Building Your Calm Toolbox: Why the First Step to Winning is Taking a Break

Benjamin Franklin is credited as saying “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Although he may have originally drafted the warning to caution people to not start a fire from coal, the quote has become mainstream in health and wellness.

Regardless, the reality is that you need to be proactive about managing stress, anxiety, and the mounting pressures of work.  But there is no single recipe to success and busy professionals and executives need to experiment with some trial and error to find the most effective and efficient tools to manage stress and anxiety.

“Being relaxed, at peace with yourself, confident, emotionally neutral loose, and free-floating –these are the keys to successful performance in almost everything” – Wayne W. Dyer

Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos has recently made news regarding the concept of “work-life balance.” Bezos is said to frown upon the notion that this is a balancing act, and takes the position that it is a “debilitating phrase” that suggests it’s a tradeoff.

I’d have to agree with Bezos that the tools in your “Calm Toolbox” should complement and contribute to a healthy career mindset, approach and routine. Like Bezos suggests, look to incorporate your tools into your way of life. Don’t just turn to them reactively, but rather use them frequently and routinely to position yourself for success.

I vividly recall the first time I got a panic attack. It is scary and downright debilitating. The reality is that in today’s fast-paced and competitive business environment our brains process information at alarming rates. We multi-task because we feel that is what is expected of a successful executive. We are constantly connected, using smartphones because our customers and colleagues expect it. Technology and innovation have created an environment where there is no down time, the internet makes us always “open for business.”

But this behavior is not only abnormal, it is harmful. It manipulates our fight-or-flight mechanism and recalibrates it – and not in a good way. We are always alert and ready to quickly react and respond to the needs of our business.  Some quick statistics show that anxiety disorders are not only the most common mental illness in the United States but have been increasing at alarming rates, affecting more than 40 million adults over the age of 18 every year.

“You have to slow your heart rate, stay calm. You have to shoot in between your heartbeats.” Chris Kyle

My experience with anxiety and stress came in my thirties, a common average age for the onset of several anxiety-related disorders. After spending significant time with my doctors ruling out any serious physical health issues, it was clear that my body and mind had had enough caffeine-fueled late nights in the office.

So as your typical “Type-A” entrepreneur and CEO, I started researching and reading. I was determined to take control of the problem and find the source. The faster that I could find the source and excise it, I reasoned, the faster I could get back to the chaos that I was addicted to. Ultimately, I came to terms that there was no single cause, but rather a culmination of years of non-stop work and an addition to the adrenaline that comes with success.

I recall reading The Relaxation Response by Dr. Herbert Benson. Dr. Benson, a Harvard cardiologist, claims that more than sixty percent of healthcare visits are related to stress. Let that statistic resonate for a minute and consider the potential long-term ramifications that stress has on us. I was astonished that a book from 1975 that states, “we claim no innovation but simply a scientific validation of age-old wisdom” could have such a profound effect on my life. I went online and ordered over 50 copies of the book to hand out to my colleagues and some clients. I still have copies laying around and use the short book with its easily deployable methodology as the first tool I hand to someone that asks for my help.

Over the last ten years, as my companies and responsibilities have grown, so has my toolbox and the rate at which I need to turn to it to support my busy lifestyle. I am pleased to share some of the tools that I turn to, regularly, to keep me sharp, focused, motivated and calm.

As always, make sure to talk to your doctor about any risks and concerns with these tools. Some of these tools are very tightly related to another, for example – sleep can be disrupted by caffeine and aided by exercise. I recall the first time I was able to get my resting heart rate below 50 beats per minute – it is a special feeling of inner peace and personal harmony.

Nutrition

The importance of food as it relates to our well-being dates back to the 5th Century. Hippocrates, the “Father of Medicine” wrote “let thy food be thy medicine and thy medicine be thy food.” Specifically, caffeine, alcohol, a balanced diet, and hydration have always played key roles in my management of anxiety and stress. Modern medicine has started to recognize the powerful “brain-gut” connection that Functional doctors have been treating for years using probiotics and dietary changes based on your sensitivities and gut biome. The old concepts of “gut-wrenching” or things that make us “sick to our stomachs” are real connections between our brains and guts. Not only can stress and anxiety make you nauseous – but the connection between the brain and gut goes both ways. Poor nutrition can trigger signals to the brain and be the cause of anxiety, stress and depression.

