the stressor

If you can’t change the stressor, change yourself. You can adapt to stressful situations and regain your sense of control by changing your expectations and attitude.

  • Reframe problems. Try to view stressful situations from a more positive perspective. Rather than fuming about a traffic jam, look at it as an opportunity to pause and regroup, listen to your favorite radio station, or enjoy some alone time.
  • Look at the big picture. Take perspective of the stressful situation. Ask yourself how important it will be in the long run. Will it matter in a month? A year? Is it really worth getting upset over? If the answer is no, focus your time and energy elsewhere.
  • Adjust your standards. Perfectionism is a major source of avoidable stress. Stop setting yourself up for failure by demanding perfection. Set reasonable standards for yourself and others, and learn to be okay with “good enough.”
  • Focus on the positive. When stress is getting you down, take a moment to reflect on all the things you appreciate in your life, including your own positive qualities and gifts. This simple strategy can help you keep things in perspective.

Adjusting Your Attitude

How you think can have a profound affect on your emotional and physical well-being. Each time you think a negative thought about yourself, your body reacts as if it were in the throes of a tension-filled situation. If you see good things about yourself, you are more likely to feel good; the reverse is also true. Eliminate words such as "always," "never," "should," and "must." These are telltale marks of self-defeating thoughts.

Source: National Victim Assistance Academy, U.S. Department of Justice

Stress reduction tips

Beyond a take-charge approach and a positive attitude, you can reduce stress in your life by making healthy lifestyle choices and taking care of yourself. If you regularly make time for rest and relaxation, you’ll be in a better place to handle life’s stressors when they inevitably come.

Nurture yourself

Don’t get so caught up in the hustle and bustle of life that you forget to take care of your own needs. Nurturing yourself is a necessity, not a luxury.

  • Set aside relaxation time. Include rest and relaxation in your daily schedule. Don’t allow other obligations to encroach. This is your time to take a break from all responsibilities and recharge your batteries.
  • Connect with others. Spend time with positive people who enhance your life. A strong support system will buffer you from the negative effects of stress.
  • Do something you enjoy every day. Make time for leisure activities that bring you joy, whether it be stargazing, playing the piano, or working on your bike.
  • Keep your sense of humour. This includes the ability to laugh at yourself. The act of laughing helps your body fight stress in a number of ways.

Healthy stress reducers

  • Go for a walk.
  • Spend time in nature.
  • Talk to a supportive friend.
  • Sweat out tension with a good workout.
  • Do something for someone else.
  • Write in your journal.
  • Take a long bath.
  • Play with a pet.
  • Work in your garden.
  • Get a massage.
  • Curl up with a good book.
  • Take a yoga class.
  • Listen to music.
  • Watch a comedy.

Adopt a healthy lifestyle

  • Exercise regularly. Physical activity plays a key role in reducing and preventing the effects of stress. Make time for at least 30 minutes of exercise, three times per week. Nothing beats aerobic exercise for releasing pent-up stress and tension.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Well-nourished bodies are better prepared to cope with stress, so be mindful of what you eat. Start your day right with breakfast, and keep your energy up and your mind clear with balanced, nutritious meals throughout the day.
  • Reduce caffeine and sugar. The temporary "highs" caffeine and sugar provide often end in with a crash in mood and energy. By reducing the amount of coffee, soft drinks, chocolate, and sugar snacks in your diet, you’ll feel more relaxed and you’ll sleep better.
  • Avoid alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs. Self-medicating with alcohol or drugs may provide an easy escape from stress, but the relief is only temporary. Don’t avoid or mask the issue at hand; deal with problems head on and with a clear mind.
  • Get enough sleep. Adequate sleep fuels your mind, as well as your body. Feeling tired will increase your stress because it may cause you to think irrationally

Making a stress management plan

Stress management starts with identifying the sources of stress in your life. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Your true sources of stress aren’t always obvious, and it’s all too easy to overlook your own stress-inducing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Sure, you may know that you’re constantly worried about work deadlines. But maybe it’s your procrastination, rather than the actual job demands, that leads to deadline stress.

Look closely at your habits, attitude, and excuses. Do you explain away stress as temporary (“I just have a million things going on right now”) even though you can’t remember the last time you took a breather? Do you define stress as an integral part of your work or home life (“Things are always crazy around here”) or as a part of your personality (“I have a lot of nervous energy, that’s all”). Do you blame your stress on other people or outside events, or view it as entirely normal and unexceptional? Until you accept responsibility for the role you play in creating or maintaining it, your stress level will remain outside your control.

