The Balanced Life

Managing stress for a happier and healthier you

If you often feel as though there is not enough time in the day, you’re not alone … and perhaps not even mistaken. Yes, we have the same 24 hours we have always had, but we’ve managed to fill our every waking moment with a myriad of responsibilities, distractions and diversions until there is seemingly no room for anything else.

It’s no wonder so many of us are anxious, stressed out or ardently on an eternal quest to create life balance. Fret not. The balance you seek is within your reach. We spoke with a few local experts to get a handle on how best to handle stress and develop tools to achieve the work/life balance you seek.

It is perhaps one of the great ironies of our time. The technologies that were heralded as timesavers and panaceas to free us from our burdens both at home and in the office have indeed made us far more efficient and in immeasurable ways have absolutely made our lives easier. Yet these innovations have also brought with them a host of unintended consequences and side effects.

Increased productivity at the office has only encouraged us to increase our workload, while increased connectivity is depriving us of much-needed downtime. We are tethered to our gadgets, on call 24/7, and it’s exhausting us.

But finding life balance is not as elusive as, say, finding a unicorn. It can be found … and for our physical and mental well-being it must be found.

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Understanding Stress

So where do we begin? First it is important to understand stress and its role in our evolution. All animals have a stress response. It is a protective hormonal reaction that enables a fight-or-flight response. This was quite useful for us as cavemen.

And even now in modern society the cortisol and adrenaline our bodies release during stress can be beneficial at times. Alas, more often our evolutionary stress response is disproportionate to modern causes, resulting in adverse effects. So what is leading to our stress?

A 2014 nationwide poll conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health found that 54% of Americans feel stressed by having too many overall responsibilities, and nearly 1 in 10 women polled reported being stressed due to too many responsibilities. In similar findings, a Pew Research Center report published in November 2015, found that the number of two-parent households in which both parents work full-time is now 46%.

The study found that among working parents with children under 18, 56% say it’s difficult to balance the responsibilities of their job and family. Of those respondents, 60% of working mothers and 52% of working fathers say it is difficult to balance work and family. A significant number of the working-parent respondents said that though they find being a parent rewarding and enjoyable, this imbalance makes parenting tiring and stressful.

We’ve all heard and read the reports of the countless adverse effects of stress. Physically, stress can lead to diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, even death. But before these dire effects occur, there are symptoms of stress that, if heeded and addressed, can be reversed.

terranea-life-balance-life-2What are the stress warnings to look for?

Dr. Moe Gelbart, PhD, is director of Gelbart and Associates and the executive director of the Thelma McMillen Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment at Torrance Memorial Medical Center. He is also a licensed clinical psychologist who has practiced in the South Bay for 40 years. Dr. Gelbart has decades of experience treating substance abuse, workplace stress, anxiety and depressive disorders.

He says signs of stress can include physical symptoms such as stomachaches and headaches, joint pain, fatigue and weakness. Emotional symptoms include irritability, anger, fear and often withdrawal and isolation. These symptoms can lead to anxiety, depression, even substance abuse.

According to Dr. Gelbart, sources of stress for an individual vary dramatically based on how each person experiences the source. There are several layers to the sources of stress based on the things that happen in one’s life and how one perceives and copes with various situations.

“It’s how things come through [our brain]—how we interpret them and the meaning we give to them,” he explains. “That is really where stress lives.”

He gives an example of how five people can be fired in the exact same manner yet have completely different reactions. One may become depressed, another angry, another relieved … and so on.

“It is about perception,” he continues. “Perspective is central to stress management. In cognitive behavior therapy, patients learn to adjust their thinking yet still be realistic. It’s the glass half full or half empty scenario. The beauty of therapy, of psychology, or life in general is the glass does not have to change. Much of the time we don’t have control over the glass. Say you hate your boss. There’s not much you can do to change that unless you leave your job. But you can adjust the way you perceive it. Ask yourself, ‘Can I adjust the story in my head to reduce stress?'”

If you are feeling stressed, Dr. Gelbart suggests taking a look at your thinking and how you can improve it. He recommends taking a look at your physical reaction to stress.

“Ask yourself, ‘Can I learn how to relax, meditate, exercise?’ If you begin to handle the physical symptoms of stress and reduce the physical symptoms, your body doesn’t experience those symptoms in the same way, eliminating a vicious cycle.”

According to Dr. Gelbart, the tools many people use to deal with stress actually wind up creating more stress—which he admits is kind of ironic. Among those tools are turning to substances, overeating and denying or ignoring the source of stress.

“They’re looking for something that will provide them with quick comfort or relief, and for a moment it works. But in the long run it only magnifies the issue.”

Ask yourself, ‘Can I learn how to relax, meditate, exercise?

Dr. Gelbart believes that our hyper-connectivity is a large contributor to our stress. “I look at technology sort of as nuclear power,” he says. “Nuclear power can be used to light up a city, or it can be used to destroy a city. Technology is so necessary in our lives and in our work, yet it requires you to be tethered constantly electronically to people. It’s not like the old days when you could get back to someone in a few days. Everything now is demanded to be instant. There’s no buffer of any sort. If we go on vacation, most of us are tethered to our jobs with a cell phone, email … seven or eight devices. It’s impossible to ever get away. As a result, there are more demands on people. More demands to do more, demands to spend more time at work and less time with family and friends or doing activities that they enjoy. So when you talk about balance, I ask my patients to make a pie chart of how they spend their time and their priorities. We take a look at what percentage of time is spent at work, exercise, taking care of yourself, your finances, your family, your friends, your relationships. And if there’s not a balance, if it’s really imbalanced, then the result is going to be some form of stress.”

