Stress is a bit of a charlatan. It can dress itself up and masquerade as any number of other ailments: from annoying twinges and fleeting minor symptoms to full-on dramatic events like panic attacks that are terrifying enough to effectively incapacitate you.
Another feature of stress is that it can come directly from obvious and outside forces, such as situations and experiences, or from less evident happenings occurring within your body, both emotional and physiological. Just imagine the stress your cells are under after you scarfed down that bag of all-dressed chips and diet soda you had with your last session of TV binge-watching.
Even when we feel relatively relaxed on the surface, with external things progressing smoothly, our bodies may be experiencing stress internally.
There is also the collective stress that we as humans on this ailing planet have been feeling this past year that seems to hang in the air. It is harder to quantify this type of stress, but it is no less insidious.
So, do we have to just live with stress?
Yes, and no.
Somewhat like blood pressure, humans need some stress in order to stay alive. Stress is not always negative. A little bit of stress can be motivational, can energize, can inspire and can even be sought out. Think amusement park rides or horror movies! As much of a villain as stress might be, it does have its usefulness and a positive purpose in moderate doses. The fight-or-flight response incited by a stressful situation causes hormones to course through the body and prepares it to flee the foe or stand and do battle. This is an extremely efficient and effective response that we need as long as it doesn’t become chronic.
The stress that comes with doing something fun, exciting or nerve-wracking, such as embarking on a new adventure, relationship, engaging in public speaking, or stepping outside of our usual comfort zones in order to grow and learn, is a beneficial kind of stress that gives us energy, focus and the desire to succeed. This kind of stress can be motivational.
Chronic stress, or stress that manifests itself in ways that disrupt functioning, however, is not something to ignore. Chronic or excessive stress can lead to overwhelm, which can lead to burnout and depression, all of which require professional care and intervention.
Finding calm begins with awareness
As with everything, transformation begins with awareness. Understanding that stress is dressed in more than one costume, and that it is not simply situational, but can be internal and/or residual and/or absorbed from the collective, can help to bring awareness to the feeling of dis-ease that might be afoot, even if the external circumstances appear to be relatively benign.
This is often where negative self-talk enters the stage.
“I should not be feeling this way…there is nothing exciting or pressing going on,” may not be entirely accurate upon closer examination. For some, boredom itself is stressful. Loss – of freedoms and usual routines and activity due to pandemic restrictions – creates stress. And despite the inner judgmental dialogue around expectations and what should or should not constitute stress, all stressful experiences are valid. The idea that it’s acceptable to judge these feelings is not.
In her article in Psychology Today, Patricia Harteneck, PhD, says this about negative thoughts:
“Our minds have clever and persistent ways of convincing us of something that isn’t really true. These inaccurate thoughts reinforce negative thinking. If you can recognize them, you can learn to challenge them.”
Harteneck goes on to say that this judgement happens all the time, both consciously and unconsciously, and that one way to overcome stress and the dissatisfaction that is bred by negative thinking, judgment, and constant comparison of ourselves to others is by recognizing our own reactions, observing them and then letting them go.
In other words, the path to calm and feeling less stressful begins with the very awareness of it, followed by a good dose of grace.
Recognizing the signs
Each of us has our own set of signs and symptoms that signal when our stress levels are at capacity. Being able to know and recognize these as they occur is the first step in the process of being able to manage stress and find calm. This recognition takes practice. It can be easy to ignore and rationalize signals, which can then lead to the body taking more desperate measures in order for the brain to take notice.
Some common signs and symptoms include:
- Exhaustion and fatigue
- Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
- Digestive problems
- Skin problems (acne)
- Headaches, dizziness
- Heart racing, chest pain
- Lower immune system and more frequent illness
- Irritability and negativity
- Changes in libido
- Loss of focus and concentration
- Clenched jaw
- Racing heart, sweating
- Panic attacks
- High blood pressure
- Muscle tension
- Increased tendency to soothe using substances (alcohol, drugs, smoking, overeating, etc)
Strategies to help find calm
Once you have identified and are able to recognize your own particular signs and symptoms of stress, knowing what helps to alleviate or reduce the intensity for yourself is key.
What are some of the ways that you can open the pressure valve a little and let off some steam?
- Exercise, even a little bit every day
- Deep breathing
- Practicing mindfulness
- Eating healthy food
- Getting good sleep
- Connecting with others and talking about it
- Asking for help when needed
- Finding ways to have fun and to laugh and enjoy yourself
*(If at any time you feel unable to manage on your own, please see your medical doctor or seek professional help. Stress is serious and is not something to ignore.)
Preventing overwhelm and burnout
Unchecked and unexamined, stress can lead down the road to illness, to debilitating overwhelm and to burnout.
Fortunately, there are numerous practical strategies for managing stress and finding calm in the chaos. While these are important and helpful in the short-term, what is even more useful is to invest what time and energy you have left digging a little more deeply into the reasons why you find yourself in the state of being overly stressed in the first place.
What control have your relinquished over aspects of your life and schedule and to whom?
How does your internal dialogue play into how much you end up with on your “plate” of expectations?
What, ultimately, is your “why”?
While it is impractical (if not impossible) to alleviate stress completely, the exercise of exploring the root causes of chronic and unrelenting stress (the ingredients of the chaos on the plate, as it were, and why they exist), is a noble one and can bring about transformation and new insight.
Poet and author John Mark Green says about this kind of inner exploration:
“Change can be hard. It requires no extra effort to settle for the same old thing. Auto-pilot keeps us locked into past patterns. But transforming your life? That requires courage, commitment, and effort. It’s tempting to stay camped in the zone of That’s-Just-How-It-Is. But to get to the really good stuff in life, you have to be willing to become an explorer and adventurer.”
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