Exercise

Working up a good sweat is not just good for physical health, but has been proven to increase endorphins, reduce stress and help with sleep. Not to mention that a trip to the gym, a quick jog or a healthy walk is an opportune time to leave the smartphone on “do not disturb.”

Music & Mantras

Just like a good beat can get you tapping your leg or a pen on your desk, music treatment has been tested for the treatment of depression. Research has shown that music can strengthen awareness for positive emotions. Ancient Greek philosophers used music as a therapy and in 1950 the National Association for Music Therapy was founded creating standards for professionals to use music within a therapeutic relationship. In fact, music therapy has been used by the military since the 1940s in VA and military hospitals.

For me, the iTunes store has been a great source for some mantras (a word or sound repeated to aid concentration in meditation) or calming music similar to music you would hear in a spa. A couple of tracks can help you focus on your breathing and get you aligned for a stressful meeting or task.

Acupuncture

I recall a client referring me to her acupuncturist for anxiety. She was seeing the practitioner for years to control borderline hypertension. When I asked her if it really worked, she responded, “I lay on a comfy table for 45 minutes listening to spa music while I drool on myself…it can’t hurt.” I have my trusted acupuncturist on speed-dial, not just for regular sessions but for a quick visit when the day is just in need of a pause.

Meditation / Mindfulness

Dr. Sukhraj Dhillon states “everyone should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day – unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour.” For me personally nothing is as effective as meditation for dealing with stress and anxiety. After some training, it is a quick tool that you can use anywhere. At home, in the office, on a plane, I even use it to combat jetlag during layovers. Some people turn to professional training by certified instructors, others are self-taught, but I have several apps that provide guided and timed mediation. Headspace, Calm and Deep Relax by Andrew Johnson are my go-to applications. In combination with acupuncture or just disconnecting in a conference room with my noise cancelling headphones – ten minutes of meditation can recalibrate me and turn an overwhelming day into a productive one.

Friends / Mentors

A support network of trusted friends, mentors and advisors is priceless. Chances are that your colleagues and busy friends are dealing with some of the same challenges you have. Create a network of people that you can call to talk to, get advice from or simply just vent to. Is the topic too sensitive? Turn to a professional therapist or other professional that is bound to confidentiality. Sometimes we just need to listen to ourselves talk or leverage the need of a sounding board.

Take Time Off

There is a reason that the F.A.A. caps the amount of time that pilots and crew are allowed to work. We all need a break to perform at our best – but so many CEOs, entrepreneurs, and business owners can’t even recall their last day off or vacation.  I propose that if you are not able to talk details about your last vacation – well, it is time to take one. Read a book, put the phone away, start a hobby like photography or golf that forces you to focus on something other than work. I hear so many people that I mentor tell me that they “just don’t have time to take a day off or a vacation” – well, I propose that you can’t afford not to. Burnout is far more dangerous and costlier than taking some time off.

These are some of the examples of tools that I use. I have found that by disengaging and disconnecting from “busyness” during regular intervals I have been able to manage my anxiety and stress and perform at a much more efficient and higher level at work. I have had some great insights and ideas for my companies while reading books that have nothing to do with my industry.

Not ready to take the plunge and take a week off? That is okay – start small, but be willing to build upon it. Perhaps you commit to not looking at work email on Saturday or Sunday. Still too fast too soon? Try putting the phone away while eating dinner with a friend or loved one.

You will quickly realize that disconnecting and focusing on yourself feels good and right. During an extended vacation in Europe, I used a bold out-of-office message on my email. Not only did I tell people that I was out – but I informed them that my staff would be deleting my emails daily. It was incumbent upon the sender to email me when I returned.

You can and should get there – do it for yourself, do it for your business, do it because staying calm and focused will always position you to win. It will make you more creative, it will make you think clearly at times of great stress, and it will always position you to bring the very best to your business.

“Calm mind brings inner strength and self-confidence, so that’s very important for good health.”  – Dalai Lama

© 2018, Kosta Ligris. All rights reserved.