Avoid 'Meltdown' by Shifting to 'Brownout' Mode

May 6, 2005
In the final installment of our three-part series on stress management, G. Gaynor McTigue, author of "Why Make Yourself Crazy? Strategies for a Stress-Free Life," offers some tips to get you through your workweek and help you feel like your home indeed is your castle.
  1. De-clutter. McTigue believes that physical clutter -- the mountains of stuff in our office, house, attic, garage, etc. -- becomes mental clutter. "Every time you look at it, it's stressful," McTigue explains. "It's distracting, and it's obscuring the things we really need." While the solution seems obvious, it's often hard to find time to de-clutter, because as the clutter accumulates, "the job becomes more frightening." As the job becomes more daunting, we tend to procrastinate -- and the vicious cycle begins. McTigue's advice: Throw something out every day. In the long run, "space and order" will emerge. "People have to be realistic," McTigue says. "If you're not going to use it, lose it."
  2. Store things out of the way. When we come home from work, it's easy to throw our jackets, lunch pails, briefcases, etc. on the nearest recliner. But there's a problem with that: Things "tend to attract other things and surfaces and spaces tend to disappear," McTigue says. Meanwhile, everyone else in the household unwittingly follows your lead and sets their things on that recliner, too. This creates clutter and all of its attendant stress and annoyances. McTigue advises circumventing that stress and storing things where they belong.
  3. Cook enough for several meals. Why go to the trouble of grocery shopping and cooking when you only cook enough for a single meal at a time? McTigue suggests doubling your output and refrigerating and/or freezing the extras for later. "A marginal increase in work will more than pay for itself on those bedraggled evenings when you can pop a delicious dinner in the microwave and sit back and unwind," McTigue says. "So prepare now, toil less later."
  4. Take naps. Studies show that people are more productive and alert when they take afternoon naps, according to McTigue. "You don't need a cot or a bed. Just put your chair back and close your eyes," he says. A short nap "will get you through that valley in the afternoon when everyone feels tired and draggy." Keep in mind, though, that a long nap could make it harder to fall asleep at night, so limit your naps to 20 to 30 minutes.
  5. Always have a trip planned. Whether it's a weekend jaunt or a world tour, "the mere act of planning a trip is liberating, uplifting and something to look forward to." A corollary to that is: Take long vacations. Believe it or not, we're so wired for work that it actually takes people a week "just to acclimate themselves to leisure." By the time we start remembering what it feels like to relax, it's time to go back to work. That's why McTigue recommends taking vacations in 2- to 3-week blocks (or more, if you can) rather than a few days or a week at a time. McTigue also insists that people should be vigilant about taking vacations, even if the thought of spending the money is a concern. "It's worth the money. You're enjoying it while looking forward to it. You're enjoying it while doing it. And you have those memories for the rest of your lives."

One final thought: "Stress is a meltdown or brownout," according to McTigue. You can take your pick.

"There are times when we become so harried and overwhelmed and then we lose it," McTigue says. "There's futility, tantrums, blow-ups, tears, and then things are said and decisions are made that we later regret.

"There's a way to sidestep that: Never let it get that far to the point of meltdown. When the symptoms of an impending meltdown appear, do what the electric companies do during a period of high demand. Go into brownout mode. That simply means take your intensity level down a notch or two and realize you're just one person. There are limits to what you can do. It's not possible to be everywhere and solve every problem. Your best will have to suffice. When you accept that, a tremendous burden is lifted."

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