Living a life of zero stress is a romantic ideal some of us strive for, yet we all know it’s as impossible as seeing a unicorn (a real one, that is).
As a social worker dedicated to educating individuals on how to reduce and manage stress, I have come across many incredible individuals whose lives are short from complete chaos. Stressors can come from all areas of life: work, relationships, finances, health, environmental conditions, political and economical pressures and so much more. In other words, stress is a part of life and the truth is that none of us is exempt from being impacted by it. The sooner we accept the natural condition of stress, the sooner we can get on board with finding realistic ways to manage it.
Just the other day, I came across the following statistic: “43% of adults experienced adverse health effects from stress”. While that’s a pretty high number, I was not surprised by it. Now that I sit here to reflect on health related issues (mental and physical), I can honestly see how many of those conditions can be linked back to poorly managed stress. In fact, “75-90% of visits to a physicians’s office are for stress-related conditions and complaints” It’s this tremendous impact that stress has that motivated me to write this blog post. It’s essential to understand that stress is a part of life and that through our lives different levels of stress will show up. So, the question is, how can we contribute to the management (not the elimination) of our own stressors? I highlight the word “management” because I whole heartily believe that striving for a life of no stress is yet another source of pressure and disappointment.
I compiled in this blog post some suggestions to help you manage the different stressors of your life. But before you read any further, see if you can identify with certainty the major sources of stress in your life currently. Once you have those identified, write them somewhere and have them handy as you read on. Then, create strategies on how the suggestions below can be applied to each of those stressors. Are you ready? Let’s get started.
#1 Take a break and step back:
Sometimes we are so close to the elephant that we end up seeing only parts of it and not the entire animal. Has that ever happened to you? Have you ever felt that your perception about a situation is so narrow that you can’t see the entire picture any more? Well, that has happened to me plenty of times. And that is usually my cue to step back and take a break.
If a particular life stressors seems to be taking too much of your time (literally and mentally), if you find most of your conversations are about this stressor and similarly, if most of your thoughts and time are spent on the matter, use that as a cue to step back. This stepping back does not mean that you will ignore the situation. It means that you will simply let it be for the time being. Only by taking a break, can we actually create the energy to look at things from a different perspective where we do not lose notion of the bigger picture. Stepping back and taking a pause has saved me from reacting in ways that I would have regretted, has allowed to manage highly stressful situations and it has helped me improve relationships.
Next time you feel like it is time to step back and take a break, imagine you are putting the stressful situation on “pause” and you are continuing on with the rest of your normal activities. When you feel the stress going down, you press “play” back on, this time with a fresher mind, and hopefully, less attached to the situation.
If you are reading this and comparing it to your stressor thinking that there is no way you can step back, then you definitely need to follow this recommendation. No matter how pressing and important you think your stressor is, there is always an opportunity to step back, take a break and return to it.
I can’t remember the last time I exercised in some form and came back home with regrets. I personally use yoga as my form of regular movement but, I also enjoy cardio movements and dancing. Any type of exercise or movement that makes you feel alive, strong and happy is indeed a wonderful tool to manage the different stressors in your life.
The endorphins that are released when we exercise help us defuse physical tension and, as we focus on the physical activity, we actually calm the mind by releasing it from the thoughts that revolve around our stressors.
If you are like me, in times of higher stress you convince yourself that there is no time to exercise. So, I encourage you to make exercise a regular part of your lifestyle. This will not only offer you all the known health benefits of being physically active, but it will also help manage the side effects of stress in the body and in the mind. Make a vow today, that from this moment forward you will exercise on a regular basis no matter what.
A lot of my clients report an increase of intrusive thoughts particularly when under stress. We know that when the mind is agitated, the breath is also agitated. One of the best ways to calm the mind is by calming the breath, therefore, having a regular practice of meditation, where breathing becomes the focus of attention, can improve over thinking significantly.
Here, like in the previous point, the word “regular” is very relevant. Meditating once in a blue moon is not how you will see any results. Like with everything else, if we want to see changes, you must commit to doing things differently.
