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Stress Got You Tied Up in Knots?

If increasing regulations, turbulent markets, demanding clients and the day-to-day grind of running a business have you tossing and turning more than usual at night, you’re not alone.

The growing number of stressors bombarding today’s financial professional has many contemplating early retirement or even a career change. But before stress pushes you out the door of the business you’ve worked so hard to build, there are several easy steps you can take to loosen the knots in your stomach and start sleeping soundly again.

Because stress is a natural response to change, starting a new career or diving into retirement may not bring the relief you expect and may even increase your anxiety. Instead, consider some simple adjustments to your thinking and your daily routine that could make your current situation much easier to handle. To keep a cool head when the stress level is ratcheted up at the office, Kris Flammang, a financial advisor with LPF Financial Advisors in Sarasota, Florida, employs a simple two-step method.

“There are two things I do to stay level,” Flammang said. “One is to make sure I have a good work-life balance. Having designated time off to spend with your family or vacation time, that's important. The second thing I do is constantly remind myself about my investing philosophy around retirement income strategies and around the time frame that these clients have.”

By keeping his philosophy and strategies at the front of his mind, Flammang said he’s more confident and better able to assure nervous clients they need to stick with his plan, even when markets drop and their portfolios take a hit.

Dr. Steven Wengel, chairman of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Department of Psychiatry, has long been a proponent of meditation and mindfulness to relieve recurring stress.

While those terms may conjure up images of chanting Buddhist monks, Wengel said there’s a reason these ancient techniques are endorsed by medical professionals — they work. Best of all, they can be easily mastered in a short time by dedicating just a few minutes per day.

“Meditation is the opposite of our natural fight or flight response to stress,” Wengel said. “But it’s like learning to whistle. Everyone can learn to do it. It just takes practice.”

Wengel recommends setting aside 10 minutes at the same time each day to meditate. He prefers before going to sleep at night because it helps him wake up feeling relaxed and ready for the day. If you choose to meditate during the day don’t set an alarm, because you’ll focus on the time. While sitting (don’t lay down, because you could fall asleep), close your eyes and focus completely on your breathing. Each time you exhale, mentally say the word “one” in a drawn-out fashion.

If your mind wanders, refocus your attention on your breathing. After a few days of practice, it will become easier to keep outside thoughts from creeping in. For many, this simple exercise is all it takes to alleviate day-to-day tension.

Wengel said he first learned of this technique from a book by Herbert Benson entitled “The Relaxation Response” and has recommended its teachings to others in the medical profession. Much like financial professionals, many of Wengel’s colleagues are coping with increased burnout brought on by restrictive regulations and the added stress of working with patients who are coping with challenges of their own.

Similar to meditation, mindfulness is a relaxation technique that involves staying “in the now” to avoid adding to your stress by mentally rehashing what happened yesterday or worrying about what tomorrow may bring.

“Remind yourself that cup of coffee smells good and just focus on the smell,” Wengel said. “When you’re taking a shower, don’t think about what you have to do during the day, just focus on how the water feels and how the shampoo smells. There’s an old saying, ‘When you’re doing the dishes, just do the dishes.’ So if you’re washing dishes, express wonderment at the water and how the soap makes it feel slippery.”

Another technique Wengel recommends for people who have a difficult time leaving their job-related stress at the office is to pick a spot on their daily commute where you tell yourself you’re no longer allowed to think about work. In the morning, when you pass that spot on the way to the office, give yourself permission to start thinking about work again.

If you find yourself constantly mulling over work-related problems when you’re away from the office, Wengel suggests taking a few moments to close your eyes and picture a river flowing from right to left. Then imagine a leaf slowly drifting on the water. Picture a word or a symbol on the leaf that represents what you’re thinking about. Once the leaf reaches the left side, imagine it floating out of your mind altogether.

Wengel said he has worked with doctors, nurses and medical professionals who, like financial professionals, added to their job-induced stress by being too emotionally attached to their patients. This can be particularly difficult to avoid when working with people you care deeply about.

“There isn’t a magic bullet for this. You just need to have boundaries,” Wengel said. “You want to care about their problems, but it will eat you alive. At the same time, we don’t want to come across as callous and uncaring.”

When advising clients who are stressed over how their investments are performing or market uncertainty, Scott Sims, president and founder of The Pinnacle Group in West Chester, Ohio, said confidence is the key to countering their fears.

“One thing I learned through a coaching program was to always protect your confidence,” Sims said. “I wasn't sure what that meant at the time, but when you get into difficult times, it becomes very real. You have to maintain your confidence in the service you're delivering and the cyclical nature of the markets. Your clients want to feed off your confidence, so it's important to protect it within yourself and then project that confidence in front of them.”

A career as a financial professional is incredibly demanding. But for those who find a way to cope with the stress, it can also be rewarding. So before you let job-related pressure force you into a change of direction, incorporate some simple stress-relieving techniques into your daily routine. They could be just what the doctor ordered for achieving the goals you set for yourself when you chose to build a practice.