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Reflections on Stress

"Stress is the struggle with what is." Huh? Again the guy on the TV screen repeated himself. "Stress is the struggle with what is.".And so began a year of my life trying to understand just what he meant.

He made it seem so simple. He said, "Stress boils down to two things: either something we have that we don't want, or something that we don't have that we do want."

Wow. He made it seem so simple and yet so Zen-like all at the same time. And then I thought about how it might apply it to my own life. "Okay," I thought. "Things I have that I don't want, or something I don't have but do want."

So I started with something simple like being stuck in traffic -- a potentially stressful situation. Hmmm, let's see. Well, I have traffic, and don't want it. Or I don't have an empty freeway, and I do want it. Works well so far.

Next, relationship issues. I have a disagreement with my mate, and I don't want to argue. Or I want peace in the kingdom, and I don't have it while arguing. Okay, this seems to be working correctly.

I now think about how to apply it to my work. As the head of the stage management program at San Diego State University, I always have concern for my student stage managers and the ensuing stress involved with doing a show, holding down a job, and getting good grades. Could I apply this type of thinking in a way that might help them?

I think about rehearsal stress. They have actors coming in late, and they don't want that. They don't have a director that enforces the rules of actors being late, and they do want that. Okay, it's cool so far. Next, designers are not ready for paper tech. The stage managers want that, but they don't have it. They don't want to put cues in their book during tech, so they do want some organization on the part of the designer. Yes, this philosophy can pretty much be applied to just about anything!

"Stress is the struggle with what is." And what is is: traffic, relationship issues, late actors, unorganized designers, not enough money, not enough time for homework -- all of them are real things. They are "what is." So what happens next?

We need to learn that, while we at times cannot control what is, we can control how we react to what is. We can try to manage our mental health as well as we manage our physical health. So often we get colds, fatigue, flu, and stomach problems. We go to the doctor, dentists, and specialists and get help. We often overlook the simple fact that stress is the major cause of many of these ailments. It can also cause anxiety, depression, moodiness, and difficulty with concentration.

In my stage management class, we often bring up stress management and how to deal with it. I try to explain the differences in stress levels. Some stress may go completely unnoticed, while other stresses can be positive and challenge us to deal with things in a creative and resourceful manner. I explain to them that it's these higher levels of constant stress that are harmful to us and that weaken our immune system which in turn leads to disease and sickness. Knowing the differences between these levels of stress and learning how to cope when they occur is the key to successfully battling our stress.

So what do I tell them? First, I try to teach them that while everybody involved with producing the show may think their needs are vital, they must learn that not everything is of equal importance. They must learn how to prioritize and deal with the issues they feel are most important. Do not try and take on the entire woes of the production and feel like you can fix everything. Life doesn't work that way. Make a list, prioritize it, and deal with each individual issue in a calm and resourceful manner.

Next, I teach them how to breathe. Learning how to slow the mind and concentrate on our breath is the key to fighting stress. All meditation is based on this philosophy of following the breath slowly in and out while trying to quiet the mind. It really does work. We also discuss progressive muscle relaxation, which reduces tension by relaxing individual muscle groups. We discuss increasing their physical activity and putting their health needs at the top of the list of priorities. We cannot continue to make excuses for not taking care of ourselves due to "not enough time."

I encourage my students to talk to others about their life issues. Most campuses have a health service program that has free counseling available for students. You don't have to be in a life crisis to seek out counseling. Find out if your campus has mental health services and use it if you need it. Last, we talk about finding activities that we enjoy and using them as a way to get away from stress even for a few minutes. Draw, write, read, breath, meditate…it all helps.

"Stress is the struggle with what is." A simple sentence that changed my life in many ways. Think about it. Think about what is happening in your life. Learn to control your reactions to these situations, and step back and take a deep breath. Your body and mind will thank you each time.

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Jay Sheehan is the production manager and heads the stage management program for the San Diego State University School of Theatre, Television, and Film. Mr. Sheehan is also a Vice-Commissioner of the Management Commission.
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