Getting Real With Shadra Bruce

I know a little something about stress. When my youngest child was 14 months old, I decided to return to college to finish my degree. I was 31 years old with five kids at home, and the closest university was 45 miles away. I started classes in January, in New York, during a blizzard. If that wasn’t stressful enough, a month after I started school, my mom, 2,400 miles away in Idaho, was diagnosed with cancer. Two months after that, my husband’s corporation “reorganized,” leaving him without a job.

Talk about stress!

We seriously considered dropping out. Since I had transferred all of my previous college credits to my new university, I was actually quite close to my bachelor’s degree, and the university had given me an extraordinary scholarship that allowed me to go to school (at a prestigious, private university) for free. We couldn’t let that go, so we resolved to see it through – stress and all.

Stress can do odd things to a person. It can cause loss of sleep; it can affect your health. Stress can make you lose your appetite or want to eat all the time; it can make you short-tempered. Chronic stress is even linked to things like increased belly fat, high blood pressure, and clogged arteries. Stress can cause breakouts – even when you are well past the acne age.

As my first semester ended, my husband found work with the local school district. My mother’s health, however, continued to decline. I decided the following year to double up on classes and graduate a year early, so that we could head west to be close enough to care for my mom.

I enrolled in 22 credits at school, had three teenagers, a kindergartner and a “terrible” 2–year-old at home, and we were still reeling from the job upset. I wanted to obtain my degree but not at the expense of my family.

Stress took its toll. I had trouble sleeping some nights. I may have been slightly cranky at times…and my face broke out like it had in high school.

But stress also helped me achieve my goals.

If you can keep your goals in mind, stress can be a great motivator. My goals were to graduate (with a decent GPA) while still spending time with my kids. Stress became a tool to help me stay on task and accomplish my goals. Certainly, there were times when I wanted to throw up my hands and say, “Forget it!” – and there were times when my mom was having a bad day with chemo and I wanted to drop everything and be with her.

With the support of my husband (and my mom cheering me on) I finished with straight A’s, graduated with honors and bonded with my kids every day. I even earned a full-tuition assistantship to grad school. My mom came to New York to see my graduation ceremony, and I was by my mother’s side through the last year of her efforts to fight cancer.

To use stress as a motivational tool, you need to set goals. Perhaps you are working two jobs for a short time in order to pay down credit debt. Don’t think about the day-to-day exhaustion of working; think about the end-goal of having less debt and more financial freedom.

Once you have a goal, make a plan. Be sure to set a time limit for how long you will have to endure the stress – have an end in sight. Enlist the support of your family and friends. Write down your goals and your plan for achieving them. Make sure you have visuals to remind you of why you are working so hard now.

It’s important that you manage your stress. That 45-minute drive I had to school each way actually ended up being a blessing. I used it to shift gears mentally, to prepare for (on the way to school) what I had to get done that day and (on the way home) getting back into mommy-mode. I spent a lot of time on the phone with my mom during those drives, so that I could feel like I was actively supporting her.

One of the best ways to manage stress is to perform breathing exercises. You can do these exercises anywhere. Whenever you need to “de-stress,” take a few deep breaths, the kind that reach your belly. Not only do they help calm you mentally, but they have a physical affect on your body and reduce your blood pressure and heart rate.  If you’re pushing yourself and getting tired, take short, quick breaths. Be sure you are sitting down, and stop if you get light headed. This breathing exercise increases your circulation and wakes you up.

The most important way to manage your stress is to squeeze in some exercise. Stay focused on nutrition. If, like me, you lean toward food when you’re stressed, pack healthy snacks and keep trail mix around. The better you eat, the more you’ll be able to keep your stress levels under control. No matter how busy you are, take five minutes every day to re-center. Find a quiet place, meditate, close your eyes – do something to just stop each day.

Finally, to really manage your stress and accomplish the most, use your time wisely. If I had five or ten minutes before a class started, I would read ahead in a chapter. I made lists of what I had to do that day, and I followed them. I stayed flexible enough to handle changes (like sick kids), but I also used every minute of my time to get something done.

Stress can be debilitating if you let it. It can stop you in your tracks and make it difficult to think clearly or make decisions, but if you can keep your eye on the goal you are trying to achieve – and the fact that the stress is temporary – you can use stress to help keep you motivated to achieve whatever you set out to accomplish.