September 21, 2018

Managing Stress Can Lead to Success

By Daryl Nerl, Special to Greater Lehigh Valley REALTORS® eMagazine

By many accounts, the summer of 2018 has been a long, hot one, but for Allentown real estate broker Chris Raad it has perhaps been a skosh hotter.

“We’re in a really busy month, a busy market,” he says during a late August telephone interview. “I think that there’s not a lot of patience out there — and me included in certain instances. Our patience level is not very high right now.

“It’s just been a long summer. It’s a crazy market,” says Raad, a third generation broker with Harvey Z. Raad Realtors. “There’s a lot of pressure on a lot of Realtors right now to get houses sold, to get houses for our buyers — and the expectations of our buyers has gotten higher as well. Our buyers are looking for more from us as Realtors than they have in the past.”

Sean LaSalle, a team leader for Fox & Roach Realtors in Macungie, also knows the acute pressure of buying and selling homes during the warm weather months — the busiest time to be an agent in the Northeast.

“I live out of my car, pretty much. During the spring and summer months, I’m probably working 80 hours a week,” LaSalle says, speaking quickly on his cell phone as he drives. “I love what I do. Finding someone their dream home is super rewarding in the end. I love negotiating. I like dealing with the inspection issues. I just love making people happy.”

But even for a successful Realtor like LaSalle, who sells more than 50 homes a year in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, pressure always lurks — there are contingency sales and clients with special needs, home inspections and multiple balls to keep in the air for every sale he coordinates. If one ball drops, the sale could collapse and a commission check worth thousands of dollars is lost.

He also has a family to support, with health insurance premiums in excess of $1,000 a month — most real estate agents are independent contractors who are responsible for obtaining their own insurance — and a 19-year-old son for whom he pays college tuition.

And the clock is always ticking.

“The real stress for me is, where does the next commission check come from?” he says. “Right now, we’re starting to slow down because we’re in August, so the phone is not ringing as much.”

Real estate agents have the 18th most stressful job in the country, according to Careercast.com, which does an annual survey of occupations in the United States. At times, during the past decade, the survey has rated real estate agents in the top ten of most stressful jobs.

Mental health professionals recognize that a certain amount of stress is necessary for people to succeed at any task. This relationship is known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law, which was discovered by psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson in 1908. The law says that human performance improves with physiological or mental arousal — but only to a point. If the stress becomes too great, the level of performance drops off.

“There’s such a thing as optimal stress. And if there’s not enough stress — not enough challenge — you feel sleepy and groggy and bored and inattentive. And if there’s too much stress we feel overwhelmed and anxious and distressed,” says Dr. Susan Wiley, the vice chair of Ambulatory Psychiatry for Lehigh Valley Health Network. “There is something in the middle where stress increases to a point where we feel challenged and we feel like we can meet those challenges.

“I don’t like to use the words optimal stress because most people think of stress as a negative thing, but another way to think about it is to call it the optimal level of challenge or perceived challenge,” says Wiley, who also leads and is co-founder of LVHN’s Center for Mindfulness, which offers adult classes in mindfulness based stress reduction.

“A definition of stress is when the perceived challenge is in excess of the perceived resources available to deal with it,” Wiley says.

Perception is an important part of the equation, says Wiley, whose mindfulness classes try to teach students to look for ways to reframe their mindset around their challenges. Teaching students how to meditate is among the chief goals of the eight-week course.

“Mindfulness is attention training,” Wiley says. “What we pay attention to is what becomes our reality. So if we pay attention to worry and distress, that’s going to be our reality. If we pay attention the ease that’s present right now in our bodies, we can feel quite at ease no matter where we are or what we’re doing.”

Everyone deals with a certain amount of stress and short-lived or infrequent stressful episodes do not generally pose health risks, but unresolved or prolonged stress can lead to illness and even serious and chronic diseases, according to health professionals. How well people react to stress can vary from individual to individual and when it all becomes too much, the reactions can also vary.

“Everybody has their own what we call a stress signature,” Wiley says. “Some people get headaches. Some people get digestive problems. Some people get tension headaches. Some people get heart palpitations, they get short of breath. It widely varies. But generally speaking, people who get one kind continue to get that kind.”

Stress can ultimately lead to “a feeling of dread, a feeling of impending doom,” she continues. “A feeling like ‘things are going down, they’re really bad, I have to get out of here.’ We call it an urge to flee. Also, when people are extremely stressed over long periods of time, they can become depressed. I think of depressed as … what happens when stress goes unrecognized and untreated.”

There can also be physiological consequences of prolonged and unresolved stress.

“People have heart attacks because of stress. They could have strokes,” says Dr. Albert Peters, director of the Center for Anti-Aging Medicine & Hormone Wellness in Allentown. “Stress stimulates the organs in very abnormal ways. It makes your heart rate go faster. It makes your blood sugar goes up.”

