Ask Dr. Debra
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At this time of year, magazines start running
articles on dealing with holiday stress, a very worthwhile topic.
These articles discuss simplifying the holidays and doing as much
planning and work in advance - both useful for managing holiday
stress. But this column is not going to be like the traditional ones
you read in December.
I had an experience recently that prompted me to write this article,
using my own situation as a teaching tool for stress management,
both during the holiday time and throughout the rest of the year.
On my way to a consulting job in Hollywood, I received a call asking
why I wasn't at the seminar I thought I was going to be teaching the
NEXT week. Fifty people had been waiting for me for 20 minutes, and
the manager was IRATE!
Guess what my topic was? Stress Management.
I was horrified! I couldn't believe I'd mixed up the date. I was
also ashamed. It's not like me to make mistakes like this, and I
hadn't even studied the material I'd be presenting for four hours.
Shaken, on the verge of tears, I called to cancel the Hollywood job.
Luckily there were others there who could take my place. I turned
around and headed home to pick up the PowerPoint program and the
training and student manuals.
I called the irate manager (who by then had calmed down a bit) and
profusely apologized. I told him I'd be there in about 45 minutes. I
was a little relieved to learn they could move a part of their
program that was supposed to come after my talk into the morning.
The audience members weren't twiddling their thumbs waiting for me
to show up.
I was also upset because this was only the second job I'd done for
this consulting company, and I figured I'd just blown the
opportunity for future work.
On the race back to my house and then to the site, I knew I'd have
to apply all the stress-reduction techniques I was scheduled to
teach my students or I'd arrive at the hotel a frazzled mess and
lose any credibility I had left. Plus, I knew I'd potentially
alienated everyone who'd be listening to me, and I'd have a lot of
ground to regain - not something I'd be able to do if I was anxious
Here's what I did to decrease my stress level:
1. I began to take deep, centering breaths. Centering
breaths are when you breathe to the bottom of your lungs, pushing
your belly out when you inhale, and pulling your belly in when you
2. I prayed. I knew I needed all the help I could get, so
I asked for divine guidance for this situation to turn out in a
3. I began to list what I had control over and what I didn't
have control of.
* Have control over going back in time and fixing my mistake.
* Have control over the traffic.
* Have control over what was happening at the hotel, and what the
people involved currently were feeling or thinking about me.
* Have control over the fact that I hadn't even glanced at the
* Have control over my attitude - negative or positive thoughts.
* Have control over my body - taking deep breaths.
* Have control over remaining panicked or preparing myself to teach
a class by deciding what to do, how I could use what I already knew
about the topic along with what was in the actual program from my
4. I focused on letting go of the circumstances I didn't have
control over and concentrated on what I did have control over.
Letting go meant not dwelling on them and especially not magnifying
the negative situation by building up more fearful fantasies in my
By doing these four steps, I became more (although not completely)
relaxed, and my mind started working on creative solutions. I was
able to gear up my energy, knowing I had to go in and give the best
teaching performance of my life. So when I arrived at the hotel, an
hour and 15 minutes after I was supposed to have started my
presentation, I was ready to hit my mark.
And I did.
What followed was an amazing experience, one that taught me more
than I taught my class. I walked in, apologized publicly to the
audience, and used my own example - what happened, all my reactions,
and how I handled them - as the opening to the class. They were
laughing and relating, and in five minutes, I knew I had them
hooked. Even the manager (who'd greeted me politely, but had
silently made it clear that he was mad) relaxed his stiff body
language and joined in the laughter.
So I relaxed, too. I put the negative experience behind me and rode
the wave of laughter into a positive, energy-filled presentation. I
was able to navigate through the material, maybe not the way I would
have if I'd been prepared, but in a way that still worked. And we
ended up having fun. They were a close-knit group with a sarcastic
sense of humor, and that helped. We laughed a lot.
At the end, when we were discussing how to learn from our mistakes,
I again used myself as an example. "One," I said, "was that I'd
learned to triple-check future speaking engagement dates. But two
was that I have learned I can make a spectacular mistake, be VERY
upset about it, yet meet the challenge and turn it around. How
valuable is that to know about myself?" As I was speaking, I could
feel the positive boost I'd given to my self-esteem. And I laughed
and told the class, "I'll have to fill out an evaluation form for
The class evaluations came back very positive, and my consulting
company was very pleased.
What a lesson. (One I'd prefer not to have to learn again.) I'd
stepped up to a challenge and mastered it. If I'd given up and
avoided the situation, this experience would be forever branded in
my consciousness as a shameful failure. But instead, I have a
positive experience that I can always use to motivate myself when
I'm confronted with a new challenge.
So, as the holidays approach and you're dealing with challenging
situations, remember to take deep breaths, pray, decide what you
have control over and what you don't, then release the anxiety about
what you have no control over. Focus on the positive - especially
love and gratitude for all the wonderful people and things you have
in your life.
I hope your holidays are relaxed, filled with special family and
friends, laughter, love, and joy.
Feel free to
me with your questions.
Debra Holland, Ph.D., is a licensed psychotherapist who
specializes in relationships and communication techniques.
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