The Upside to Stress: There's No Escaping Everyday Anxiety-So Harness It

By Ostdick, John H. | Success, May 2014 | Go to article overview

The Upside to Stress: There's No Escaping Everyday Anxiety-So Harness It


Ostdick, John H., Success


The Stress Queen, as Martha Stewart once christened her, is having an incredibly volatile week, even by her standards.

Kathleen Hall, Ph.D., a former Wall Street trader turned stress-management and mindful-living maven, is in the editing stages of her latest book, Mindful Living Everyday (Oak Haven Press, 2014). She's also juggling several other projects and running her companies amid a late-January Atlanta ice storm that paralyzes the city.

Among the thousands trapped by the storm, her assistant huddles in a car in a parking lot for 25 hours without food or adequate warm clothing (911 is overwhelmed and nonresponsive), her physician husband toils away at a local hospital that can't get all the supplies it needs because of iced-over roads, and a physician daughter is waylaid by the storm on her way to the hospital to help care for the injured. To top it off, Hall falls on the ice while trying to render aid to her assistant, doing a number on her head and taking some skin off her face--which triggers post-traumatic stress syndrome symptoms from a 2009 accident.

Yet in our conversation, although she speaks quickly, her voice is calm and measured.

"It is insane here right now," says the founder of The Stress Institute and the Mindful Living Network, and author of Alter Your Life: Overbooked? Overworked? Overwhelmed? (Oak Haven, 2005) and two other related books. "All you hear are emergency vehicles and helicopters, and nothing is moving."

Hall manages days like this just as she has learned to handle any other.

"This is where we talk about perception of stress, and how it is managed," she says. "Stress is information. It's neutral, not bad or good. Too many people teach people to just get rid of it. There are so many layers of stress. I teach my people to be curious about it and not think about it as negative. Be curious. I put all of the things going on in a file in my mind, so I don't get overwhelmed."

She also has a more physical approach that mirrors her thought processes. "I keep a separate labeled bag in my office for each of my projects, my companies, the two books I'm working on, client projects. If someone calls about a topic, I reach for that bag and work from there. I'm never rifling through papers. I'm never stressed."

Stressing the Essentials

According to the American Psychological Association's 2013 "Stress in America" survey, stress keeps more than 40 percent of adults lying awake at night. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (part of the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) estimates that stress-related ailments cost companies about $200 billion a year in increased absenteeism, tardiness and the loss of talented workers. Between 70 and 90 percent of employee hospital visits are linked to stress, and job tension is directly tied to a lack of productivity and loss of competitive edge, the institute reports.

Stress is a natural human reaction, however. When we perceive a threat, the nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones rouse the body for emergency action. The heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens and senses become sharper. These physical changes increase strength and stamina, speed reaction time, and enhance focus--preparing us to either fight or flee from the danger at hand.

When she worked on Wall Street, Hall became fascinated with all the "guys buying Porsches, going through marriages, drinking themselves to death, plates of cocaine at night when we'd go out. I saw what stress was doing to them."

"Then I met Warren Buffett and some other illustrious people.... They were experiencing more stress than these jokers, but were disciplined, blissful, happy. [PBS journalist] Bill Moyers was in New York doing some work with healing and the mind at the time, and he said, 'This is the future. …

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