He continues, “It’s really eye-opening. I’ll ask, ‘What are your priorities?’ They’ll inevitably say, ‘My children, my partner and then my friends, my activities, my job. Then I tell them to go home and keep a diary of how much time they spend on those things. Of course they have to work, but for most of those patients the vast majority of their time is spent at work or on work-related activities. Although they say their children are their #1 priority, they’ll realize they’re maybe spending five minutes with their kids in a day.”

Dr. Gelbart suggests that priorities are indicated by our behavior and not by what we think. He says, “You have to put your behavior in line with your beliefs and your thoughts. Patients are concerned that they won’t be able to get anything done. But I point out that they’ll actually get more done if their life is in balance.”

Creating Better Balance

To create better balance, Dr. Gelbart recommends carving out time to exercise, eat right, get enough sleep and, most importantly, make time for what he calls the F-word: FUN. He suggests writing down a list of things you enjoy doing and then doing those things.

“Make sure you have interests, that all parts of your life are being attended to and that your behavior is in line with what you say your priorities are. It’s important to have a solid foundation. Control things you can and let go of those you can’t,” Dr. Gelbart adds. “Enjoy the journey. Stop worrying about how things will turn out. Enjoy the process and be present.”

One notable way many of us are choosing to find balance is to become more organized and attend to our personal space. The phenomenon of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up has legions of disciples eliminating clutter and asking, “Does this bring me joy?”

Manhattan Beach resident Andrea Krohn, a professional organizer and owner of LA Move Consultants, illustrates how organizing one’s space can create a more balanced life. She explains, “Our space is much like our schedule. If there is too much clutter—whether on our calendar or in our home—it takes up space, distracts us and causes our brains to go a bit haywire.”

She says that by clearing out clutter and creating extra space, people feel lighter and freer. “When we have too many possessions or they are not organized, we waste an inordinate amount of time looking for things, not to mention wasted money on items that aren’t being used.”

She suggests by shedding the belongings that weigh us down while keeping those that have meaning to us, we can create a personal space that is calming and rejuvenating. “Living minimally can free both your mind and your wallet.”

Andrea equates decluttering our space with other healthy lifestyle practices. “When you eat clean, you feel clean. If your space is tidy, you will feel lighter, freer, able to think and breathe better because your mind isn’t over-firing. If you fill your space with more air, it’s like doing yoga … you’re filling your lungs with air. Applying organizational techniques clears out mental clutter. If we want to live our best life, it all begins in our home.”

As Dr. Gelbart notes, a key technique to alleviating stress is through physical activity. Yoga is the quintessential athletic practice to achieve balance through exercise.

terranea-life-balance-life-5To get a sense of the intrinsic stress-reducing benefits of exercise, pull up a mat with local yoga and Nia instructor Sun Yu, who leads a variety of classes including the monthly full moon yoga experience at Terranea Resort. Sun first discovered the healing benefits of yoga while treating a back injury she sustained from playing golf on the Hong Kong amateur circuit.

Though she had to give up golf, she discovered a lifelong passion for yoga. Sun instructs yoga at several South Bay locations, and she is also a black-belt instructor of Nia—a sensory-based movement practice that integrates nine movements taken from dance, the healing arts and martial arts.

Sun describes the calming effects of yoga: “When you have made up your mind to come practice yoga and sit on the mat, that small rectangular space becomes a sacred sanctuary. You are now ready to set aside all your nagging problems and day-to-day concerns, leaving all distractions behind. The practice of yoga gives you time to listen to your innermost self. This mental separation from distractions is both necessary and desirable—the concentration needed to hold postures (asanas) with deep breathing methods (pranayama) places your mind in the moment, heightening the communion with your body. This union of the body and mind helps to achieve a naturally elevated state of consciousness, resulting in a healing sense of peace and contentment.”

She continues, “The philosophy behind the practice of yoga is broad and encompassing. Among many others, it touches upon the precepts of tolerance, acceptance, respect, discipline, patience, peace, balance and love.”

Yoga is an excellent means to achieve balance, yet all forms of physical activity can have stress-reducing benefits. In addition to teaching yoga, Sun is also a Nia instructor.

“Much like yoga, the philosophy behind Nia emphasizes unconditional love and community,” she says. “But Nia also has a dynamic element, as it teaches its practitioners to find joy in movement, exploration, stepping outside of conventional boundaries, overt displays of emotion, playfulness, form and freedom, self-acceptance and love.”

As Sun describes, “With yoga and Nia together in my daily life, I have found strength and respect for myself and my body.” She explains that by taking one of her yoga or Nia classes, participants will “rediscover confidence, become healthier in both body and spirit, find joy in simpler things, and reconnect with loved ones and friends on a deeper level.”

What could possibly be more balanced than that? Namaste.

Written by Michele Garber