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Tracking Your Progress and Maintaining Your Gains in Stress Prevention

Harry Mills, Ph.D., Natalie Reiss, Ph.D. and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

It's important to keep a record of your actions as you work towards your change goals. A minimal sort of record should contain what you've done, when you did it, and what goal you were trying to meet by engaging in that activity. A more elaborate record might contain a journal entry describing how you are feeling before and after taking each action so that you can keep track of how your mood and stress levels change as a result of your actions. Tracking what you do in this manner helps you to see otherwise invisible patterns of change as they happen, which in turn can help to maintain your motivation.

There are many different ways to track your progress. For example, you might record two aspects of your stress reduction program in the pages of a notebook. Label the left-hand page "Humor" and the right-hand page "Thinking." At some appointed point in the day, jot down the humorous events you either created or experienced on the "Humor" page. On the Thinking page, make notes about any stress-increasing or negative thoughts you might have experienced. Write down the time, the place, the preceding event, your thoughts, and the potential negative consequences of those thoughts. Keep the diary for two to four weeks. You will be amazed at how much you learn. Then, if you want to take the exercise to a new level, start practicing cognitive restructuring exercises using the negative thoughts you've been recording as your source material.

Another idea is to use a day planner or digital assistant to both remind you to regularly schedule stress management and prevention activities, and also to record them after you've finished. For instance, you might use Microsoft's Outlook (or another similar computerized calendar program) to schedule regular reminders to do things you might otherwise conveniently "forget" to do, like smell the roses, practice progressive muscle relaxation, or take those mini-vacations you were thinking about. As you complete a stress reduction activity on your calendar, check it off your list just as if it had been a business task. By intentionally integrating your stress program into your time management/calendar system, you are much more likely to succeed in actually getting your stress management activities done.

If you've performed a values clarification exercise and have developed a personal mission statement, you can keep that statement near or inside your computer so that you refer to it as a guideline for maintaining work/life balance as you schedule events and set priorities. As you create your busy calendar, having a visual statement of your goals and values will help remind you to build in times for relaxation, meditation, exercise, mini-vacations, etc.

Maintaining the Gains You Make

Lifestyle change goals are not like most other goals, which have a defined ending point. This is particularly true for stress management goals, as stress is a never-ending life process. Your stress management efforts will not have occasion to end until you do. Consequently, at some point, your task will cease to be wondering how to get a stress management and prevention program into place and working, and become instead a question of how to keep it going, and how to adapt it to the changing circumstances of your life. Where consistency of practice was critical to success in the action stage of change, in the final maintenance stage of change, flexibility and adaptability become paramount.

Pay careful attention to the changes that happen in your life. Whenever a significant life change occurs, step back and revisit your values exercise to see if there are any differences in how you wish to approach your life. Carefully note whether the demands on your time have increased or decreased in the different spheres of your life. Take into account any events that have occurred that have added or reduced the amount or type of stress you now face. Use this information to review your stress management and prevention practices, and adjust your goals with regard to these practices as fits your changed circumstances. If you don't do this review and revision, your stress management plan risks becoming obsolete, and then may become a source of stress for you rather than an antidote.

Your ability to be aware and sensitive to how you are changing is key. You cannot adjust and adapt effectively if you are not aware of how you and your environment are changing. Keeping this in mind, we recommend that if you are truly serious about stress management, you build into your plan regular practice for building and broadening your awareness and sensitivity. The family of mindfulness meditation techniques are generally the best way to make this happen.

The final bit of advice we can offer is that you not push yourself too hard at any given moment. Stress management is one area of life where trying harder will often only make things worse. Relaxing or meditating cannot succeed if you are trying too hard; you cannot rush these practices. Instead, slow down and enjoy them. Slowing down is often the key to a better practice and a happier experience.

If you lapse from your plans (and you almost certainly will, simply because you are human), don't make a big deal out of it. Instead, simply get back on track as soon as you can. Give yourself time and don't try to force it. Make regular practice your goal and avoid judging your efforts too strenuously. Stress management is not a competition. If you make it into a competition, it ceases to be stress management and starts to become simply stress. Nurture and cultivate your stress management skills like a growing garden. The flowers will bloom at their own rate. Your job is to feed and water and let the garden grow.