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Secrets to Stress-Free Life

Body+Soul, March 2007

When Kathleen Hall stepped off the elevator at her office on the 104th floor one Monday, she had it all: beauty, smarts, a successful career as a stockbroker on Wall Street, a supportive husband, and two healthy children. But despite her efforts to act composed, she was terrified. Nauseated and short of breath, her chest tight, she stopped to lean against a wall. She didn't move from that spot until a security guard took notice and asked if she was okay. She wasn't. Her life, until then so calculated, had come to a screeching halt.

Born to a violent, alcoholic father and a victimized mother, Hall, 55, had learned early what it took to survive. She worked hard as a teenager, baby-sitting, cutting hair in her garage, even detailing cars to scrape cash together. When married and pregnant with her first child, she began to put herself through college. Later she strove to achieve corporate success and make money -- something she knew brought power. But the years of late hours and high-stakes pressure (not to mention the weekly commute from her home base in Georgia) seemed to coalesce into a single realization: Winning the race wouldn't bring happiness. In fact, it could cost her life itself. She turned around, got back in the elevator, and booked a flight home.

Twenty years later, Hall is one of the nation's noted experts on stress management, sought after by clients, colleagues, and media in times of crisis. "I've seen stress cause people to totally shut down -- physically and emotionally. They lose focus and become disoriented, confused, and depressed," says Hall, whose work has included consoling Katrina survivors, counseling victims of domestic violence, and advising families in hospitals coping with cancer and AIDS. Stress comes in countless incarnations, from poor, homeless single mothers to wealthy, depressed CEOs. "It's our nation's greatest democratizer," she says, "and it's not going anywhere."

In her case, that moment of panic by the elevator turned out to be a catalyst for self-inquiry. She quit her job, retreated for six months to a remote cabin at her Clarksville, Georgia, home, and then spent the next seven years on an entirely different course, pursuing a master's in divinity at Emory University and then a doctorate in spirituality at Columbia University. She studied with an eclectic group of visionaries -- Thich Nhat Hanh and Bishop Desmond Tutu, Trappist monks and Sufi leaders -- and noticed that, despite their diverse backgrounds, they all seemed to advocate the same ground-up approach to life. "So many of us strive to move onward and upward, but I began to see that the path to joy starts with an entirely different approach: inward and downward. Seeds first move inward and downward to root -- and then toward the light, upward and forward." Reducing susceptibility to stress, she realized, was essentially a matter of nourishing the roots.

She adopted a powerful but surprisingly simple mantra -- SELF, an acronym for serenity, exercise, love, and food -- and started teaching it to others to great effect. These "four roots of real happiness" may seem almost too easy, but she insists they have a centering effect in even the worst of circumstances. "It's these basic, ordinary actions that ground you," she explains. "By attending to your roots each day, you learn to stay focused and intentional -- and stay true to your design." Making time for serenity, for instance, creates space in our lives for meditation and stress reduction; exercise benefits the spirit and mind as well as the body; love and friendship bring physiological and emotional rewards; and nourishing food, consciously consumed, feeds the senses in a deeply satisfying way. It's these simple things, she says -- a moment to connect with your breath, a walk in the park, a hug from a friend, a thoughtfully prepared meal -- that keep us balanced.

10 Secrets to a Stress-Free Life
Start small. Don't overwhelm yourself with big changes. Alter one small thing -- a morning habit, a food choice. Over time, these will add up to the intentional life you crave.

Connect. Put love and friendship first in your life, scheduling dates with others as you would doctors' appointments. Connection may help improve heart health, prompt the release of the stress-relieving hormone oxytocin, and allow you to sidestep the health risks of isolation. While you're at it, get a pet -- you might further reduce stress and ease depression.

Focus on now. Rather than disperse your energy with multitasking, take one job, one person at a time.
The more mindful you are, the quicker you can stop stress and turn yourself around.

Write it out. Release stress by getting negative feelings out of your body. Pick up a pen and write down your thoughts.

Practice gratitude. It's hard to feel gratitude and stress at the same time. Devote five minutes a day to giving thanks for all the gifts in your life -- starting with your breath, the source of everything.

Walk softly. When we're stressed, we tend to hit the floor hard with every step. Imagine you're walking on a lotus flower -- tenderly, gently. Unplug through your feet, and you'll calm down to a more tranquil mental place.

Try a mini-meditation. Memorize a three-to-five-word phrase, a mantra, that will bring you back to center when things get rough, such as "I am strong" or "Spirit will guide me." Also, keep a peaceful image mentally on hand (a beach scene, a quiet forest) to call up in stressful moments.

Take stock. Make a list of things that bring you joy -- and another list of things that drain your energy. Do this 10 minutes daily for a week, and then review your lists and see how your own life matches up.

Love your commute. See your travel time as a chance to cultivate patience and compassion. If you can use calming breaths to stay relaxed and unruffled in traffic, you can handle anything.

Own the news. Change the way you approach the bleak information you get from the media. Don't shy away from knowing the facts -- apathy can prove as damaging to your spirit as stress or depression. But use what you learn to become part of the solution. Send light, positive energy and prayers to those suffering, while finding tangible ways to get involved. You're in a position of power and control. Embrace the media -- look at it and use it as your classroom.

Hall's mission to share these hard-won techniques led her to found the Oak Haven Learning Center and Stress Institute in Clarksville in 1999, nestled at the edge of the Chattahoochee National Forest. It's a sprawling, contemplative oasis where thousands of guests have come for seminars and group sessions to deal with their stress -- from recently diagnosed cancer patients to at-risk city kids from Atlanta. She has also written two books on stress -- "Alter Your Life" and "Life in Balance" -- and appears on programs like the "Today" show. But whether she's meeting one-on-one with clients or answering questions on TV, her message remains the same: Happiness lies in the simple, everyday actions that nourish our source.

On a typical morning, Hall's phone starts ringing before she can finish her coffee. Just a day or so before speaking with Body+Soul, she received calls from Unilever in Paris, the head of Kimberly-Clark, Money magazine, and CNN -- all within the first 20 minutes of her day. With stress seemingly factoring into our lives more and more, it's no surprise that so many have responded to her vision. Hall is often asked why she's so good at stress -- working with it, alleviating it, coping with it, understanding it, and helping others to do the same. And it's true: She's more than familiar with its peaks and rhythms, its immediate effects and frightening depths than most. "Through my own life experiences, I became the Zen master of stress," she explains. Even as she works with a wide range of people dealing with all kinds of stress-related issues, she continues to learn from post-traumatic stress in her own life.

"For years I clung to this notion of the perfect family, the perfect life," she admits. "But stress has to be faced head-on. When you go about your days with awareness, you begin to discover your true strength." That, she adds, is the first step to a fresh perspective -- one that ultimately allows you to create an intentional life.

Text by Terri Trespicio