“I know but one freedom and that is the freedom of the mind.” ~Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Stress, strain, tension, worry, overwhelm, nerves, feeling wound up, freaking out. Whatever we call it, the effects are universal.
Our adrenals rev up, uneasy thoughts cycle on the brain’s hamster wheel, butterflies flitter in the stomach, our moods swing. There are many different ways that stress manifests, and none of them are particularly enjoyable.
Stress is basically an emotion. It’s the way we feel when things aren’t going our way. “Things” can be as insignificant as feeling annoyed because we woke up two minutes before our alarm goes off; they can also be of the off the chart “I’m getting a divorce/changing jobs/applying to grad school/moving” variety.
Question: Why do we attach importance to certain experiences (and therefore feel stress in regards to them) and not to others?
Certainly there are the categories of events almost everyone would agree feel stressful: dealing with illness, starting a new job, or getting held up in traffic on the way to an important appointment.
However, most of us have had the experience of feeling stressed about something we rationally know is not that important, is not the end of the world, yet, there we are, experiencing those telltale signs that let us know we are tense.
What about the fact that one of us could feel excessive stress because we cannot get the particular brand of insert-favorite-food we want at the supermarket? Or that another one of us may feel a lot of tension because we have to wait in line at the bank?
Others of us may not find these events stressful in any way. However, we all have our own triggers.
What does this imply?
It implies we have more power over “stress” then we may realize.
Several years ago, within a short period of time, I separated from my then-husband, moved to a new area alone (which included losing about 75% of my business as a self-employed acupuncturist), divorced my then-husband, lost a parent, and put my dog to sleep (she’d been with me 17 years). There were also myriad other large-scale stressors a bit too personal to share.
Suffice to say, it was easily the most stressful period I’d ever experienced in my life.
Somewhere in the midst of all that, I made a conscious decision to change how my system perceived stress. I was unwilling to roll over and accept that I was doomed to feel bad because of life events.
Here are four things I did that helped me, which you may find useful:
1. Recognize “stress” is relative.
Stress is an abstract feeling. It is not a concrete, solid thing. When we feel stressed out, it is, to an extent, based on our perceptions, attitudes, beliefs, and the whole of what we call “me.”
We can change those perceptions, attitudes, and beliefs, and change our experience of stress. Easy? Not really. Worth it? Oh, yes.
2. Remember that the experience of stress does not define you.
You are not “stressed.” You are feeling stress. There’s a difference. Expressing something with the framework of “I am…” indicates we are owning it, and who wants to give up something that we feel we own?
Framing it as “feeling stressed” or “experiencing worry” sends our system the message that this is temporary. We know feelings and experiences come and go.
3. Alternately, embrace the experience.
Recognize that sometimes life hands us a lot to deal with. These phases in our lives can be opportunities for learning, and, y’know, this too shall pass.
4. Consider that stress may play a useful role at times.
Some of us work better on a deadline, and sometimes having a long to-do list is what induces us to get it done. Also, many of us will not make major life changes (relationship break-ups, switching jobs) until the stress gets so bad we feel we have to do it.
Some of us are built in such a way that stress acts as our main motivator. This can be a good thing, and can be necessary if we are prone to not doing much or not making a change unless there’s a proverbial fire under our butt.
If this describes you, recognize that stress plays a positive role. Embrace the stress when it’s beneficial, and try the above three suggestions when it’s not.
Let me be clear; this is not meant to negate or invalidate life events that we would all generally agree could be defined as stressful. This is, however, meant to encourage you and to reinforce your personal power.
We can use these suggestions to deal with the more relative forms of stress (annoying boss, irritation at our partners, overwhelm with unfinished tasks) and to re-frame our overall perception of stress.
This leaves us much more nourished, strong, and prepared to deal with anything life brings, and helps to make our lives much more enjoyable in general.
Some scientists think humans are the most adaptable species; let’s prove them right, put that attribute to good use, and positively adapt our response to stress.
Share in the comments some tools you use to transform tension in your life!
Photo by kk+