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How to Stress Less — And Smarter

The top stress expert at Canyon Ranch offers five take-home exercises designed to reduce your anxiety and increase your work-life integration.

When Fast Company first visited Canyon Ranch two years ago, the exclusive resort was overrun with digerati suffering anxiety and exhaustion at the hands of an economy obsessed with bigger, faster, more. Executives and entrepreneurs enrolled in Canyon Ranch’s life-enhancement program shut off their Palms and cell phones just long enough to ask, “If I’m so wealthy, why don’t I feel happier? If I’m so successful, why don’t I feel more satisfied? If I’m so busy, why do I spend so much time on things that seem so unimportant?” The answers came slowly, painfully, and sometimes not at all.

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Much has changed since July 1999. Today’s economy is spiraling toward three new buzzwords: smaller, slower, and less. And as companies downsize, consumers scrimp, and analysts wince, the pace of life is dragging. So, as the amount of work and rapidity of deadlines decrease, the stress levels of business leaders should be declining as well, right? Not so, says Dan Baker, director of Canyon Ranch family business group.

“We are not working less today,” Baker says. “We are probably working more, in part because of our anxiety about the unpredictable economy.”

At the same time, the term “stress management” has become diluted and ambiguous through overuse and misuse. Any emotion that feels uncomfortable or overwhelming is diagnosed as stress, and any healthy form of relaxation is termed “stress management.” As a result, few people recognize that true stress is a debilitating force to be reckoned with. And fewer still heed its force.

“So many people have been living stressful lives for so long that they’ve become desensitized,” Baker says. “It’s kind of like living in the flight path of O’Hare airport. After a while, you stop hearing the big jets overhead.”

As a result, the resort’s spiritual helmsman has shifted his professional focus from stress management to self-management. His goal is not to eradicate stress, which often represents healthy personal challenges. Instead, he hopes to help his clients at Canyon Ranch achieve a sense of integration wherein they can design a life that truly works for them.

Here are five of Baker’s strategies for achieving integration, along with supplemental reading to help you stress less every day.

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Get Physical

To achieve a truly integrated life that concentrates neither too heavily on work nor too lightly on personal development, Baker says you must invest time, energy, and skills into developing the following: a sense of purpose, meaningful relationships, and personal health.

“The mind-body connection is a reciprocal connection,” Baker says. “Sometimes, we tap into the body through the mind, and sometimes, we access the mind through the body. That’s why it’s very important to start a fitness plan that incorporates emotional, spiritual, and physical health.”

Develop a workout routine that includes cardiovascular work, strength training, flexibility exercises, and practice with balance. By engaging your body in each level of fitness, you will simultaneously become more mentally and spiritually resilient, strong, flexible, and balanced, Baker says.

“When people engage in yoga or tai chi, they are learning to choreograph their autonomic nervous system,” he says. “Through physical activity, they can learn to interact with life and people in a healthier fashion.”

Watch Your Language

“We see the world we describe; we don’t always describe the world we see,” Baker says. “So it’s terribly important to create descriptions that are constructive rather than debilitating. We should always ask ourselves, ‘Does my language give me energy, or does it sap energy away?’ “

When confronted with challenges or disappointments, practice putting on rose-colored glasses. However unsure or deflated you feel, resist the temptation to focus on your hardships and setbacks. Instead, tell friends and colleagues about the opportunities for growth and learning around the next corner. Make an effort to adopt a constructive outlook rather than a destructive one.

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“Stephen King has nothing on the horror stories that you can tell yourself,” Baker says. “If you say that your problems will kill you, your body will begin to believe you, and you will suffer painful anxiety. On the flip side, you have the power to help yourself by simply changing the way you talk. Infuse your life with energy and hopefulness by communicating your opportunities rather than your disappointments.”

Mind the Gap

Draw up a list of values, including spirituality, financial growth, relationships, control, adventure, and so on. Circle any that are important to you, or add others to the list. Now narrow that list down to your three core values, and ask yourself, “Is there a gap between what I say that I value and how I behave?”

Bridging that gap is essential to achieving “enoughness,” because living with that gap means that you’re living in conflict with yourself. In a well-designed life, behavior reflects values — and values drive action. So what should you do if your behavior is out of sync with your values? Write down specific actions that reflect your core values. Then do one of those actions this week, and do other actions on the list in the weeks that follow.

“When I act in contradiction to what I truly believe is right, I’m going to be at war with myself,” Baker says. “The trick is rediscovering those core values.”

Question (Your) Authority

This exercise represents a formidable challenge because it requires you to declare a time-out and pause long enough to ask yourself some very probing and uncomfortable questions. Baker calls them “fateful questions,” and they go something like this: What have I done to improve myself this year? How do I feel about the work I did today? Do I feel valued at work and at home? What do I want my legacy to be?

The last question is guaranteed to inspire a sense of purpose and discipline. What do you want to be honored for? Where do you hope to make meaningful contributions during your life? What personal accomplishment will inspire the most praise and pride from others? Think about the “defining moments” of your life — the critical choices that lead you down one path or another. Consider what you’ve done and what you want to achieve.

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This sort of introspection — increasingly rare in a go-go world of incessant connectivity — is essential at Canyon Ranch. “Questions contain implicit directions,” he says. “And to take control of your life, you must be able to seek and follow your own directions.”

You Say You Want an Evolution?

Think of change not as a major overhaul but rather as a gradual redesign. “It’s all about continual improvement through small, incremental, seemingly insignificant steps,” Baker says. “Let’s say that you’re working 80 hours a week. How about cutting back by 5 hours a week? Now let’s figure out how to spend those 5 hours on your health or on your relationships.”

On index cards, list three agenda items that you will pursue in the next few weeks — nothing too ambitious, just small, doable changes, first steps that can lead to bigger steps. Then celebrate each small achievement along the way to maintain your dedication to change.

Anni Layne Rodgers (arodgers@fastcompany.com) is the Fast Company senior Web editor. Additional reporting and writing provided by Chuck Salter. Learn more about Canyon Ranch on the Web.