Stress. It’s the drumbeat letting the audience in a theater know that a shark is looming below. It’s the voice which whispers “You know you don’t got this. Snag a drink. Grab a cookie. You deserve it.” It’s what grabs hold of your shoulder blades, clenching them up. It takes hold of your arteries and squeezes down down like a snake wrenching the life out of its prey.
Or does it?
We have been taught to believe that stress is inherently bad. Relaxation and ease… it’s kinder and sweeter sibling. But as it turns out, stress is a bit more nuanced than perhaps we once thought. And managing it isn’t always as straight forward as “calming down” and “going with the flow.”
In reality…stress is simply a body/mind response to an event or stimulus in our lives. It’s the difference between what we want and/or expect to happen and what is actually happening. The greater that gap, the more we suffer.
THIS article is meant to help you identify three different tiers that are involved in stress – and how one might use techniques in each area to help alleviate the felt experience of stress.
First – There is the Stress Itself (Or the Trigger or Symptom)
This is the thing which you currently have grievances about. Perhaps your job is demanding more from you than you want to give. Maybe your relationship is taxing you in ways that are leaving you feeling tied up and torn. Or maybe you are just itching to get some sleep, and the sleep you want so desperately is eluding you.
Often when people speak about solutions in this realm, it boils down to removing that which is causing you grief. Don’t like your job? Quit. Not happy in your relationship? Leave. Can’t get to sleep? Get a prescription to help you.
It’s a bit like when you say “My arm hurts when I touch it here.” And the person who is caring for you says “Well…don’t touch it there, then.” In other words…as Bob Newhart would say…”Just stop it!”
It’s simple. Straight forward. And…let’s be honest… it can be incredibly effective.
The only trouble is that most of the stresses in our lives are not all that easy to simply remove. Yes – I can leave my job if I want to. But I need to eat tomorrow. So its best to have money saved. Even better…I should have another job lined up. Could I leave my relationship? Maybe. But if I currently live with him/her or am married to him/her or maybe even have children with him/her….
You see where I’m going with this, right? Even when we are clear about what stresses in our lives need to be remedied, in many cases, it requires a long-term game plan.
So what do we do in the meantime? Well…that brings me to:
Second – There is your management of that stressor.
Stress isn’t just a mental disturbance. It is an entire mind/body experience.
If removing the element in your life that is causing that disturbance isn’t an option (or isn’t something you can do right away) your next step is to find ways to manage it. Examples of ways you can do that include:
- You can practice yoga. While the formal research which has been done on yoga so far has only been done in the last few decades or so (and thus have mixed reviews) there is enough evidence to suggest that it can be beneficial for a number of conditions. At the very least – it will help unravel the knots you have been tying all week in your body as you’ve bunched over your desk.
- Meditation can also be extremely helpful. Harvard Neurologist, Sara Lazar, summarized some of her findings to the Washington Post and said that not only can it help reduce your stress in the moment…but it can actually help to change your brain – increasing your flexibility and resilience to stress. It improves your capacity AND your ability to respond.
- Exercise is a powerful tool. On one hand, the act of exercising helps send out a rush of endorphins (which feels nice). BUT – it also increases our brains concentration of norepinephrine (a brain modulator that helps us cope with stress more efficiently).
- And if at all possible…sleep it off. It not only helps you reduce your stress…but it can improve your ability to make decisions. Decisions like “Should I leave my relationship? My job?” It’s hard to discern whether or not you should make huge shifts in your life like that AND even harder to execute when you’re sleep deprived.
Finally… while managing these symptoms in your life can help keep you afloat, there is actually one more option available to you. It has to do with your fundamental relationship with stress. That brings us to that third tier.
Third – Your relationship to your stress
Stress can be bad. Not getting enough sleep…sucks. But new research shows us that the very way in which we frame the narrative around what causes us dis-ease can change the way our bodies respond to it.
You see – it turns out that stress is really only bad for you when you believe it is. When you see your stress response as your body’s attempt at powering up to prepare you for a challenge, your body experiences stress differently. The impact on your immune system isn’t as severe. In fact, under a brain scan, it can look like joy or courage. Or at the very least…it can look neutral.
For example – if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by your job and the demands it is making on you…you can coil up and lament about it. Often that will lead to the next thought “Ugh…this stress is gonna kill me!” OR…you can accept that your job is creating stress. You can see your body’s response to it as its attempt at preparing you for the challenge. You can see this difficult time as an opportunity to rise to the occasion. Or perhaps as an opportunity to reassess what is important to you.
Kelly McGonigal describes this phenomenon beautifully in her TedTalk about “How to Make Stress Your Friend.”
So the next time you feel stress overwhelm your body, and you get the sense that you are battling internally with a monster…take a breath. And instead of seeing what is happening to you as a threat…see it as an opportunity to rise to the occasion and blow everyone out of the water.
If you feel like stress has become your nemesis…take heart. There are a number of strategies available to you. And it basically boils down to these simple principles:
- You can remove that which is causing you distress.
- You can manage your stress.
- You can change your relationship with stress.