Get enough sleep. Everyone knows we need sleep to perform our best — any doctor will tell you that. But our brains actually don’t work as well with poor sleep or less sleep than we need. We snap at people we work with and care about, and we start to show signs of depression. The flip side is true though: since in today’s world we are so busy that we aren’t accustomed to regular, adequate sleep, getting on a good schedule can be transformative. When I started prioritizing my sleep, my stress and mood improved so much that I resolved never to compromise sleep again.
With all that’s going on in our country, in our economy, in the world, and on social media, it feels like so many of us are under a great deal of stress. We know that chronic stress can be as unhealthy as smoking a quarter of a pack a day. For many of us, our work, our livelihood, is a particular cause of stress. Of course, a bit of stress is just fine, but what are stress management strategies that leaders use to become “Stress-Proof” at work? What are some great tweaks, hacks, and tips that help to reduce or even eliminate stress from work? As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Alison Baum.
Alison Baum, MD is a Family Physician and Life Coach. She is also a wife and mother, and navigates the waters of a work-from-home military spouse. She is a vocal advocate for physician mental health.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to know how you got from “there to here.” Inspire us with your backstory!
Medical life began for me in the U.S. Air Force. It was exciting: We moved seven times in just over a decade, and I deployed twice to Africa. The Air Force trained me to be a Tropical Medicine expert, and I got additional training in Faculty Development on top of my Family Medicine specialty residency. I trained several groups of doctors to become Family Physicians, and I’m very proud of that.
There was always a flip side to my success, though. Sometimes I would have massive breakthroughs. For example, I was able to attend a six-month long acupuncture training course because I wrote a research grant proposal in a weekend. That secured the funding for the training. I didn’t sleep that weekend. During periods of high productivity, I was optimistic. I would start projects, work out twice a day, lose weight without trying.
Depressions would follow the periods of productivity. When I was depressed, I would binge eat and sleep most of the day. I felt like a failure because the projects I had started piled up. I didn’t know what was wrong, or why I was no longer superwoman.
It wasn’t until I was 36 years old that I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. When I finally was, it was a bit tragic, in that I finally had insight that I felt I should have had all along! I learned, though, that we are blind to our own brain’s funny behavior until we are shown a mirror, even if we are physicians — because we are inside our own brain. It’s what made me want to become a coach. You don’t have to have a mental illness like bipolar to benefit from changing your thinking patterns. I focus on coaching clients to their peak potential.
What lessons would you share with yourself if you had the opportunity to meet your younger self?
For me, trying to control the uncontrollable in life set me up for all kinds of headaches. If I had learned to accept what I can’t control, and focus on the things in front of me that I can control instead, I would have saved myself a lot of time and heartache.
I would also have reassured myself that I will get over the opinions of others. My family matters, and as long as I take care of them, I’m good. I spent too long caring what other people think.
None of us are able to experience success without support along the way. Is there a particular person for whom you are grateful because of the support they gave you to grow you from “there to here?” Can you share that story and why you are grateful for them?
I would not have been able to recover from my bipolar disorder and feel well today without my husband. He was incredibly patient when I tried to push him away, and when my emotions were confusing.
Bipolar disorder can actually be very well managed with medication and lifestyle changes, such as regular sleep, keeping one’s schedule the same day to day, and managing stress, to name a few. Before I was diagnosed, though, I wasn’t doing any of these things. So I was just a mess of emotional storms. Sometimes I was fun and sometimes not. My husband was along for the ride and was willing to figure it out. Not every partner is, and I will be forever grateful to him for helping me figure out what was going on, together.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think it might help people?
I have begun to work with physicians’ spouses on structured support. I’m a good go-between, because I’m both a physician and a physician’s spouse, so I know the stresses on both sides. There are a lot of unique hardships for doctors’ wives, such as the loss of earning potential, feeling alone because of their husbands’ demanding work schedules, etc. I’m looking at ways to support them specifically.
Ok, thank you for sharing your inspired life. Let’s now talk about stress. How would you define stress?
To me, stress is an abnormal force applied to a person or environment. It is a factor that doesn’t exist in an ideal or typical situation. It can be acute, like rushing to provide CPR in an emergency room. Stress can also be chronic, such as constantly wondering if there is enough money to both pay rent and buy groceries each month.
In the Western world, humans typically have their shelter, food, and survival needs met. So what has led to this chronic stress? Why are so many of us always stressed out?
I think it comes down to expecting things to be other than they are — thinking you can change something that you can’t. Trying to control the uncontrollable. We think that we should be able to control whether or not the grocery store has our favorite flavor of pasta sauce, simply because it is typically there. If it isn’t there when we go, that’s a teeny bit of stress added to your day. If there’s traffic and there isn’t typically, there’s some stress. Kid sick? Stress.
I’m not saying we should accept everything and be completely passive. In fact, I am speaking from experience, and as someone who has to work on this daily! I have noticed, though, when I keep in mind what I can control, and what I can’t, I have a less stressful day.
What are some of the physical manifestations of being under a lot of stress? How does the human body react to stress?
There are well-known effects, such as higher cortisol, poorer sleep, increased cardiovascular disease, higher mortality. There is lower tolerance to pain, tighter muscles.
