UW Radiology

Thoughts on Stress Reduction – Dr. Bill Shuman

Stress is experienced by everyone. Stress is often the result of feeling you have many more urgent demands than available time and resources. It is compounded by fear of failure. I have found a few tools which are a great help in dealing with stress while also promoting the productivity needed to rebalance demands with time available. These tools included regular exercise, small-sizing tasks, prioritizing tasks, maintaining a steady pace, and building your team.

1.    Regular exercise  –   I am not enough of a brain physiologist to understand why regular exercise reduces your perception of stress and improves your mental clarity. But it certainly does, a lot. Whenever I sense some stress or mental “grogginess”, a period of exercise for as little as 30 minutes has a remarkable positive impact. Better yet, regular daily exercise can stave off stress while improving your cardiovascular and overall health.

    1. Key concepts are when you exercise each day and how much.
      1. When –  I find exercising the same time each day improves consistency – for me the easiest time is first thing in the morning right after getting up. My stomach is empty, early hours are beautiful, and I am set up to feel energized by the exercise all the rest of the day.
      2. How much – The right amount of exercise is the amount you can easily get yourself to do every day. No struggles required to get yourself to do it. I jog in my hilly neighborhood for 20 minutes and the immediately pull on my C2 ergometer rowing machine for 10 minutes. This provides a good cardiovascular workout for legs, upper body, and core. On weekends, I extend these times a bit.

Regardless of when or how you do your regular exercise, it is a major tool in your stress reduction toolkit.

2.    Small-sizing tasks – Stress may be the result of feeling that a huge volume of important demands has hopelessly outstripped your available time and resources. Another key tool in dealing with stress is to attack the perception of that huge volume of demands by breaking it down into many small tasks. You then go after each small task, often one at a time, and complete them. As you progress through your individual small tasks, you achieve a sense of accomplishment, plus your do eventually get through the whole group of demands which previously had overwhelmed you in a stressful way.

    1. This is similar in concept to breaking up a long journey into many small steps – take the first step and then keep going. As long as you are heading in the general right direction, you will eventually reach your goal.
    2.  I learned this lesson from getting becalmed on a sailboat in the mid-Pacific Ocean, 3000 miles from land. Getting home over that large distance seemed a hopelessly huge task, and I stressed out. But I decided instead that my task was to make 4 miles over the next hour –  or 100 miles over the next day – pointed in the right northeasterly direction. By achieving many of these small tasks – Presto ! – in 30 days I saw good ol’ Cape Flattery loom up. Washington State on the horizon  –  sweet !!

3.    Prioritizing tasks- Sometimes when I break up a huge volume of demands into smaller tasks, the tasks are not equal in size. Some tasks are onerous, more demanding, or harder. Under those circumstances, I find prioritizing tasks from most demanding to least demanding is a useful tool. Then I take on the most demanding task first, working down the prioritized list as I go forward. This approach means I accomplish the hardest task early on when my energy level is high, bringing good satisfaction of accomplishment and enabling acceleration as I progress to easier and easier tasks. Prioritizing is thus another useful tool in your stress-dealing kit.

4.    Set a steady pace – When you face a huge stressful demand and deal with it by breaking it up into smaller tasks, then you need to decide on a pace that will get you to success in a realistic amount of time. If you then monitor your pace (with the help of good mentors) at regular intervals, you can adjust your pace as needed. A good example is the hypothetical of needing 24 publications (8 first author) in 4 years to get promoted to Associate Professor. The math is simple: you need to hit an average of 2 first author and 4 other publications per year – which means that at any point in time you are working on 3-4 overlapping projects in various stages of progress. Seems much less stressful and more achievable when viewed that way.

5.    Build (or join) a good team – Huge stressful demands are much more easily handled by a friendly team. Whether your team is one other person or a dozen, a team brings more talent and more good ideas to the table. Dividing into tasks is easier and more creative within a team. The combined skill set is larger. Diversity increases the group horsepower. Of course, your own creative contribution to the team’s tasks-at-hand is crucial, but your ability to use powerful team tools to accomplish tasks relieves a lot of your own stress. One hint: let your team expand well outside your own Department – it is amazing how that brings new power to your toolbox.

There are other excellent stress-reducing tools with which I am less familiar and not an expert. Meditation, Zen, yoga, some of the philosophical thinking of the world’s great religions, counseling, and talking with friends/family  –  for all of these I would refer you to other experts and good reference material.  I would urge you to add some of these additional tools to your expanded stress-reduction kit.