How I Learned Living With Less Stress Was a Choice.
I’ve always experienced a lot of stress. As a shy girl I hid behind my mother, blushed bright red when called on in class, and had many skin issues (triggered by stress). The transformative experience in my life was learning how to live with less stress and not let stress rob me of joy. That experience led to my second professional career.
My evolution to living with less stress was a sudden then gradual turn of events. In 2001 after nearly three years as a primary school principal, I was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer. I was a workaholic leading up to that diagnosis and had let go of many healthy practices as I allowed this beloved job to overtake my life. I didn’t get enough sleep. I ate too much junk food. I stopped exercising regularly. I lost some important friendships.
This was the first time I saw my stress as my choice. I recognized that I could make changes to my life that would enable me to live less stressfully. I worked on not taking things personally, gaining skill in having difficult conversations, eating healthier, and fitting walks into my work week. While I managed to lessen my stress by about 30%, I still experienced more than I wanted.
In 2009 I retired from a 37-year career in education and simultaneously began my coaching business. Three years earlier, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation offered a grant for school principals to become coaches. I jumped at the opportunity which gave me the preparation I needed to enact my post-principal plan without delay. Once I began my new endeavor, I attracted business owners and dove into coaching them. I started writing a blog to share all I was learning. This led to my first award-winning book: Less Stress Business: A Guide to Hiring, Coaching, and Leading Great Employees. My book lays out seven practices that contribute to leadership stress with tips and tools for how leaders can get better in these areas, so their stress lessens.
One early challenge as I entered the coaching world was to make the shift from education to business. I was surprised by the similarities between the role of a school principal and the role of a business owner. While principals don’t focus on making a profit, we did have many other challenging areas in common: having difficult conversations, hiring and firing, and delegating. When I started accepting speaking engagements for my first book, I needed to learn how to shift from sounding like an educator to sounding like a business owner. I hired a coach to help me. Yes, coaches need coaches!
In 2014, as I was finishing my first book, I received my second cancer diagnosis of Stage 3 Melanoma. I was terrified when one small spot on my forehead, at the base of my hairline, grew to a community of spots covering the center of my scalp in about three week’s time. I joined a clinical trial at NYU and received immunotherapy treatment which miraculously made my melanoma disappear (and my hair along with it).
Three years later, I was still feeling more stress than I wanted. Sitting at my computer one day I came up with an idea to challenge myself for one year to look for a moment of stress each day. Then, in the midst of the stressful moment, I would challenge myself to think or behave in a new (and calmer) way. I kept a journal of these moments which later became many of the stories in my second book: Less Stress Life: How I Went from Crazed to Calm and You Can Too.
As I was finishing this book, and thinking my cancer experiences were behind me, I was blindsided when pain in my ribs turned out to be metastatic breast cancer. I’ve now had 60 chemo treatments, have lost my hair again (but am sporting an awesome wig). People say all kinds of strange things to cancer folks, but my favorite comment so far came from a friend’s husband. Seeing me at a local theater event he said, “You do the best imitation of a healthy person that I know!” And that’s my goal: to live as healthy, positive, hopeful, and joyful life as I can.
My biggest lesson so far is that a stress-free life is not an option. Stress will always come our way like the waves in the ocean. What is optional is how we choose to handle it.
My journey has led me to feeling more at peace that ever before. Since stress is contagious, I’m aware that my calm presence (plus my coaching and writing) spreads to those in my life and helps them to live with less stress too.
My speaking engagements have been a high point for me since I’m passionate about helping others live with less stress. At my most recent event an audience member confirmed that I’m on the right track when she told me, “I loved your talk because it was both deep and practical.”
I also enjoy seeing the transformations my coaching clients make as we work together to uncover their stress and rewire their brains to develop new ways of thinking and behaving. I’ve surveyed my clients and found that I help them reduce their stress by up to 75% in six months of coaching.
But we all have our low points and I’ve had mine too. I’ve had that moment of feeling “I’m not worthy” when I was about to publish my second book. Brené Brown’s latest book had just been released and I was moved by her writing as always. My self-image as a writer is shaky at best, but I started to compare my writing to Brené’s. I thought, “I can’t publish my book. It’s not nearly as deep, well-researched, or powerful as hers.” Thankfully I’ve learned to talk back to myself in these vulnerable moments. After a day spent drowning in self-doubt, I said to myself, “You are not Brené Brown. And you have important lessons and ideas about stress that can only come from you.” When I shared these thoughts with my son, he reminded me that my writing is much less wordy than Brene’s and that there are readers who prefer writing that is more succinct. So, I took a deep breath and stayed on my path to publishing my book.
Oh, and another low point was having an article rejected by The New York Times!
Every human being needs a sense of purpose; it’s essential to living a happy and fulfilled life. It can be challenging to figure this out on your own. If someone is having a hard time knowing her purpose, I’d recommend a few sessions with a credentialed coach to help. I’ve coached many women on career changes and find it’s extremely helpful to return to childhood passions to get in touch with your current passions. There is often a connection between our childhood loves (or challenges) to our adult passions.
I’m still immersed in sharing my second book, Less Stress Life, with audiences and readers. At the request of one reader I’ve developed a new talk, based on one of the stories in the book, titled: How to Have Political Conversations without Indigestion. I can’t think of a better time to share this talk with audiences!
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from my life is to stay open to all possibilities. Your path in life may not be a straight line but more of a zig zag. You may end up doing things you haven’t even envisioned. Early on in my career, I had a wonderful mentor, Mary Lee Fitzgerald. She was principal of the school where I taught for seven years. She championed me at every turn and encouraged me to go to graduate school. I now have two Masters Degrees, thanks to Mary Lee seeing something in me that I didn’t see. Graduate school wasn’t even on my radar; nor was coaching!
I’ve also learned that it’s up to me to manage my stress. It doesn’t help to blame the driver who cut me off, the airline security line that was too long, or even the shocking diagnosis of cancer. When I learn to spot my stress and respond in new ways I am empowered. That thinking leads to remembering that it’s my choice to respond by becoming stressed—or not.
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