I have noticed that when I am stressed, I start to snack. We got a puppy last year, and I slowly gained five pounds. I don’t diet anymore, but I just took note of it and used it as information that I was stressed. Some people notice that they pick up their drinking when they are stressed — order two glasses of wine at dinner instead of one. When you pay attention, it can be little tells like that.
Is stress necessarily a bad thing? Can stress ever be good for us?
Sure, acute stress comes with the hormones to pull us through a quick event. The emergency scenario I mentioned — you need the cortisol and adrenaline that comes with that.
Is there a difference between being in a short term stressful situation versus an ongoing stress? Are there long term ramifications to living in a constant state of stress?
It would seem that long term stress is the more damaging of the two. People who have long term stress have pretty severe health consequences. There are mental ramifications like anxiety, depression, and memory issues and brain fog. Then there are the cardiovascular problems: heart attack, heart disease, stroke. You can get diabetes and weight gain. It’s really like having the deck stacked against you to live in a state of long term stress.
Is it even possible to eliminate stress?
I don’t think so. People could always benefit from improving their stress coping mechanisms, and there is definitely room for decreasing stress due to poverty. The truth is, though, that humans are emotional creatures, and we are happy half the time, and sad and mad half the time. When you’re mad, you’re stressed. We can’t be blissed out all the time — that would be boring!
In your opinion, is this something that we should be raising more awareness about, or is it a relatively small issue? Please explain what you mean.
Absolutely, yes. This is what coaching is all about — getting people to their highest potential. If we could devote just a fraction of the time we spend buying things to decreasing our stress, everyone would be far happier.
Let’s talk about stress at work. Numerous studies show that job stress is the major source of stress for American adults and that it has escalated progressively over the past few decades. For you personally, if you are feeling that overall, work is going well, do you feel calm and peaceful, or is there always an underlying feeling of stress? Can you explain what you mean?
For me, personally, I need to have a certain degree of autonomy at work to feel calm and peaceful. If I don’t feel free to make my own choices, or worse, there is the illusion of autonomy but in reality I’m hamstrung, I feel very anxious. It took me a long time to realize this about myself.
I don’t think I’m alone in this sentiment. In fact, job autonomy leads to happier, more engaged and more productive employees overall, which isn’t surprising. It just isn’t commonly given.
Okay, fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview: Can you share with our readers your “5 stress management strategies that busy leaders can use to become “Stress-Proof” at Work?” Please share a story or example for each.
- Get enough sleep. Everyone knows we need sleep to perform our best — any doctor will tell you that. But our brains actually don’t work as well with poor sleep or less sleep than we need. We snap at people we work with and care about, and we start to show signs of depression. The flip side is true though: since in today’s world we are so busy that we aren’t accustomed to regular, adequate sleep, getting on a good schedule can be transformative. When I started prioritizing my sleep, my stress and mood improved so much that I resolved never to compromise sleep again.
- Find ways to steal a little autonomy. Even if you are in a job that doesn’t allow for a lot of creativity, see if you can make it your own. I didn’t understand this when I was younger. I worked in jobs that required me to perform repetitive tasks. I observed the people around me, though, and some of the ways they enjoyed their jobs were in taking pride in the way they did the same work, such as affixing labels carefully and keeping their workspaces meticulously clean. They also took beautifully packed lunches in contrast to my frozen microwave meals.
- Accept what you can’t control. There will always be days when things get away from you, and on those days perspective is in order, not control. For example, last week, I didn’t get anything done one day because an overdue bill came for the previous tenant, and I spent the entire afternoon with the gas company on hold trying to sort it out. It wasn’t even mine! It helps me to remember that in five or ten years, today won’t even be a memory, so just try to take whatever crazy events are happening in stride.
- Remember stress happens in the body. Sometimes, stress feels very REAL. It feels like it’s one with you. The truth is, though, it’s a sensation, and you can let it wash over you. I was once taught that any fear is a fear of a feeling, and I think that it’s true. Once I let my shoulders droop, and my jaw loosen and my brow relax, I am left with a thought: what is making me so stressed?
- Lastly: bring some fidgets. No stress relief list would be complete without fidgets. My daughter is obsessed with fidgets, slime, and squishies. She hooks me up with them all the time. I hate to admit it, but they are satisfying to have around. Some of them are disturbing, but I do have a few at my desk, and the clicking ones are great to turn over in your fingers when you’re working. I do think there is something stress relieving about fidgets!
Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources that have inspired you to live with more joy in life?
Recently I read The Courage to be Disliked By Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga. The book talks about how we see ourselves and how we can change. It is by far my favorite philosophical/self help book of all time, and I hope it becomes a classic.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would love to help girls grow up in a world where their body image isn’t under constant threat. That was a stress I struggled with constantly and it took most of my life thus far to overcome. There are so many other ways for girls and women to feel proud of their contribution to the world besides the size of their bodies. I would have liked to know from an early age that I could have opted out of diet culture, so telling young women that it’s an option would be a good start.
What is the best way for our readers to continue to follow your work online?
At my website, www.alisonbaum.com.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.