Los Altos appears to have it all: high property values, top-ranked schools and healthy incomes. But many residents also have something else in abundance – stress.
Privileged living doesn’t guarantee a stress-free life. Quite the contrary, according to Frederic Luskin, Ph.D., a senior consultant in Health Promotion at Stanford University, director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project and a professor at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology.
Luskin lectured on stress management Feb. 7 at Mountain View High School’s Spartan Theater as part of the MVLA Speaker Series, sponsored by the Mountain View-Los Altos High School Foundation and the Los Altos-Mountain View PTA Council.
Recounting a recent visit to Los Altos’ Whole Foods Market, Luskin said he was surprised to see customers stressed and visibly anxious as they shopped and waited in line to check out.
“Generally speaking, this is a very tense area,” Luskin said. “We act stressed without any reason to. We all have enough but don’t act like it.”
Studies show that average Americans spend 75-80 percent of their waking time complaining, he said, and when you complain, the body takes that as a threat and releases adrenaline.
“Stress is a perception that I do not have what I need to satisfactorily handle my life,” Luskin said. “Stress is wanting what you do not have, and happiness is wanting what you already have.”
There’s nothing wrong with material possessions, he added, but when you want something you don’t have, it causes stress.
What is stress?
Although difficult to define, everyone suffers from stress – in varied degrees – according to the American Institute of Stress (www.stress.org). It’s a mental and physical response to a difficult situation. It’s how people feel when faced with more than they can handle.
Perceiving a threat when stressed, the body moves into fight-or-flight mode, releasing hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which make your heart beat faster and raise your blood pressure. Left unmanaged, chronic stress can cause headaches, sleeplessness, upset stomachs and back pain, and can even lead to maladies such as diabetes and heart disease.
The bad news is that too much stress can cause harm to the body and mind, affecting our immune systems and our relationships, according to Luskin. The good news? Stress can be managed effectively and kept under control, he said. Luskin referred to his book, “Stress Free for Good” (Harper San Francisco, 2005), which lists easy-to-follow, common-sense techniques to manage stress effectively (see sidebar below).
It’s important to slow down and focus on every action without rushing through it, he added, noting that stress comes at us from everywhere. There are simple steps people of all ages can follow to manage stress and lead happier lives, he said.
Stress affects children
Adults with mortgages, long work hours and financial constraints aren’t the only ones stressed out. Children – particularly students – are feeling stress, too, according to Barry Groves, superintendent of the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District.
“It’s a very important topic, as we’re hearing about more students committing suicide,” Groves said.
Students at high-achieving schools in coveted school districts face innate pressures, he said. Their activities are often a means to an end, such as getting good grades so they can graduate with a high grade-point average to get into a good college. Students are busy with an array of activities and classes, Groves added, many of which they probably don’t enjoy but engage in due to societal or family pressures.
“We’re seeing a lot more stress in students, in children,” said Monique Kane, executive director of the Community Health Awareness Council (CHAC). “And we’re hearing more suicidal talk in therapy sessions.”
Mountain View-based CHAC addresses a range of problems that affect children and adults, including parenting and family problems, drug and alcohol abuse, physical and psychological abuse, teen pregnancy, truancy, depression, academic underachievement, anxiety, domestic violence, gang participation, economic stress and other problems that lead to unhappiness or destructive behavior.
Many CHAC programs are designed to protect young people from high-risk behaviors and ensure that they have the best chance to lead successful and happy lives, Kane said.
“We believe in prevention and early intervention,” Kane said.
Last year CHAC helped 575 people from Los Altos and 48 from Los Altos Hills with emotional problems, Kane said. Ten percent of the children they helped were from Los Altos, she added.
Kane said an 8-year-old boy recently told a counselor that he was so sad, he felt like hitting himself. In-depth conversations revealed problems his parents were facing, which seriously affected him. Counselors worked to convince the boy that he was not the problem.
Tough economic conditions have resulted in job losses and divorces in families, which have serious repercussions in children’s behaviors, Kane said.
CHAC psychologists collaborate with teachers, counselors, parents and other family members to assess the child’s level of stress before crafting a plan to dispel harmful thoughts from the child’s mind and allow him or her to function well again, she said.
“We first assess how much stress (the children) put on themselves and how much is from the outside,” said Stewart Kiritz, Ph.D, chief psychologist and director of training at CHAC.
Some of the strategies Kiritz employs to help children and adults manage stress include individual therapy sessions, mindfulness and deep-breathing techniques and addressing skill deficits and possible substance abuse.
CHAC counselors lead positive parenting classes, functional family therapy and support group sessions to help children combat stress and live more creative, happier lives.
Adults turn to yoga
Many Los Altos residents have turned to an age-old practice – yoga – to relieve stress.
“Approximately 70 people attend our yoga classes every day,” said Andi Bruno, yoga teacher and owner of Yoga of Los Altos at 377 First St. “We have a highly intelligent and educated population here. People need to learn to relax and enjoy their lives.”
Thom Downing, owner and co-founder of Focused Individual Training at 600 Fremont Ave. in Los Altos’ Rancho Shopping Center, professes to be a big fan of yoga. Downing said he practices Bruno’s Yin Yoga to balance his highly active and energetic lifestyle. Activities with his two young children, coupled with his bicycling and workout regimens, guarantee an overstimulated life, so he turns to yoga for relief.
“Exercise is stress,” Downing said. “Yoga is the practice of recovery and rejuvenation, creating a perfect balance for me right now.”
A high-level athlete with advanced degrees in exercise science, Downing said he works with professional- and recreational-level athletes and encourages them, his family members and his clients to engage in yoga as a stress reliever.
After working in fashion design for several years, Janya Wongsopa found her calling in yoga, which she teaches to people of all ages at Yoga of Los Altos. After training for several years, Wongsopa said she now has “a well of knowledge to skillfully impart to others.”
While most yoga practices bring a sense of calm to people who practice them, Restorative Yoga is a nurturing practice involving restful poses and moves that focus directly on stress relief, Wongsopa said.
“Restorative Yoga allows the para-sympathetic nervous system to kick in, which prepares the body and mind to fight stress,” she said. “My students are really hooked on it. They say it helps them maintain the feeling of calm throughout the day, and they sleep better.”
An ardent yoga student for more than 30 years, Carol Millie has practiced law in Los Altos since 1997 and owns Silicon Valley Mediation Group on First Street.
“Yoga is a very important part of my life, as it helps me with my flexibility and balance,” Millie said. “I’m happy and have a sense of well-being. I will always do yoga, no matter how old I am.”
Luskin said his stress-management techniques stem from the practice of yoga and meditation, which yogis figured out more than 3,000 years ago.
A sure way to stress less
Aiming for happiness is one way to stress less, Luskin said, adding that happiness is about creating and attending to relationships, feeling grateful about what you have, focusing on your strengths, wanting to help others and savoring the good.
“It’s all about practice,” he said.
For more information, visit www.learningtoforgive.com.