The other day after getting out of my car and as was walking towards my house, I suddenly jumped back, screaming. My boyfriend, startled, jumped away from me and asked me what was wrong. At first, I honestly had no idea why I was screaming or why my body was tensed up ready to run or hit something. Only after a couple of seconds did I realize why; I had seen a snake. My instincts had caused a chain reaction so quick, so automatic, that my entire body moved before my brain finally caught up enough to assemble the information from my eyes and provide me a picture of a snake.
That is the stress response. An automatic, subconscious response occurs so quickly that we don’t actually see a threat until well after our bodies have already responded to the threat. It’s a survival pattern that forces action, without consultation or permission, to ensure we survive. While the nature of threats has changed over the years, the body’s response has not. Because of this, many of us live our lives in a constant state of stress. But how are we supposed to combat stress when it's built into us? How do you fight your body, your brain, your very nature?
Well, the simple answer is, you don’t. Your body is an incredible creation, primed for survival and made for balance. So don’t fight your body. Instead, work with it to help yourself regain the balance you so desperately need. You regain this balance by managing stress and its effects on your life. So, how do you manage stress?
Ultimately, stress management is simply a set of skills. Skills that can be learned, practiced and repeated until they become second nature. In this article, I’m going to focus on four broad categories of stress management: Increasing Awareness, Self-Care, Slowing Down, and Reprogramming. We will look at some of the skills involved with each category and even try a few out.
The first step in reducing stress is awareness. Because the stress response is automatic, you may not consciously realize how stressful something is until seconds, minutes, or even days later. To reduce your stress, you first have to know that it is there. You have to learn what stress feels like for you. As you become more attune with your body, you will learn to find your stress quickly. The quicker you find it, the easier it will be to let the tension go.
Think of long-term stress like a sleepy child.
If you are aware, right away, that the child needs a nap you may get them to lie down without a peep. You might even have naptime as part of the routine. But if you don’t see the signs, the child may become restless and cranky. It gets worse until you both are wearing on one another's nerves. Nothing you can do makes the child happy or calm. The child becomes more and more upset: screaming, crying, temper tantrums. Eventually, the child completely exhausts his or her little body, and collapses into sleep, tears staining his or her little face. All the drama could have been avoided with early awareness and action. Stress is the same way. If you find it quickly, you can soothe it easier.
Let’s say you know you feel stress when you get a migraine. Sadly, once you have that migraine, it likely takes medication, supplements, and hours to simply function again. But what if you could realize you feel stress when your neck is just a little tense? Or your shoulders just a little scrunched? If you have awareness of stress sooner, you can often stop it from overwhelming and crashing your system. The sooner you find tension, the easier it is to soothe it. The longer you let stress remain in your body, the harder it becomes to let it go.
Take a few moments right now and focus on your body, slowly scanning from head to toe. Do you feel the tension in any of your muscles? Are there butterflies in your stomach? Does your heart feel fluttery? Is it hard to catch your breath? Is your mind racing? Your hands cold? Where are you holding stress? If you are stressed, it will be in your body. Find it. Examine it. And remember the feeling so you can spot it again in the future. There are many, many “Body Scan” meditations available on the internet. If you have time, take a few minutes to look one up and really attune yourself to what your body is experiencing.
You wouldn’t expect someone to run a marathon without preparing for it. Building endurance, eating healthy, preparing the body--all of these things and more would need to be done if the person wanted to be successful and healthy at the end of the run. The same is true of life. We all experience a daily marathon of stressors, and if we hope to be successful and healthy at the end of the day, we need to be prepared. This is why self-care is critical to managing stress and reducing the effects of stress on our lives.
There are a plethora of things you can do to take care of yourself, and plenty of advice about what you should do to be healthy. Ultimately, though, self-care needs to make sense for you. It needs to include tasks that meet your needs. A healthy diet, exercise, and good sleep are all important. But equally important are setting boundaries, allowing yourself to experience emotions, connecting with loved ones, and making time for fun. Self-care is also about small things. Choosing a healthy snack instead of a bad one. Sleeping in 5 more minutes. Taking medication or supplement that supports your health. Or just taking time to laugh.
If you’re not sure what would help, take some time to get acquainted with yourself and your needs. Just like you took a few minutes to scan your body, you can take time to scan your whole self. What do you need right now? In the long run? What would make you feel better? Lighter? Calmer? Safer? What are you craving? What would make you feel cared for? What makes you feel loved? Journaling is a great way to start exploring what you need. Try looking up some Self-Care Journal prompts to get you started. Just remember, once you figure out what you need, start meeting those needs.
