Stress has gotten a bad reputation.
We hear A LOT about how stressed out we are (and we are), needing to de-stress (which we do), and all the techniques (this yoga, that meditation, and then some tea). It’s stressful thinking that you have another thing to manage and control and another bundle of things that you should be doing on your already long to do list.
Let’s stop stressing about stress. Let’s understand it, and like Buddha with Mara, invite stress to tea so that it does not have such a strangle-hold in our lives.
We ARE designed to deal with stress, our ancestors would not have survived if they sat under a tree and meditated and ‘om-ed’ all day long. However, we are biologically designed to handle acute (short bursts) not chronic (all the time) stress on a daily basis.
Certainly you have heard of the dangers of chronic stress. Chronic stress is long-term and unrelenting stress. You may experience it working in a stressful job day-in and day-out, constantly feeling like you never get caught up on the to-do’s or should-do’s, traffic-jammed commutes, eating poorly day after day, pesticides on your veggies and fruit when you are trying not to eat poorly, guzzling caffeine to get up and alcohol to wind down, chemicals in the cleaning products you use, you get the idea. In the past, our ancestors would have only dealt with this kind of stress in times of intensely long famine, fights between tribes, and natural disaster. In the past, running from a predator, times of famine, or intense weather, was counter balanced by more time of realization, socialization, feasting and delightful weather. These cycles of stress and relaxation are in our DNA. They balance each other out. Not to glorify tribal days, but the hunting and gathering life-style did have a lot less chronic stressors.
The amount of chronic stress we endure today is correlated with an increase in disease, weight gain, and premature death.
We are more equipped to handle acute stress on a daily basis, which results from triggers that require short bursts of energy from the stress response, before we equalize and the stressor passes. So, if a child is about to get hit by a car, you could run incredibly fast to grab them and get out of the way. You would not be able to run that fast when you were out for a jog, even if you tried. Your biology triggers a cascade of hormones that allow your body to do incredible things with acute stressors. After you grab the child and your heart calms down, certainly you would be shaken up, but that particular stress is over.
So, I said that we are barraged by chronic stressors in todays world and that it is going to lead to the death of us all. How the heck is that not supposed to stress you out? Better pack up, head to the hills with some good friends and live off the land. Not necessarily. (Although going out and camping for a week would do wonders for you and yours.) There are lots of changes I will recommend to decrease stress in later posts. Here, I won’t ask you to dramatically change anything because you to want befriend your stress. Just make some small changes in thinking and behavior.
A lot of the chronic stress we experience is neurological looping, and it can change. You have the incredible capacity to shift your current patterns and turn most chronic stressors into acute stressors. Here is how.
With the above example of acute stress (you saved a child from getting hit by a car, remember?), after you get out of the way and everyone is safe your mind will most likely say: “But wait, there is still traffic! And the child might run out into the street again! And next time someone might not see them, and the driver might be looking at their cell phone, and what if I had not been there . . .” and on and on and on.
1. Pause and Breathe
This is the moment I want you to catch yourself in thought and pause. You know you are OK, but your body does not and you need to let it know. Take a deep breath. Breathing deeply and slowly will bring your heart rate down and it will give the signal to your body that it does not need to be stressing anymore. I do this a lot in traffic. Driving in LA, I am confronted by constant acute stressors, cars stopping unexpectedly or hurried drivers cutting me off. My blood and heart start pounding and I course correct as needed thanks to reflexes. Then, once it is ok, I take a deep breath and I will say to myself “It’s ok Sage” or “It’s ok body” and breath until my pulse is normal.
2. Name the Thoughts
If your mind keeps returning to the stressor and revving you up, which it probably well, then name your thoughts and let them go. (This is a great meditation technique, and I will go into more mindfulness in another post). So, for example, if you have a confrontation with someone and the issue was resolved, but you just cannot stop replaying the conflict in your mind, just name the thoughts, “replaying, replaying”or “repeating, repeating” and let it go. It may come up again, but just do the same thing. You can do this with other indecent thoughts too, just name what comes through, “worry, worry,” “anxiety, anxiety,” “to-do list, to-do list,” and then let it go. Talk to yourself in a kind voice when you do this. It is not bad that you are thinking in loops, it is just not helpful.
3. Take Action if Needed
If what ever you are thinking about needs action to be taken then take action now. If you have your hand on a hot stove, I am not asking you to keep your hand there, breathe, and think, “hot, hot” in a soothing voice. Get your hand off the stove! Then, get some ice on your hand. Then you can breathe and assess if you need to go to the hospital. If you do, then you go. However, if what ever you are chronically mentally stressing over does not need further action, or if that action cannot happen now, then let it go. If you are stuck in traffic and you are going to be late to work, then call (hands free) and tell them. Then name your thoughts and let the anxiety of the traffic go because you don’t have any control. Stressing about it is just going to put you in a bad mood (and much more likely to get you in an accident) and it certainly won’t make it move any faster.
4. Don't ‘Make it a Double’
If you are experiencing stress, chronic or acute, don’t ‘make it double’ by stressing about it. Stressors can make us stronger and more resilient in the future. Working hard on a project or at the gym can be a healthy thing. If your only choice is a non-orgnaic apple or a snickers, choose the apple and don’t spray stress on top of the pesticides, it just gives your body more toxins to deal with.
For a WONDERFUL talk on “How to make stress your friend” check this out Kelly McGonigal's TED Talk about stress.
Stress-free is not only impossible, it is not desirable. Stress is a response that allows you to handle life’s challenges. You can change the way our body reacts to stress and change your neurology so that acute stressors don’t become chronic, by: 1) Pausing to breathe, 2) Naming your thoughts 3) Taking action and 4) Not making it a double.
I hope this is helpful. Please let me know if you try this and how it manifests in your life. Share how you deal with stress. And feel free to ask questions regarding stress and stress management.