A specialist in endocrinology — the role that hormones play in the body, Peters explains that prolonged and constant stress can wreak havoc with our adrenal glands, which are located at the top of our kidneys. When stressed, the glands produce adrenaline, which increases the rate of breathing and blood circulation to prepare our muscles for exertion — the so-called “fight-or-flight response.” It also produces sex hormones and another hormone called cortisol, which regulates metabolism and blood sugar.

“Our organs make hormones for good purposes, but we put our bodies under abnormal situations and even our organs and our body can’t keep up with what we put our bodies through,” Peters says. “Cortisol is a good thing. Cortisol helps us deal with stress. Our cortisol levels are high in the morning and they’re low at night because our body prepares us for the stresses of the day to come.”

But when the stress is prolonged, the body begins to overproduce cortisol and the effects of that can be very harmful, Peters says.

“Too much of it can increase blood sugar, increase blood pressure too high, it could make us gain weight and it also disturbs our sleep,” he says. “If our cortisol levels are thrown off, we don’t sleep well. Sleep deprivation is probably the single most detrimental thing we can experience in our life because when we sleep that’s when our body repairs itself. Everything heals when we’re sleeping. Our brain gets a chance to rest. Our muscles grow. Our cortisol levels reset themselves at night.

“So if we’re not sleeping because we’re stressed out, it becomes this vicious cycle of lack of sleep, increased cortisol, increased blood pressure, increased blood sugar, weight gain, and then chronic fatigue because we’re not sleeping and it just becomes this giant circle that never ends.”

Peters says there are an “unprecedented” number of patients with type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and even cancer. “It’s not all related to the stress cycle, but probably a good part of it is,” he says.

A practitioner of functional medicine, Peters uses his expertise in endocrinology to find the root cause of patient complaints, combining traditional medicine with a more holistic approach. “I’m going to start by looking for very subtle things that are going on in their blood work that may not constitute a disease yet, but maybe it’s sort of an early warning sign that I can start helping them with before they get the disease,” he says.

If an early warning sign is there, Peters tries to get his patients to focus on lifestyle changes — a better diet, more exercise. If warranted, he might also introduce nutritional supplements and hormone therapies to, for example, get the level of cortisol under control. He also encourages patients to look at ways to manage their stress.

Yoga is one option Peters likes to encourage his patients to examine.

“Meditation is hard and its not for everybody,” Peters says. “A lot of people are so stressed and their mind is so racing all the time, they can’t calm it enough to actually get in what I call the null state of meditation. You want to have your mind clear. Yoga is a good way to start that because it’s a peaceful exercise. It’s not rapid. You’re not sweating like you would if you were running five miles in 90 degrees.

“Yoga is a way to fool your mind into peacefulness because you’re putting your body in different physical positions that you literally have to let your stressors and the things that are racing through your mind go because you’re focused on maintaining a pose or a posture.”

But every patient is different and sometimes, Peters says, he has to look for an avenue that works for them. For those who are more spiritual or religious, prayer can be as good as meditation.

Any exercise — Peters recommends 180 minutes of it a week — is also a great stress reliever. In addition to the obvious physiological benefits, exercise causes the body to release hormones called endorphins, our body’s own natural opiate, which causes what some call a “runner’s high.”

Second year real estate agent Jennifer Brehm likes to run three or four times a week to decompress from the pressures of her job and her status as a soon-to-be-divorced single mother of two children.

“When I first started, I was getting up in the morning and work, work, work, work,” she says. “Now, I’m balancing out my morning. I take the kids to school, go to the gym and then I’m gonna start working. You really need to do that because if you don’t, you get caught up in this, and that’s why I think a lot of people quit because it is very, very stressful.”

Brehm counts herself lucky to have the help and support of her parents and her children’s father, who remains a presence. Otherwise, she says, she might have had trouble establishing herself in the real estate business, where the average first- and second-year agents earn on average just a little more than $8,000 a year.

“I was very lucky. I did very well my first year, so I didn’t have to go out and get a second job, but a lot of people do,” she says. “It’s hard. I don’t really take a day off.”

But she says she has improved her time management skills and now makes sure she takes time for herself when she needs to.

“When I’m super stressed, I like to run. That helps me,” Brehm says. “Sometimes you just have to take a step back. When you have bad stuff happening at work and you think something is not going to go through, sometimes if you just sleep on it, the next day your mind frame is different.”

Keeping a good balance between work, home and wellness is a key for successful people like Brehm for whom real estate may just provide the “optimal level of challenge” described by Dr. Wiley.

“I kind of thrive off of stress,” Brehm says. “I just work better under pressure. This is a good job for me because I like being busy. I like the challenge of it.”
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