Dec 9, 2009

TRULY SPEAKING: Alert, Avert, Affirm Your Value—This Season & All Year Round

Summary: Taking care of yourself first is important all year round—but it's of the utmost importance during particularly stressful times, like the holidays. One popular technique, outlined in this blog post, is to "alert, avert, affirm" yourself to cope with stress.

It's a commonly used metaphor that makes a lot of sense: Just as flight safety plans caution passengers to put on their own oxygen masks first and then help those who may be dependent on them (children, elderly or disabled passengers), it's absolutely vital that you take care of yourself first before reaching to meet the needs of others. This is crucial in times of high stress—like the holidays.

I've been asking around for associations with the holidays, and I've gotten a lot of interesting answers. Family seems to be a big one. And that can connote joy or stress—or even a little of both to a lot of people. I tend to think of crowds, chaos, and cacophony (look that word up if you don't already know it!). There's the stress of shopping, the sounds of Muzak being piped in from everywhere, the sights and smells that take one back to childhood days when life was easier ... which can sometimes ignite a dangerous chain of thought that spirals into sadness and depression. Even if it doesn't, the assault on the senses alone is often dizzying and frenzied.

For people with compromised brain chemistry or low vitamin counts, the darker winter months that stretch across most of the U.S. are important times to be vigilant with self-care. Call it a self-care emergency.

A commonly used tactic to self-awareness in stressful situations can be summed up by the easy-to-recall phrase "alert, avert, affirm." (Some experts use a similar phrase, "distract, relax, and cope.") The basics are this:

Alert yourself to the problem. This doesn't mean you have to be making a conscious effort at all times to be vigilantly on the lookout for stress in your life. But once you realize you're feeling stressed or tense, or recognize that you're acting out toward others because of tension, take a moment to become aware of yourself and your surroundings: Where do you feel stress? (Anger often shows up as clenched teeth or hands, while nervousness and anxiety become stomach disruptions and increased heart rates.) How is it manifesting (are you snipping at others, driving erratically or slamming drawers and lids)? After some practice, this awareness becomes easier to note earlier in yourself.

Avert, divert, distract yourself from the upset. Relax in whatever way works for you, such as meditation, going for a run, breathing exercises or simply putting on your favorite music while you work. The important thing is to take at least 5 minutes to move away from the problem—physically if at all possible, and definitely emotionally—so that your brain chemistry can properly right itself and give you a better basis for decision-making.

Affirm by taking positive steps toward a solution to the problem at hand. This can be a literal affirmation ("I'm an important contributor to this team" may be a thought that alleviates anxiety over work judgment) or any other step that helps you to cope.

High-pressure times of year are perfect opportunities to practice stress-management techniques that can be used all-year round. The more you take care of yourself, the more of you is available to give generously to others, even if you're feeling the crisis.

(c) KiKi Productions, Inc. 2009

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