Thursday, September 18, 2014

Stress -- What's a Gal (or Guy) to do?

"There cannot be a stressful crisis next week. My schedule is already full."  Henry Kissinger

I'm right there with you, Henry!

Every time I've turned around the past four weeks, another stressful situation has been there to meet me. Phone calls with news of medical tests, a grim diagnosis, and various procedures for a beloved family member. News broadcasts of angry people reacting with violence. Unexpected travel (and not for pleasure) resulting in an ever-growing to-do list with more than a few "overdue" items. Disconcerting situations at work. And the list goes on.

Until a few years ago, I had three go-to strategies for dealing with stress. One strategy, which I refer to as "hunkering down", found me lying as low as possible, looking neither to the right nor to the left, and simply surviving the situation.

Picture a toddler who is intent on watching television despite his mom's announcement that it's time for a nap. His eyes remain determinedly focused on the TV screen -- "if I don't look at her, I don't have to acknowledge what she's saying, right?" -- while he remains as small and still as possible, hoping mom will forget he's there. That doesn't work for the toddler, and it wasn't an effective strategy for me, either.

My other, equally-ineffective manner of dealing with stress was to let the steam build for a time until an insignificant but irritating event occurred, at which time I would "let off some steam". Nothing major -- I was never a hairbrush thrower or tantrum-pitcher. Instead, I would express frustration to those around me, talking the situation to death until I ran out of steam.

Picture a far-less-destructive, verbal Mount St. Helens, if you will.

Even the oft-recommended strategy of journalling about a stressful situation didn't work well. Instead of being able to release the negativity and stress through writing, I tended to relive the negativity and become even more stressed.

But experience with very personal, intense stress that lay like a thick blanket over every aspect of my life for well over a year taught me that what I was doing didn't work very well. I didn't "toss out the baby with the bathwater", though; instead, I've found ways to alter what I had been doing in order to make them more productive.

First, I now allow myself to "hunker down", but only for a very brief time, and only for the purpose of giving myself time to better understand the stress and its cause(s). I actually give myself a deadline -- sometimes it's just 10 minutes; for more complex situations it may be longer.

For the most part, talking about the negative situation has ceased to be a strategy. The whole point of talking through the situation was interaction with someone else -- their validation (sincere or fake) of the fact that I had every right to be frustrated or upset. Dazey (my Norwich Terrier) failed to provide either the interaction or the validation I found comforting, so I turned to venting on Facebook.

Sharing my frustrations in response to Facebook's "What's on your mind?" was an eye-opener. I realized more than a few times that I had allowed my stress level to rise at a rate disproportionate to the stressor. I also found that seeing my words in black and white made me less willing to put them out there for all the world to see.

Seeing my thoughts in black and white, on a page, has also changed how I utilize the strategy of writing about what is bothering me. Several months ago, I realized that journalling on paper had become less a joy and more a chore and that blogging provided me with both the writing outlet I love and a sense of connection with others that I wanted. As a result, I quit paper journaling.

As with Facebook, I've found I'm very reluctant to vent here. First, while I address negativity and stress here, I choose to focus more on overcoming both and on not letting either overcome and derail me. As with Facebook (again), I find that when I pause long enough to write for others (as opposed to for my eyes only in a journal) I gain perspective. In turn, that perspective stops me from allowing the stressor(s) from gaining a life larger than its own.

I've found other strategies that help. I can't claim credit for the vast majority of them; articles touting the helpfulness of a healthy diet and exercise, pet ownership, and placing strict limits on the amount  media exposure (television and print news in particular) can be found in a variety of professional journals, magazine articles, and self-improvement books.

Doing what I love -- watching sports on television or in person, knitting or scrapbooking, reading, and listening to music, to name a few -- also helps alleviate stress. Attending a knitting class and being surrounded by cheerful women laughing and talking as they knit and purl makes a positive difference as well. Reaching out to someone who is hurting is also beneficial; writing a short personal message on a Hallmark card and sending it to a coworker who is recuperating from knee surgery, for example, brightens my outlook.

Limiting time spent on social media has also removed a significant amount of stress. While I want to be aware of what is going on in the world around me, expressions of outrage, concern, sorrow, and pain in post after post from beloved friends is not healthy for me.

