Good Tips from Best-selling Author and Former U.S. Congressman Alan Steelman To Eliminate Stress
Stress is the black plague of our generation, and students and parents are dealt an unhealthy load with back-to-school stress. The Yellow Brick Road and other mindfulness techniques offered by the best-selling author, Alan Steelman, will help people to learn how to regulate their stress response in the healthiest way possible, especially during back-to-school stress.
We’ve all experienced it before: that panicked, pressure-induced stress that has your heart racing, your palms sweating, and your mind blank at the worst possible moment whether it is during a job interview or in the middle of a difficult test. A prime example of this scenario is the modern-day college student. Deprivation on many levels leads to soaring heights of stress. Scientists are exploring the possibility that stress may make it difficult to retain memorization which is an essential skill for students if they want to maintain good grades. Perhaps no one understands performance-related stress better than Alan Steelman as a former congressman, best-selling author, and public speaker. His invaluable tips will help you to manage stress better than you ever have before whether you are a student or just trying to navigate the daily stress of life.
Back-to-School Stress Can Hurt Students
A recent study found that stress is more likely to hurt students’ grades than a lack of sleep, homesickness, physical illness, and drinking. The truth is that stress-related performance failures affect many highly intelligent and successful people including athletes, public speakers, TV personalities, business executives, sales people, lawyers, surgeons, and military personnel.
Our body’s reaction to stress is hard-wired by our stress response. As adults, our stress response has already been tuned to be sensitive to certain triggers. However, we can control how we modulate that stress response. One of the most successful methods of stress-management is practicing mindfulness. Both parents and students can use mindfulness to combat the unhealthy effects of back-to-school stress. For example, stress can increase and contribute to your risk for inflammation, a lowered lifespan, and neurodegenerative disease.
Interview with Alan Steelman
I had the privilege of conducting an interview with Alan Steelman, author, former congressman, public speaker, and consultant. Today he will share with us how to calm the mind during situations that involve an intense level of stress.
Kaitlin: Alan, could you please describe the Yellow Brick Road in detail?
Alan: The Wizard of Oz, a fantasy tale, originally written for children is a story known to virtually every American. Little did any of us know that we were watching the story of our lives as it would play out. Dorothy and Toto were picked up by the tornado in Kansas and dropped into the magical land of Oz. Their first encounter, the Good Witch Glinda tells her that this “is a land of great beauty, but, can also be a land that is dark and terrible.” If you will stay on this Yellow Brick Road, she said, over the rainbow there is an Emerald City where troubles drop like lemon drops, and there lives a Wizard who will show you and Toto how to get back to Kansas, but, don’t dare venture off the Yellow Brick Road because there are Wicked Witches and other fearsome creatures. Along the way she meets the Scarecrow (“I need a brain with which to make wise choices about my life”), the Tin Man (“I need a new heart so that I can fall in love again”), and finally, the Cowardly Lion (“I’m the King of the Jungle, but, I’m a coward and I’m embarrassed, I need courage.”)
This is the story of our lives, long stretches of beauty and joy in our lives, punctuated by some “life tsunamis” that make our lives “dark and terrible”, brain fog from the anxiety and stress of life in the digital age, heartbreak from failed relationships or the death of a loved one, and lack of courage at critical times in our lives. The story ends with the Wizard being unmasked as a False Wizard, a wrinkled-up little man who could do nothing for them other than tell them that they had within already all they needed to fix their lives. Indeed, when stressed to the max and suffering from brain fog, depressed and alone from heartbreak, anxious, and needing courage, an alarmingly high number are turning to the “false wizards” of pills, alcohol, binge-eating, and social media addiction.
Indeed, it is the Black Plague of our time. Unlike the “noisy killers” (hurricanes, fires, school shootings, earthquakes) the death rate from this more silent variety (opioids, suicides and premature death from obesity related illness) dwarfs the death toll from the other more dramatic variety. More were lost to opioids in 2017 alone than the combined wars of Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. Calls to the national suicide line doubled over the past two years, teen suicides are soaring, and the national obesity rate is now second only to Mexico. There is an exit ramp, our very own Yellow Brick Road, our God-given breath. Mindful breathing is the path to a calm mind and is the other half of the fitness-equation, adding mind fitness to physical fitness. Breath is our first act in life and our last act, and little thought is given to it otherwise. Mindful breathing practiced on a consistent basis is our own path to the Emerald City and a calm mind.
Kaitlin: What other mindfulness practices can people incorporate and apply in their daily life to reduce and moderate their stress levels?
Alan: A simple definition of mindfulness is “being here now”, living in the present. We’re all born with a wandering mind, affectionately referred to as a “monkey brain”. Calming the monkey is one of life’s biggest challenges. We ruminate about mistakes from our past and worry about tomorrow. Breathing mindfully is breathing up from the diaphragm, holding for 3-4 counts, then exhaling through the nose and repeating for the duration of whatever activity we are engaged in. It can and should be done while eating, exercising, sitting at our desk and particularly as we prepare for events that typically induce high levels of stress for us. As a personal example, when I go to the gym and use the elliptical machine, instead of putting on my earbuds and turning on the loud music or watching one of the cable news channels, I step up, take the handles, set the timer to 30 minutes, close my eyes and start a 30-minute session of deep breathing as I am going through my usual elliptical regimen. I am very relaxed afterward.
