Successfully Calm

Stress is a fact of life — sometimes it’s even a useful stimulus. The trouble begins when stress shades into distress, which sparks everything from anger and depression to heart disease and chronic pain. (Studies even show that wounds heal more slowly in stressed people.)If something has to give, let it not be your health-far better to adjust your perspective and the way you are living your life. 

High achievers may ride the adrenaline high–but the healthiest among them find ways to get grounded. By Anne Glusker 

Town & Country | July 1, 2001

For many hyperfunctioning alpha types, the idea of a stress-free life is anathema. They equate freeing themselves from stress with a drastic downshifting–and they’re not quite ready to head off to the ashram. Nor can they conceive of making even moderate, though valuable, modifications to their lifestyle. Whether they realize it or not, they have become addicted to the highs of stress, and their health could ultimately suffer.

“Speed seems to be the only thing that matters in our culture, and that’s addictive,” says stress consultant Jim Loehr, cofounder of Orlando, Florida-based LGE Performance Systems. “People become addicted to competition, to the juices flowing. They don’t feel comfortable unless they’re always pumping.”

The dangers of this high-octane, running-on-adrenaline life are manifold. “When people get rolling at a certain speed, they really don’t care about family, about community, about colleagues at work,” says Loehr. “There’s no time for anything. You need to have times when you get depth of meaning, of value. To get any life-renewing energy, you have to stop this incredible speed and go about ten feet below the surface.”

For many high achievers, there comes a moment–of epiphany or of desperation–that leads them to begin managing the stress in their lives more masterfully. Sometimes a surprisingly small change makes a difference. Anne Hopkins, a New York-based magazine editor and mother of two children, says that her turning point came when she realized she should try limiting her to-do lists to three items. “My lists were stretching on endlessly, and rather than being a helpful tool, they were making me crazy. I think we lump a lot of unnecessary stress on ourselves by having unrealistic expectations. It’s turned out to be a surprisingly useful, calming technique. I’ve had to learn to prioritize better. And it’s great to feel that at the end of the day, you’ve accomplished what you set out to do.”

Entrepreneur and lawyer Robert Miller is now running a start-up health Web site. He started meditating on his own to alleviate stress, then discovered a guided-imagery meditation tape, “Your Present: A Half-Hour of Peace,” created by Susie Mantell, a stress consultant based in Chappaqua, New York (888-NOW-RELAX). “You rid your body of all this stuff that’s troubling you,” he says. “You feel your heart rate and breathing slow down. You can do it for a short time, then snap out of it and feel like you’ve taken an hour-long nap.”

Dan Brestle, a high-level executive at Estee Lauder, Inc., took a more radical approach to dealing with stress. When he discovered LGE, Jim Loehr’s consulting firm, nine years ago, Brestle decided to engage in the full-frontal attack–a strategy addressing mind, body, spirit and psyche–that Loehr advocates. LGE’s philosophy, explains Brestle, is that “you just can’t get rid of stress. Anybody who doesn’t have stress is dead! The trick is dealing with it. In order to do this, you have to be physically and mentally prepared to perform.”

To prepare yourself, says Loehr, who formerly practiced sports psychology, you have to train in much the same way an athlete does: by exercising (Brestle now gets to his gym daily at 5:30 A.M,), getting proper nutrition and enough sleep and, most important, taking time to recharge. “You have to oscillate between stress and recovery,” Loehr says. “If you can decompress quickly, you can dive back in and use that energy to expand your capacity. You have to be able to go and then let go.”