Start a stress journal

A stress journal can help you identify the regular stressors in your life and the way you deal with them. Each time you feel stressed, keep track of it in your journal.

Write down:

  • What caused your stress (make a guess if you’re unsure).
  • How you felt, both physically and emotionally.
  • How you acted in response.
  • What you did to cope or feel better.

Putting your worries on paper has a marvelous way of clarifying things. As you keep a daily log, you will begin to see patterns and common themes. Your journal may help you see that you don’t really have that much to worry about, or it may bring overlooked problems to light. Whatever your discoveries, your stress journal should help you establish a plan for moving forward.

Evaluate your coping strategies

Think about the ways you cope with stress. Your stress journal can help you identify them. Are your coping strategies healthy or unhealthy, helpful or unproductive? Unfortunately, many people cope with stress in ways that compound the problem. These coping strategies may temporarily reduce stress, but they cause more damage in the long run.

Unhealthy ways of coping with stress

  • Smoking
  • Self-medicating with alcohol or drugs
  • Using sleeping pills or tranquilizers to relax
  • Overeating or eating too little
  • Sleeping too much
  • Procrastinating
  • Withdrawing from friends, family, and activities
  • Filling up every minute of the day to avoid facing problems

If your methods of coping with stress aren’t contributing to your greater emotional and physical health, it’s time to find ones that do.

Learn positive ways to deal with stress

There are many healthy ways to reduce stress or cope with its effects, but they all require change. You can either change the situation or change your reaction. When deciding which option to choose, it’s helpful to think of the four As: avoid, alter, accept, or adapt.

Since everyone has a unique response to stress, there is no “one size fits all” solution to managing it. No single method works for everyone or every situation, so experiment with different techniques and strategies. Focus on what makes you feel calm and in control.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Understand Stress

We all face different challenges and obstacles, and sometimes the pressure is hard to handle. When we feel overwhelmed, under the gun, or unsure how to meet the demands placed on us, we experience stress. In small doses, stress can be a good thing. It can give you the push you need, motivating you to do your best and to stay focused and alert. Stress is what keeps you on your toes during a presentation at work or drives you to study for your midterm when you'd rather be watching TV. But when the going gets too tough and life's demands exceed your ability to cope, stress becomes a threat to both your physical and emotional well-being.

What is stress?

Stress is a psychological and physiological response to events that upset our personal balance in some way. When faced with a threat, whether to our physical safety or emotional equilibrium, the body's defenses kick into high gear in a rapid, automatic process known as the “fight-or-flight” response. We all know what this stress response feels like: heart pounding in the chest, muscles tensing up, breath coming faster, every sense on red alert.

The Body’s Stress Response

The “fight-or-flight” stress response involves a cascade of biological changes that prepare us for emergency action. When danger is sensed, a small part of the brain called the hypothalamus sets off a chemical alarm. The sympathetic nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol. These stress hormones race through the bloodstream, readying us to either flee the scene or battle it out.

Heart rate and blood flow to the large muscles increase so we can run faster and fight harder. Blood vessels under the skin constrict to prevent blood loss in case of injury, pupils dilate so we can see better, and our blood sugar ramps up, giving us an energy boost and speeding up reaction time. At the same time, body processes not essential to immediate survival is suppressed. The digestive and reproductive systems slow down, growth hormones are switched off, and the immune response is inhibited.

The biological stress response is meant to protect and support us. It’s what helped our stone age ancestors survive the life-or-death situations they commonly faced. But in the modern world, most of the stress we feel is in response to psychological rather than physical threats. Caring for a chronically-ill child or getting audited by the IRS qualifies as stressful situations, but neither calls for either fight or flight. Unfortunately, our bodies don't make this distinction. Whether we’re stressed over a looming deadline, an argument with a friend, or a mountain of bills, the warning bells ring. And just like a caveman confronting a sabertooth tiger, we go into automatic overdrive.

If you have a lot of responsibilities and worries, you may be running on stress a good portion of the time—launching into emergency mode with every traffic jam, phone call from the in-laws, or segment of the evening news. But the problem with the stress response is that the more it’s activated, the harder it is to shut off. Instead of leveling off once the crisis has passed, your stress hormones, heart rate, and blood pressure remain elevated.

