If there were ever a time for Americans to reduce their stress and keep their cool, it’s now. National unemployment was a staggering 9.1 percent in August, 12 percent in California, and 8.3 percent in the county and Redwood City in July. Tough economic times are clamping down on budgets, and 40 percent of Americans are chronically stressed.
But if taking a chill pill still isn’t doing the trick, perhaps alumus Don Goewey’s book “Mystic Cool” can do the trick. As a neuroscience researcher, Goewey identifies the key methods to obtaining a peace of mind.
“Stress isn’t something we should put off to deal with later,” East Bay resident Goewey said of his research. “We need to deal with it as if a doctor told us, ‘you’re on the verge of a heart attack due to stress.’”
Goewey will also appear today on The Today Show with Kathy Gifford at 10 a.m. to explain his findings and provide “Stress Tips,” the name of the four-minute segment.
“We’re all so proud of him,” said classmate Jean Early, who was able to catch up with Goewey at the .
It’s Not Voodoo, It’s Science
For the skeptics out there, years of scientific research supports Goewey’s new outlook on life.
“Even for the most stressed-out individuals, the brain can be re-wired,” Goewey said.
The tendency towards stress is actually genetic, but this gene can be “dimmed” to reduce the amount of stress that a person feels.
From a study, Goewey notes that 91 percent of children say they are stressed because they witness their parents stressed.
If we can’t control our stress levels, the cortisol released will literally kill brain cells, Goewey said. It could lead to immuno-deficiencies and become the next public health crisis in the country.
“But by adopting a new attitude, your brain becomes neuroplastic,” he said. “It really changes the brain structure and stops the brain from auto-pilot-ing to stress and fear.”
“You’ll become a lot more emotionally creative and socially intelligent,” Goewey added.
The most reassuring statistic? Eighty-five percent of what we worry about never happens,” Goewey said. “And the 15 percent that does happen, you actually deal with really well.”
The Epitome of Stress
If anyone has faced the harrowing, debilitating 15 percent of stress, it was Goewey 25 years ago.
In a period of nine days, he had lost his job, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and he still had to care for four children while his marriage was on the rocks.
“I didn’t see any solution and I thought my life was over,” Goewey said. “I was terrified.”
But rather than sinking into an abyss of debilitating stress, he said he calmed down and saw that he could work things out. He managed to get to a place far from the abyss with a very different outcome.
Five years later, he got his job back, the surgery was a success, and he has since worked for numerous agencies dealing with highly stressed individuals. He worked with people with life sentences in San Quentin state prison and with people in refugee camps displaced by the Bosnian War.
“What I saw people go through is what I went through,” Goewey said. “They had reached a point in various levels where they were really in despair.”
He also worked at the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University and also as an administrator at the San Mateo Medical Center. He served for 12 years as the director of the Center for Attitudinal Healing. There he worked with people who had gone through a variety of catastrophic situations: from cancer patients of all ages to parents grieving for their lost children.
Then in 2000, he worked for a think tank for five years, where his job was to essentially investigate neuroscience, research funded by wealthy donors.
Goewey insists he’s not diminishing people’s reasons for stressing, he’s merely assuring people that there is a way to handle the stress better.
“Those people in a crisis need brainpower more than ever,” Goewey said. “They can’t afford to stall. They have to find a way forward and seek solutions that they would never see if they were stressed.”
Goewey’s most recent stressful encounter? Speaking on The Today Show, he confessed.
But rather than focus on potential gaffs or stumbles, he said he knew that everyone who was watching the segment loved him.
“You have to have willingness to be at peace in the middle of chaos,” Goewey said.
As Easy as ‘Abracadabra’… Almost
If you’re already thinking, ‘I just can’t stop stressing,’ then don’t bother continue reading on. This thought, Goewey said, will push people back into that inundation of stress until they believe they can relieve themselves of it. Just as smokers who think “I can’t quit,” can never kick the bad habit, these stressers are in the exact same situation.
“It takes a fundamental shift in attitude,” Goewey said. “You’ve got to think you’re bigger than the cancer, you’re bigger than the war.”
And it won’t take an entire bottle of Zoloft pills and $1,000 meditation sessions to reduce your stress level. It just starts with a desire and an ounce of will power.
“You have to become cognizant when you begin to think worried thoughts,” Goewey said. “Then you look them in the face and refuse to believe them.”
But years of stress can cause a person to believe that stress is a default reaction to most situations. So Goewey suggests baby steps.
“Don’t blankly believe ‘I can’t do it,’” Goewey said. “Well, how would it feel to believe that you could do it? Then you obtain this feeling, and that’s the feeling you want to have.”
But if you need a step-by-step plan, these three steps can serve as training wheels before you can instinctively control your stress.
1. Start each day framing it in a positive light. Take 15-20 minutes on your own and spend that morning in a positive, peaceful light. Give thanks for another day on earth and another day that you can be surrounded by those you love, Goewey said.
2. Take breaks. Strong neurological research shows you should take breaks every 90 minutes. Or, gradually work you way towards that by taking a five-minute break in the morning and a five-minute break in the afternoon. Don’t think about your work. In those five-minute breaks, your brain is organizing and synthesizing the work you’ve just performed. The dots start connecting themselves, he said.
3. Count your blessings. Just once a week, not daily, count three things that you feel blessed to have. Those are the kinds of tools and processes that lead to this plastic change, Goewey said.
Goewey also cites other tips from another publication “21 Steps for Type A Personalities.”
If you happen to be shopping at the mall or the local , find the longest line in the store, and while you’re standing in it, measure how rushed you feel. Then just be present with the people you’re standing in line with. Then when you’re heading home, drive in the slow lane and listen to the music rather than the news.
And Goewey said no one has ever responded skeptically that this is “airy-fairy” practice. They’re relieved that it can be this simple.
Every so often, a business executive will approach him and counter that a little stress is good for productivity, Goewey said. However, this couldn’t be farther from the facts.
“Go read the neuroscience research, or just take my word for it,” Goewey said.
Or just continue watching him on The Early Show today.