When you’re busy with the hectic demands of running a small business, stress management may not be at the top of your to-do list. But maybe it should be. Jordan Friedman was skeptical himself when a doctor suggested that he take a stress management course in college after Jordan complained about gastrointestinal problems. Twenty-five years later, you could say he’s a believer. Jordan has made it his life’s work helping people from all backgrounds deal with stress. Over the course of his career, he has helped and learned from 9/11 survivors, school teachers, business executives, NYPD officers, prison inmates, students, cancer patients and other stressed people who want to improve their lives, reduce stress and feel better.
In 2004, Jordan founded The Stress Coach to provide workshops, webinars and other resources that give people the tools they need to cope with the sometimes unpredictable but always manageable pressures of life. He recently took a break from his busy schedule to take a breath and speak with us about why we’re so stressed, why we’re so reluctant to do anything about it, and why coping with our stress is more manageable that we assume.
Can you speak a little about what got you into stress management coaching?
I was really stressed as a college student and young professional. Fortunately, I wound up in a doctor’s office and he suggested I take some stress management courses. He thought all the gastrointestinal problems I was complaining about were caused by stress. I didn’t buy that analysis, but I took the courses anyway. Almost immediately, my eyes were opened to the connection between stress and how we feel. I got that what I was experiencing was stress-related and probably the most important revelation was that after learning just a few stress management techniques and using them, my GI symptoms went away. It planted a seed in me. It was so powerful, that I just never let the idea of stress management go. I thought this would be a great thing to work with other people on, and I had the chance to teach stress management courses in college as a teaching assistant. I loved the experience of teaching, and that’s really where it started. I did some other things professionally, but always had stress management training and education on a shelf in my brain. Eventually, I pursued a full-time career out of doing keynote presentations, workshops, producing resources that help people cope with stress, coaching, etc.
It’s interesting to hear that your mental stress manifested itself in a physical way.
One of the most common questions that I’m asked and have been asked for years about stress from audience members, interviewers or friends is: Do you think my blank is caused by stress? Do you think my headaches are caused by stress? Do you think my sleep problems are caused by stress? Do you think my nausea’s caused by stress? Now, I’m not a doctor examining these people. But the answer is usually, stress fuels just about everything we experience physically and emotionally. So there’s a good chance stress is playing some role.
We’re still accepting stress as a normal part of life instead of something we should pay more attention to and address.
There’s so much talk about the importance of stress management. You hear the term “self-care” being used a lot now. Why do you think people are so stressed?
I think there are a couple of things going on. Many of us have become conditioned to accept unhealthy stress as normal. There was a really interesting study about eight years ago where they asked people about their stress levels. People actually reported lower stress levels. During that period, the Great Recession was in full effect. The scientists who did that study wondered, How is that possible? It’s one of the most stressful times in American history, especially for people in business. How is it possible that they’re less stressed? One of the hypotheses they came up with was that people’s threshold for stress had gone up. They had just become more accustomed to stress all the time and determined that that was normal. Just because the recession is over doesn’t mean that that problem has gone away. We’re still accepting stress as a normal part of life instead of something we should pay more attention to and address. I think another reason is that we do seem to be much more distracted by devices and all sorts of communication. Every minute, every thirty seconds it’s Christmas — you get a new email, you get a new text. But they’re not necessarily gifts that you want. We’re always being stimulated and our brains are always on, even when we’re not at work. For small business people (which I am), sometimes there’s no dividing line between going to the office and going home. So our brains don’t get any breaks. Our brains are designed to uni-task, not multi-task. That doesn’t mean we can’t be good at multi-tasking, but it’s stressful to the brain and our bodies.
When so many people are stressed, and the effects are so significant, why are people hesitant to do anything about it?
The good news is, we are paying more attention to it. Back when I started in this field 25 years ago, there were not that many people paying attention to stress. There certainly weren’t workshops going on all the time. Today, in New York City or any other major city around the world, you can now go to a yoga class or a meditation class or a stress management workshop any hour of the day. People are more open to talking about their stress. But we still have this underlying pressure that makes us reluctant to ask for help. Communicating that you need time off, that you need a break, that you need to go to the gym is still seen as a lack of strength and commitment. We’re just at the end of summer, and the #1 reason that people give for not using all of their vacation days is that people don’t want to deal with the mountain of work that they’ll face when they get back. Even on vacation, you’re not taking a stress break because you fear the stress that you will encounter when the break is over. People also report that they don’t feel supported when they do want to take a break, either by their colleagues or their managers or their bosses.
Even when people do feel stressed and recognize that they need to address it, they can be at a loss for how to get started in a practical way. Can you talk about some of the techniques you teach to help your clients get started in addressing their stress?
One overarching piece of advice that I give: Avoid stress blobs. When I ask people what is stressing them out, they will most often say their job, their family, their financial situation, their colleagues, living in a big city. Those are stress blobs because they’re too big to get our arms around. We can’t get rid of those things, but we can cope with them. I often suggest doing something I call a stress breakdown. Identify two or three immediate things about each of those big areas as the smaller sources of stress that make up the bigger blob. When we do that, we’re more likely to do something about them because we feel they’re more manageable. That’s a good place to start. You need to be your own private investigator when you’re thinking about your own stress. Another piece of advice is to start small. When they hear stress management, a lot of people think they have to meditate every day, or walk around being mindful all the time, or go to the gym every day. That is not necessary. It’s possible to get to a less stressful place by dipping one toe in the stress management ocean and progressing from there for the rest of your life. Stress management is a lifelong project after all. You’re not going to meditate this afternoon and then all your problems will go away. If you have no time during the week, maybe you can start with 30 minutes of exercise on Saturday afternoon.
I specialize in teaching people effective, convenient techniques that they can use in lots of different situations to reduce their stress, no matter where the stress is coming from. I teach a technique called Quick Calm, which is a deep breathing exercise. Out of all the techniques I’ve taught over the years, it’s the one thing people come back to me about and say, “I don’t remember what you said about meditation or this or that, but I still do that Quick Calm technique.” Probably because it’s simple, easy to remember and fast acting. I also teach something called the tranquilizer, a muscle relaxation technique that you can do in a few minutes. It’s important to relieve muscle tension — it’s a universal stress response and can make us less productive, lead to anger, or cause trouble sleeping. The tranquilizer takes people through tensing and releasing sets of muscles throughout their bodies so they can prevent that headache or help themselves fall asleep.
What would you say to a small business owner who says, “I don’t have the time or the resources to do any of this stuff”?
I get this sentiment. Like I said before, I’m a small business owner myself so I understand that thought process. But would any of us say, “I’m just not going to take the car to get a tune-up. I don’t have time and I’m not going to worry about it.” You’d never do that. We all know that we we’re better at business, we’re better small business owners, we’re more popular, when we feel good. That doesn’t mean we can be in that state all the time. But it’s better to be more in balance than out of balance. We brush our teeth everyday — we would never think about not brushing our teeth. We need to make stress reduction a priority in that same way, whether it’s as simple as meditating for ten minutes a day or getting the full seven hours of sleep that you need each night.
To learn more about how you can reduce your stress, visit The Stress Coach.