Furthermore, extended or repeated activation of the stress response takes a heavy toll on the body. Prolonged exposure to stress increases your risk of everything from heart disease, obesity, and infection to anxiety, depression, and memory problems. Because of the widespread damage it can cause, it’s essential to learn how to deal with stress in a more positive way and reduce its impact on your daily life.

Signs and symptoms of stress

To get a handle on stress, you first need to learn how to recognize it in yourself. Stress affects the mind, body, and behavior in many ways— all directly tied to the physiological changes of the fight-or-flight response. The specific signs and symptoms of stress vary widely from person to person. Some people primarily experience physical symptoms, such as low back pain, stomach problems, and skin outbreaks. In others, the stress pattern centers around emotional symptoms, such as crying jags or hypersensitivity. For still others, changes in the way they think or behave predominates.

The following table lists some of the common warning signs and symptoms of stress. Use it to identify the symptoms you typically experience when you’re under stress. If you know your red flags, you can take early steps to deal with the stressful situation before it—or your emotions—spiral out of control.

Stress Warning Signs and Symptoms

Cognitive Symptoms

Emotional Symptoms

  • Memory problems
  • Indecisiveness
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Trouble thinking clearly
  • Poor judgment
  • Seeing only the negative
  • Anxious or racing thoughts
  • Constant worrying
  • Loss of objectivity
  • Fearful anticipation
  • Moodiness
  • Agitation
  • Restlessness
  • Short temper
  • Irritability, impatience
  • Inability to relax
  • Feeling tense and “on edge”
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Sense of loneliness and isolation
  • Depression or general unhappiness

Physical Symptoms

Behavioral Symptoms

  • Headaches or backaches
  • Muscle tension and stiffness
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Nausea, dizziness
  • Insomnia
  • Chest pain, rapid heartbeat
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Skin breakouts (hives, eczema)
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Frequent colds
  • Eating more or less
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Isolating yourself from others
  • Procrastination, neglecting responsibilities
  • Using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax
  • Nervous habits (e.g. nail biting, pacing)
  • Teeth grinding or jaw clenching
  • Overdoing activities (e.g. exercising, shopping)
  • Overreacting to unexpected problems
  • Picking fights with others

Keep in mind that the signs and symptoms of stress can also be caused by other psychological and medical problems. If you’re experiencing any of the warning signs of stress, it’s important to see a doctor for a full evaluation. Your doctor can help you determine whether or not your symptoms are stress-related.

Causes of stress

Top Ten Stressful Life Events

  1. Spouse’s death
  2. Divorce
  3. Marriage separation
  4. Jail term
  5. Death of a close relative
  6. Injury or illness
  7. Marriage
  8. Fired from job
  9. Marriage reconciliation
  10. Retirement

Source: Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory

The potential causes of stress are numerous and highly individual. What you consider stressful depends on many factors, including your personality, general outlook on life, problem-solving abilities, and social support system. Something that's stressful to you may not faze someone else, or they may even enjoy it. For example, your morning commute may make you anxious and tense because you worry that traffic will make you late. Others, however, may find the trip relaxing because they allow more than enough time and enjoy listening to music while they drive.

The pressures and demands that cause stress are known as stressors. We usually think of stressors as being negative, such as an exhausting work schedule or a rocky relationship. However, anything that forces us to adjust can be a stressor. This includes positive events such as getting married or receiving a promotion. Regardless of whether an event is good or bad, if the adjustment it requires strains our coping skills and adaptive resources, the end result is stress.

Major life changes

Major life events are stressors. Whether it be a divorce, a child leaving home, a planned pregnancy, a move to a new town, a career change, graduating from college, or a diagnosis of cancer, the faster or more dramatic the change, the greater the strain. Furthermore, the more major life changes you’re dealing with at any one time, the more stress you’ll feel.

Daily hassles and demands

While major life changes are stressful, they are also relative rarities. After all, it’s not every day that you file for divorce or have a baby. However, you may battle traffic, argue with your family members, or worry about your finances on a daily basis. Because these small upsets occur so regularly, they end up affecting us the most.