Meditation is the practice of allowing our thoughts to co-exist with whatever our focus of attention is. When I first started meditating I was convinced that I was going to find it very boring because of my active and busy lifestyle. To my surprise, I noticed very quickly that the challenge posed by meditation kept me far from bored. After all, I had to pay attention to the fast paced movement of all my thoughts. While it hasn’t always been a pleasant experience, keeping a regular practice of meditation, specially when all is good has really made my capacity to cope with stress realistic and stronger. What do I mean by a realistic capacity to cope, you ask? Well, when we are under stress, we tend to overestimate risk and underestimate our ability to cope. By practicing meditation I have become very aware of my tendency to do just that. Having such awareness has really helped me ask myself important questions such as “have I confused a thought with a fact?”,“Is this problem in my control to solve?” or “Am I safe at this particular moment?”. In general, it has helped me de-personalize experiences and has given the mental space to understand that my thoughts are just thoughts.
Trying meditation for the first time can be scary or overwhelming, so I suggest you start by trying a guided meditation in community. I am happy to welcome you into my own studio (Olga’s Way) where I personally guide two different classes each week. If you are not in Ottawa, I encourage you to use our good friend Google and find a nearby studio where you can be guided. Otherwise, a great alternative is to download an app on your phone. My favourite is called Insight Timer and it is free!
#4 Recognize your red flags:
One of the reasons why we end up in complete burnout has to do with not having paid attention to our personal red flags or indicators that show us when we are getting closer to “empty” aka to the limit of stress we can manage. If you look back at your life, are you able to tell what your personal indicators of stress are? How does your body feel under stress? How do you know when your mind is overworking? What usually happens to your overall demeanour and health when you are exhausted?
Learning to recognize your unique responses to stress is very important if you want to get a handle on it. Bringing awareness to the natural cues your body and mind give you to let you know that it is time to take a break can be a life saver. If we all become more aware of our own red flags, I am convinced that we will see a lot less episodes of panic attacks, accidents, burnouts and all other conditions caused by high levels of stress.
We have pretty awesome and intelligent bodies designed to help us heal, cope and survive adverse situations. Our bodies are always talking to us and letting us know whether or not we are on the right path. We however, seem to be somewhat deaf to the sounds of our bodies, until they become loud enough and we can’t ignore them.
So do yourself a favour and take the time to write down the red flags that your mind and body give you to let you know that you are overdoing it. The more aware you are of your unique red flags, the better equipped you will be to recognize them as soon as they show up, giving you time to act accordingly before it is too late. My motto has always been: Why wait for crisis to arise when we it can avoid it!
If you are unsure about your red flags don’t worry, but know that this is a good indicator of how much you are in need of connecting to your mind and body. Asking a health professional to help identify your cues can be helpful. I have listed in here some of the most common symptoms of stress, yet as mentioned before, our bodies are unique and we can all have different ways of showing stress.
Symptoms of Stress:
- Tense muscles (neck, shoulders, legs, back)
- Sleepless nights
- Mood swings
- Poor memory and concentration
- Eat too much or not enough
- Overly emotional (crying easily)
- Obsessive thinking
- Heart palpitations
- Pessimistic thoughts
#5 Ask for help:
I have spent many of my professional years working with caregivers. And I have come to notice that many have one common characteristic: they do not ask for help, as they think this is a sign of weakness. I also happen to know that this belief is not just common among caregivers. I am not a caregiver at home, and I can (full disclosure) tell you that when I experienced my burnout, one of the things I struggled with the most was to admit that while I was a professional in the “helping business”, I too needed help. In fact, I am convinced that my burnout would have been prevented had I 1) listened to my red flags and 2) asked for help as soon as I felt I needed it.
Opposite to the common belief, asking for help is not a sign of weakness but quite the contrary. By asking for help we are amplifying our chances of overcoming the stressful or difficult situation in our lives while still conserving some energy to cope and function with the rest of responsibilities we may have.
Most people around us who see us struggling with stress want to help us anyway. So don’t shy away from asking to those closest to you and to professionals (if needed) what you would like them to support you with. I personally have a list of people I think of as support. I know what each of them are really good at helping me with, and in times of need, I do not hesitate to reach out to them and ask them for help.
Remember that the situation you are going through is only temporary so you will not need this help forever.
If you are currently experiencing an overwhelming amount of stress and feel like you need assistance now, check out my 8-Week Stress Reduction class. It is a complete guide to relaxation that reinforces the habits named in this article plus many more. I offer this class on a regular basis due to its popularity. You can find all the information you need in my website: www.olgasway.com
I hope you find this article helpful. If you choose to apply some of these suggestions, let me know how you did. I always like to hear back from readers.