After 15 years of various corporate classes, seminars and workshops, I'm a bit jaded about the benefit of taking another. But the testimonials given for the Inner Quality Management class sounded sincere, and the goal of the course - improving our response to stress - sounded so much like what I needed right now, I decided to give one more a try.
As a perfectionist raised in a family where being smart, knowledgeable, and sarcastic were all rewarded, I tend to set high expectations for myself and for others around me. High expectations can lead to frequent disappointment. With a demanding job spanning half a dozen corporations trying to pull me in different directions, even the trivial annoyances of everyday life can create stress.
Our response to stress can make the difference between being healthy, and being sick. For this class, we considered what stress does to the body, how it disturbs the balance between brain, heart and body, and how we encode our pattern of responses into neurons. Just as we learned to walk without a second thought, our brains can say "You seem to be wanting to be angry all the time, here, let me make that normal for you." Discernment is a wonderful thing, but not if it's used to constantly measure against unattainable perfection, and to deprecate the result.
The other epiphany was that all the negative effects of stress accrue even when I'm "right." Righteous indignation has little or no effect on the instigator, but quite a bit on the holder.
The central focus of the class was a particular "1 minute power tool" for changing the effect stress has on us. By recognizing the internal symptoms of stress, stopping the action with a couple deep breaths and focus on the heart, changing the center of focus to a remembered peak experience, and re-engaging my higher brain function in the context of my core values, I can reduce the damage, and increase my chances of finding a productive solution.
Four months into it, I can tell you it works. At first, it seemed a little too easy, and I worried that the magic would wear off. In the first week, it easily reduced some seeming foothills to their genuine molehill status for me. Instead of getting "stressed out," I either just stepped over the annoyance, or, for the things that matter, worked to make progress toward solutions. Some of the magic did wear off, and I wasn't as diligent as their follow-up assignments asked me to be. But even when confronted with a genuinely big stressor, I had a new reflex: recognition that I needed to take a giant step to the side, and change my physiological response.
I'm reminded of the aphorism, "the best revenge is living well." The reverse is that the silliest response to someone or something threatening you is to hurt yourself in response. When you're stuck in "fight or flight," you're cut off from the human part of your brain, and disconnected from your core - your coeur. Trust me, getting reconnected feels better, and it works better.
You might have heard that you can't change other people, you can only change yourself. But we all have the power to persuade others, and our power is greatly enhanced if we stop our own battle between heart and mind.
If you're curious, and want to know more, have a look at the HeartMath website from the folks who put on the course I took.
© Copyright 1999 Tom von Alten
The original version of this column was published as "The Last Word" in the April 1999 BUUF News, the newsletter of the Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. Copying for non-commercial purposes, or by HeartMath is permitted as long as this notice is included.