Kaitlin: Alan, could you please describe for us how has the Yellow Brick Road and practicing mindfulness has affected you in your personal and professional life?
Alan: Through two high-stress careers, politics and global business, I always exercised and maintained a good level of cardiovascular fitness. I was always overweight, but I was walking proof that you can be “fit and fat” at the same time. Eating in airports and on airplanes, along with dealing with jet-lag made stress management and weight management big challenges.
A lot of the soaring obesity rate is attributable to emotional eating—self-medication through food. By calming my “monkey” through a consistent mindfulness regimen, I have lost 40 pounds, and have an appetite much more moderate than before. As I say in my book, “cookies, cake, pies and meth”—one legal the other illegal—both killers!
Kaitlin: Do you believe that mindfulness has a positive and healing effect on the brain?
Alan: There are a number of chemicals in the brain that impact our mood, but the 5 most prominent ones are cortisol (fight or flight response) and dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins. Chronic or acute stress sets off a “carpet bombing” of our vital organs and body parts from head to toe, and over time creates pre-mature aging and a number of health destroying illnesses and diseases, including cancers. Conversely, a mindfulness practice stimulates the most important nerve in the body, the Vagus Nerve which accesses this pharmacy in the brain, and distributes these calming chemicals throughout. Your happiness does depend on drugs, the ones God gave us at birth—use them!
Kaitlin: What other healing benefits does the body experience from practicing the Yellow Brick Road and mindfulness?
Alan: There’s a long list of physical benefits, 70 plus to be exact which were listed in the New England Journal of Medicine in an article. To the skeptic who might think these claims are getting a little “over the top”, the explanation lies in the impact of the Vagus Nerve and its connection to every single organ in the body. The impact of chronic and acute stress and the consequent bombardment of cortisol throughout the body explains the connection to sickness and illness. Conversely, the healing effect of a consistent transmission of the 4 “feel-good” chemicals explains the list of 70 plus positive benefits.
Kaitlin: What routine do you suggest for someone about to experience a high degree of performance-related stress?
Alan: The example easiest to understand and relate to is that of an athlete “choking” in a critical game-changing situation. “Choking” is the street-word for performance-related stress. This applies to virtually every other aspect of life and profession. A salesman, a top executive, a television personality, a minister, a public speaker and the list could go on. Many elite athletes, including recent Super Bowl and NBA winning players and teams are dedicated practitioners of mindfulness (Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, the Seattle Seahawks team, LeBron James, and the Golden State Warriors.) The Navy Seals, the Army Rangers, police and fire departments are increasingly turning to mindfulness in order to “slow the game down” and be able to react in a more considered way to high stress situations.
Techniques used and that I would recommend are:
- Darth Vader Breath: also, called ocean breath. I find this technique the most effective, and there are several ways of doing it. My preferred way is to curl my tongue up to the roof of the mouth, inhale through the nose, up deeply from the pelvic floor, up through the diaphragm, pausing three to four seconds at the top, visualize a small hole in the throat, and exhale slowly, but resolutely, making the Darth Vader noise or ocean sound out the imagined hole in the throat.
- Taco: This technique is especially effective in cooling the body and brain. Curl the tongue, like a taco, and inhale deeply through the mouth, holding for a count of two to three seconds, and then exhale through the nose.
- Left Nostril Breathing: Find a comfortable seated position. Block your right nostril with right index finger, close your eyes, relax your jaw and brow, inhale deeply and long, pause at the top for three to four seconds, then exhale long and slowly through the left nostril. On the inhale, you might add silently the word “letting” and on the exhale, “go”. Continue for three to five minutes.
- Bellows Breath: This technique is particularly effective, as it is a quick energizer and stress release, consisting of deep inhales, followed by fast, vigorous exhales.
Kaitlin: Is there anything else of value you would like to share with us today on the topic of stress reduction?
Alan: For the beginner who may think, “no one like me does this”, here are the ten commandments:
1. If you can breathe, you can practice mindfulness! /It’s the breath, not doing the pose correctly that counts
2. Do only what you can do, go to your limit, never past it.
3. Mindful breathing is the Yellow Brick Road/Your own path to a calm mind.
4. The time is always just NOW!/Not ruminations about yesterday or tomorrow
5. MAKE time for health now or be forced to FIND time for illness later
6. Your own natural brain chemicals are your wizards
7. Fitness is mind, body and spirit, not just physical
8. Commit to consistent practice, the “monkey brain” never takes a break
9. First and foremost, seek a calm mind, then strength, balance and flexibility
10. You are not your age! Seniors, stop the limiting self-talk!
In conclusion, stress is a toxic plague that holds the potential to ruin your health and your life, but you hold the weapon within yourself to defeat it: the mind. Practicing these mindfulness techniques and others will help you to combat the effects of back-to-school stress. To learn more about Alan, please visit his website by clicking here.