Daily causes of stress include:

  • Environmental stressors – Your physical surroundings can set off the stress response. Examples of environmental stressors include an unsafe neighborhood, pollution, noise (sirens keeping you up at night, a barking dog next door), and uncomfortable living conditions. For people living in crime-ridden areas or war-torn regions, the stress may be unrelenting.
  • Family and relationship stressors – Problems with friends, romantic partners, and family members are common daily stressors. Marital disagreements, dysfunctional relationships, rebellious teens, or caring for a chronically-ill family member or a child with special needs can all send stress levels skyrocketing.
  • Work stressors – In our career-driven society, work can be an ever-present source of stress. Work stress is caused by things such as job dissatisfaction, an exhausting workload, insufficient pay, office politics, and conflicts with your boss or co-workers.
  • Social stressors – Your social situation can cause stress. For example, poverty, financial pressures, racial and sexual discrimination or harassment, unemployment, isolation, and a lack of social support all take a toll on daily quality of life.

Internal Causes of Stress

Not all stress is caused by external pressures and demands. Your stress can also be self-generated. Internal causes of stress include:

  • Uncertainty or worries
  • Pessimistic attitude
  • Self-criticism
  • Unrealistic expectations or beliefs
  • Perfectionism
  • Low self-esteem
  • Excessive or unexpressed anger
  • Lack of assertiveness

Risk factors for stress

The presence of a stressor doesn’t automatically result in disabling stress symptoms. The degree to which any stressful situation or event impacts your daily functioning depends partly on the nature of the stressor itself and partly on your own personal and external resources.

Stress: How vulnerable are you?

The nature of the stressor

Stressors that involve central aspects of your life (your marriage, your job) or are chronic issues (a physical handicap, living from paycheck to paycheck) are more likely to cause severe distress.

A crisis experience

Sudden, intense crisis situations (being raped, robbed at gunpoint, or attacked by a dog) are understandably overwhelming. Without immediate intervention and treatment, debilitating stress symptoms are common.

Multiple stressors or life changes

Stressors are cumulative, so the more life changes or daily hassles you're dealing with at any one time, the more intense the symptoms of stress.

Your perception of the stressor

The same stressor can have very different effects on different people. For example, public speaking stresses many out, but others thrive on it. Additionally, if you’re able to see some benefit to the situation—the silver lining or a hard lesson learned—the stressor is easier to swallow.

Your knowledge and preparation

The more you know about a stressful situation, including how long it will last and what to expect, the better able you’ll be to face it. For example, if you go into surgery with a realistic picture of what to expect post-op, a painful recovery will be less traumatic than if you were expecting to bounce back immediately.

Your stress tolerance

Some people roll with the punches, while others crumble at the slightest obstacle or frustration. The more confidence you have in yourself and your ability to persevere, the better able you’ll be to take a stressful situation in stride.

Your support network

A strong network of supportive friends and family members is an enormous buffer against life’s stressors. But the more lonely or isolated you are, the higher your risk of stress.

Effects of chronic stress

Chronic stress wears you down day after day and year after year, with no visible escape. Under sustained or severe stress, even the most well-adjusted person loses the ability to adapt. When stress overwhelms our coping resources, our bodies and minds suffer.

Health effects

Recent research suggests that anywhere from 60 to 90 percent of illness is stress-related. The physical wear and tear of stress includes damage to the cardiovascular system and immune system suppression. Stress compromises your ability to fight off disease and infection, throws your digestive system off balance, makes it difficult to conceive a baby, and can even stunt growth in children.

Stress and Your Health

Many medical conditions are caused or exacerbated by stress, including:

  • Chronic pain
  • Migraines
  • Ulcers
  • Heartburn
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Asthma
  • PMS
  • Obesity
  • Infertility
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Skin problems

Emotional effects

Chronic stress grinds away at your mental health, causing emotional damage in addition to physical ailments. Long-term stress can even rewire the brain, leaving you more vulnerable to everyday pressures and less able to cope. Over time, stress can lead to mental health problems such as:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • eating disorders, and
  • substance abuse.

Severe stress and trauma

Severe stress reactions can result from sudden, catastrophic events or traumatic experiences such as a natural disaster, sexual assault, life-threatening accident, or participation in combat. After the initial shock and emotional fallout, many trauma victims gradually begin to recover from its effects. But for some people, the stress symptoms don't go away, the body doesn’t regain its equilibrium, and life doesn’t return to normal. This severe and persisting reaction to trauma is known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Common symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, or nightmares about the trauma
  • Avoidance of places and things associated with the trauma
  • Hypervigilance for signs of danger
  • Chronic irritability and tension
  • Depression.

PTSD is a serious disorder that requires professional intervention.

Next blog : Managing stress and its symptoms