The body is built for balance. Just as you have a stress response that can be triggered, you also have a relaxation response that can be triggered. The relaxation response shuts down the stress response and brings the body back to a calm, balanced state. This response came to light when Dr. Herbert Benson began researching why meditation has so many health benefits. He discovered that meditation involves two main processes: repetition and disregard for all other thoughts. The repetition can be a movement, a phrase, even breathing. You simply focus on the repetition and if other thoughts arise, you let them go, and refocus on the repetition. If you can do these two things, you can activate your relaxation response.
There are many activities that can activate the relaxation response: prayer, yoga, breathing, running, walking, biking, guided imagery, tai chi, dancing, rocking a baby. In some manner, all of these activities can be a form of meditation. The hardest part for most people is the disregard of other thoughts. This disregard is basically mindfulness: allowing awareness to be now and thoughts to occur without judgment, analyzation, or reaction. In a world of planning, doing, and constant movement, being mindful is hard. But like any skill, it becomes easier with practice.
If you’re interested in trying mindfulness, here’s a super simple mindfulness activity you can do right now. Close your eyes and for one minute (whatever one minute feels like to you), focus on your breath. Notice where you feel your breath. Do you feel the air in and out of your nostrils? Do you feel your stomach or chest rising and falling? Don’t change your breath, just notice it, feel it. Be aware of how your body moves and changes as you inhale and exhale. If you feel other thoughts intruding or other things distracting you, that’s ok. Acknowledge them and refocus on your breath. When you feel as though one minute has passed, open your eyes. Take a minute and try it out.
If you took a minute and tried this activity, then you have been successful at mindfulness and at meditation. It’s truly that simple! There are millions of mindfulness exercises and meditation practices out there for all skill levels. If activating your relaxation response sounds like something you need to do, begin exploring some of these activities. Find ones that work for you and practice them as often as possible to turn off stress and turn on relaxation.
As we grow up, we learn certain ways of behaving, thinking, and believing. We are essentially programmed by the messages we receive from our family, friends, and society at large. Some of this programming is useful and helpful, some of it is downright harmful. All of this programming affects the way we interpret situations and our interpretations directly affect the level of stress we experience.
Let’s look at an example of how interpretations can affect our stress levels.
The situation is a dog running at you and barking. If you love dogs, this situation will likely produce minimal to no stress. It might actually make you happy. If, however, you are terrified of dogs, this situation will cause you to have an extreme stress response. The only difference in these situations is the interpretation. Do you see the dog as friendly? Or do you see the dog as threatening?
These interpretations often happen without us even realizing it. Like our stress response, they have become automatic. We simply accept our perceptions as reality and never realize that what we are reacting to is actually just our interpretation of a situation and not the real situation. Interpretations happen at the initial processing of a stressor before we are even consciously aware of what is happening. And interpretations occur after we have conscious awareness of a situation. If we are able to change our conscious or unconscious interpretations of situations, we can directly change how much stress we feel.
I call these intentional changes reprogramming. When you reprogram, you actively decide to change the unhealthy patterns of behavior and thinking that are natural to you. You choose to identify how and alter the ways in which you see the world, and in so doing reduce the amount of stress you feel. Fostering gratitude, challenging negative thoughts, and using positive self-talk are all forms of reprogramming that can help reduce stress.
By fostering gratitude, you refocus your mind on the positive things in life. It does not make the negative stressor disappear, but it does provide you with a more balanced and accurate view of life. You don’t have to wait for Thanksgiving to be grateful, try practicing gratitude today!
When you challenge your negative thoughts, you often find you are actually challenging cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are ways of thinking that undermine confidence, eliminate hope, and generally lie about reality. It would take an entire article to fully explain these unhelpful thinking patterns, so I won’t go into detail here. But, if you have a lot of negative thoughts bouncing around in your head, I highly encourage you to look up cognitive distortions and, more importantly, how to challenge them.
Positive self-talk boosts confidence, increasing your belief that you are strong enough to handle a situation. One of the simplest forms of positive self-talk is self-affirmations. While repeating positive phrases about yourself may seem silly, it is a great place to start if you are your own worst critic. If you find yourself belittling yourself or saying mean or rude things to yourself, try replacing these thoughts with something positive that you want to believe about yourself. These are a few of my favorites: I am proud of myself for even daring to try. I am not what happened to me; I am what I choose to be. I am capable and responsible. I am worthy of love and respect. It may feel weird at first, but trust me, it’s not only ok to be your own cheerleader, but also super healthy.
If you’re interested in reducing your stress, take a few minutes to think about what skill area you could start improving. Would becoming more aware of how your body holds stress be helpful? Or maybe you need to start working on reprogramming some of those outdated messages left over from your childhood? Whatever area (or areas) you choose to start building up, there are many free resources and tools out there to help you. Remember to focus on what works for you. And while learning to manage stress takes time and effort, just like learning any skill does, it is so worth it. Just imagine what you could accomplish, how you would feel, who you could be if you just felt a little less stressed.