And that, I think is the key. Finding what is -- and what is not -- healthy is essential, because what works for me in reducing stress might actually make your stress level rise. What eases the stress in your life might be totally ineffective or, worse, create more stress for someone else.

It's important, I believe, to be honest with yourself about how you deal with stress. Is what you're doing effective, or is it causing more harm than the original situation? Equally important is being open to strategies you may not have tried and even those that you've utilized unsuccessfully in the past.

I'm making headway in dealing with the stress in my life. Oh, I'm not ready to throw down the gauntlet and challenge life to give me all it's got, but I'm ready to deal with each day -- sometimes each hour -- as it comes.

And this gal is content with doing just that.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Finances & Life Decisions -- Righting Some Wrongs

Conventional wisdom in the form of counselors, life coaches, and literature & books on the grieving process asserts that no major life decisions or financial decisions should be made for 12 months -- 6 in extreme cases -- after a divorce, the death of a close loved one, or other significant loss.

Conventional wisdom is wrong.

I'm not a financial planner or whiz of any kind, nor am I a life coach or a counselor. But I've been down this road; I've dealt with two major losses -- the loss of a job and the loss of a spouse -- and I know that many of the "rules" we've heard throughout our lives are not gospel. In fact, in some -- perhaps many -- cases, following those rules will create huge problems; conversely, breaking those rules may be the best thing a person can do.

Let's look at my own situation.

When my husband passed away, 65% of my household income disappeared. Unfortunately, 100% of what had been our expenses were now mine . . . and I had 35% less income to work with. We hadn't been living hand-to-mouth, but my part-time teaching salary simply could not cover all of our monthly financial obligations.

Fortunately, I received a modest lump-sum life insurance payout. Had I listened to conventional wisdom, I would have promptly deposited that check and done nothing with it for a year.

What would have been wrong with that? At the time, 2 of the 4 family cars were not yet paid off. Each of those loans had a percentage rate of approximately 6%. At the time I received the insurance payout, various savings accounts -- even those paying the very best interest rate -- were paying far less than 6% interest. Conventional wisdom dictates that I should have continued paying 6% interes while earning around 2%.

Now, I'm not a mathematician. I'm not even a budding mathematician. But even I could see that earning 2% interest while paying 6% interest *when I had the money to pay off the loan without significantly impacting the balance of total funds* simply didn't make sense.

Similarly, I don't hold a PhD in anything, but I was smart enough to realize that not doing a thing about my employment situation would mean that I would be teaching part-time not only that current school year (my husband passed away in early September) but also the next. And I was smart enough to know that that was not a good idea.

So what did I do?

I ignored conventional wisdom.

But I didn't just run out begin doing things will-nilly.

First, I made a list of monthly expenses and noted what could be immediately eliminated (land-line phone, for example) as well as the outstanding balances on what could be paid off (cars, small credit card balance, etc).

I still didn't make a single financial decision. Instead, I made an appointment with a trusted financial advisor and discussed my entire financial situation with him. I made careful notes of his recommendations, and then I visited a 2nd trusted financial advisor and did the same thing again (without telling the second advisor what the first advisor said).

Then I made decisions that were in line with my own common sense and the advice of both financial advisors (they were 100% in agreement in their recommendations). These decisions allowed me to live within my means -- and without undue financial stress -- until my income changed.

That positive change in income came because four months after my husband passed away I turned my attention to finding a new teaching position. I did the normal job-seeking things -- updated my resume and my reference pool, began haunting appropriate websites, etc -- and had secured a full-time position for the following school year before the current school year ended.

That gave me plenty of time to list and sell our home (another major life decision that could not wait), find a place to live in the city I would be moving to, arrange for the sale of large items I would no longer need or have the room for and for moving, and then get settled in my new home before starting my new job.

For me, waiting an entire year to make any financial or major life decisions would have created significant -- even catastrophic -- problems.

I'm not saying that others -- you, for example -- should do what I did. Perhaps you should wait 6 months, or even a year, before making a big financial or life-altering decision.

What I am saying is that you should ignore the so-called "rules", enlist the advice of appropriate advisors that are trusted, reliable, and credible, and move forward in a manner in which you feel comfortable and that is right for you.

Oh, there's another "rule" I need to address. When I was a young girl, an elderly female relative informed me that a lady never talks publicly about finances and politics.

Yep. She was wrong, too.