“At the right levels, stress is a good thing. It shows you care and can cause you to work harder"
-Nicole Cusik, Men's Journal-
This year was my turn to host the Passover Seder. Weeks before it arrives I'm in a generous, "bring it on baby", I-can-do-it-all, let's invite everyone kind of delirium. Kids our coming in from DC & NYC. Mother-in-law from Florida. The Cincy sib & family. In-town friends & relatives.
Two weeks before Passover arrives reality starts to sink in. Gotta get the guest rooms in order. Clean the house. The endless food shopping for a week's worth of Passover-approved food. Get out the good dishes. Plan the menu. Orchestrate the Seder. Enough haggadahs for everyone? Plan the reading passages for the 4 hour Seder. Set up the card tables for extra seating. Lug up the extra chairs from the basement. Iron the table cloths and napkins. It can go on and on.
I've done this for at least 30 years, not counting all those times when my generous friends and family have taken their turns to host. Oh how I love & appreciate being a guest! So....why doesn't it get easier? Is it possible to pull off Passover without the stress?
This morning, the-morning-after, I finally had a chance to kick-back & relax with the New York Times. Got a chance to read Paul Brown's article "Don't Stress Over Stress" . He starts out with a great synopsis of Nicole Cusick's recent article from Men's Journal and after going through my own Seder stress I deem this to be practical wise advice.
- Embrace the pressure. “At the right levels, stress is a good thing,” Cusick writes. It shows you care and can cause you to work harder. “It may seem obvious, but being conscious” of the symptoms of stress is the first step in calming down. I wish I had read this 2 weeks ago. It's so encouraging. Instead of feeling guilty and upset with myself for feeling stressed & pressured about celebrating a meaningful holiday with my favorite family and friends, I would have "embraced the stress!". I care a lot about my guests. I care a lot about making a meaningful celebration. I care a lot about making sure everyone is going to be comfortable, inspired, well-fed and be happy to return. Of course Seder brings stress and Passover brings pressure. Next year I'm embracing it. Hope it will calm me down!
- Work out. People in better shape have more confidence at crunch time. Yes and no. Sometimes getting in that work-out has to drop by the wayside when you have limited hours to get everything done. I thought I'd get to work-out on most days this week, but it just didn't happen. I've exercised only 2 out 7 days this week and I'm feeling it. Amazing how even a few days off brings on a little lower back stiffness, a little achiness and a drop in my usual good mood groove. It makes me acutely aware of how important exercise is to my well-being. But honestly, it's hard to know if working out when I'm under a deadline is stress-relieving or stress-inducing. Would I have felt more relaxed if I took the time to exercise this week, or would I have been more stressed because it would have cut into my Passover prep time?
- Prepare. No surprise here. The more you have practiced, the more confidence you will have. True! Practice makes "good-enough" perfect. Every year I fine tune the Seder. It's all about the prep. I know my limits, so this year I took a couple days off of work to give myself time to do it all. I always underestimate the time it takes. This year I added 2 new tweaks that made things work more smoothly.
1. Except for the soup (which was hot & healthy), all the dinner foods were healthy, prepared ahead of time and best of all--could be served at room temperature!! Trust me, when you have a 2.5 hour Seder before you serve the meal, it is really hard to keep everything "warm/hot" and not "dried out". And I like to sit at the table, not continually running back & forth into the kitchen to check on the status of everything.
Poached salmon with lemon mint tzatziki sauce, Inca Quinoa Salad, Susan's Seductive Strawberry Salad, Spinach, Fennel, Leek Matzo Ball Soup, Salmon and White Fish "Gefilte Fish" Cakes , and egg salad in roasted new potato shells. All done ahead. All served cold or room temperature.
2. Have all the food cooked and table set the day before. Even with all that done, the last minute preps took up most of the day of the Seder. I actually thought I'd have the whole day to laze around and visit with my house guests. As it turned out, I was grateful to have the extra time to get "everything else" done. The kind of chores I usually think take no time, took most of the day. It was great to have the cushion of time.
- Think positive thoughts. If you visualize success, the odds of it occurring increase. “Negative ruminating may prime you to fail.” Sometimes that is easier said than done. The food part is easy to be positive about. Having everything flow easily and worrying that the Seder will engage a group of diverse age and observance levels is something I haven't learned to "let go of" yet. The lesson here for me: I can't worry about pleasing everyone. Just do the best you can. I'm not responsible for everyone else's good time.
- Try meditation. “Researchers from the University of Wisconsin found that meditation can improve your focus — beneficial when preparing for a stressful event.” I agree 100%! Maybe I didn't exercise like I should have, but I did meditate this week. I am not a regular meditator, but I pull it out of "my bag of tricks" when I'm under stress & when I need to "recharge". You don't need a lesson to start meditating. I just go to the guest bedroom, set a kitchen timer for 30 minutes, get comfortable by propping up my back on a Back Jack, wrapping up in a cuddly blanket & slowly breathing in and out. Count the breaths on the exhale & when you get to 10 start counting again. That's all you have to do. When I notice I've lost count & I'm up to 21, I say, "Oops, & start over with one". When I notice I'm thinking about a recipe, I say "Oops, & start over with one". By the time 30 minutes has passed I'm rested & relaxed and feel as if I had a nice nap. Try it!
- Learn from mistakes. For those who still let their nerves get the better of them, take solace in this: “Ironically, it’s people with more cognitive ability, more working memory, who tend to choke under pressure,” says *Sian L. Beilock, a University of Chicago professor. I checked out Sian's article and it's that old counter-intuitive conclusion. Under low pressure, smart people use all their smarts & problem-solve beautifully. Under high pressure, smart people freak out, take short-cuts & screw things up. The trick is to convince yourself "you have nothing to worry about" and "you have all the time in the world". "Don't worry - be happy" and then "Do your best!"
Parting thoughts: I just came across this quote that says it all.
“The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
*Beilock, S. L., & DeCaro, M. S. (2007). From poor performance to success under stress: Working memory, strategy selection, and mathematical problem solving under pressure. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition, 33, 983-998.