Taking the Stress Out of Stress Management
He promised me a beer but made me order tea instead.
“Hot tea is always nice, right?” he said.
I mean, hot tea is all right. But with a full-time job, homework due in a graduate class, a family waiting at home, a trip to pack for, flu season lurking on every dang doorknob, and this column to write … I could have used a beer, honestly.
I was meeting Dr. Jay Winner for a drink to talk about stress. Since he’s an expert on the subject, and almost supernaturally mellow — and since my mind feels like gloppy, neon-hued spin art most days — I did what I was told.
“Let’s take a smell,” he says as we both lift our steaming cups to our faces. “Feel the warmth? Kind of let go of your thoughts …”
With a smooth, soothing voice that belies his Baltimore accent, he guides me through a mindfulness exercise: closing my eyes, tuning in to the excited chatter of the family at the next table, the sharp jabs of laughter coming from the bar and the percussive clank of dishes from the nearby kitchen — and processing it all as melodic music of the moment.
“Stress is an important part of being alive, but you want to learn how to use it to your advantage,” says Dr. Winner, whose website offers free mindfulness exercises and info on his book, Relaxation on the Run.
The problem with stress management is you usually have to slow down to do it properly — which of course is the whole point. But I don’t want to. That’s what I like about Dr. Winner’s approach (and full disclosure, he’s my family physician, so every time I go in for a lingering cough or freaky rash, he asks if I’ve been stressed, to which I answer, “Duh, but can I get some antibiotics here?!”): It’s focused on things you can do in just a few seconds, without any practice … and without, like, chanting anything. Things like being present when you’re talking to somebody. Or reframing your thoughts when you’re stuck in traffic. Or savoring the cookie you’re mowing through.
“Don’t eat it while you’re thinking about how you shouldn’t be eating it,” he says. “Don’t eat it while you’re watching TV. Enjoy it!”
He started teaching stress reduction 27 years ago when he realized stress was exacerbating his patients’ other medical conditions. Now he travels the country, showing other doctors how to relax and enjoy life more — so that they can teach their patients to do the same.
“There’s something like a 50 percent burnout rate with physicians; it’s really, really high,” he says — but they’re not the only ones feeling stress. “It’s ubiquitous.”
Even in Santa Barbara, which often feels like paradise, events like the debris flow and conditions like the cost of living keep many residents in a state of anxiety. “There are people who are struggling,” he says. “Not everybody here is an Oprah.”
But he swears he’s got the cure — and it’s worked for him. He’s spent so many years teaching himself and others to live in the moment that he says he’s actually trained the neural networks in his brain to not get unnecessarily agitated.
“I don’t have a lot of judgmental thoughts,” he says, even as his phone buzzes and he reads a text from one of his teenage sons asking for more gas money. “No matter how stressed you are, there’s probably somebody who has a more objectively stressful life, and they’re enjoying it more with less stress.
“And there’s somebody else who has what you think would be a really easy life — and they’re stressed beyond measure. You know people like that.”
Er, I am people like that. So I’m carving out a sliver of my overscheduled existence to listen to some of his online meditation moments. But let’s be clear: I’m having a beer first.