Doctors and researchers alike have linked stress with a cornucopia of diseases and conditions, and the literature is pervasive. Everyone is talking about stress and how it is bad for you. So let’s talk about how to make stress work for you, and how to cooperate it into stopping. Most critically, I would like you to understand that the belief in stress being bad for you, and not the actual level of stress you experience is the determinant of its impact on you.
The way that we frame our experiences will guide our reactions to them. Every reaction we have is the result of a pre-definition, including the stress reaction. The stress response is due to a perceived threat. This works to our advantage when we see a grizzly bear and need our bodies primed for “fight or flight” – but all too often, we are having this sympathetic nervous reaction to our own thoughts parading around as the wild, salivating hyenas we feel they are, without actually knowing what the causal thought is.
The physiological cascade of events that we call stress is a symptom of a bigger picture. The real trigger is a thought that is based in an often hidden belief, which brings us to the conclusion that danger is lurking.
Within the visceral sensations of stress are the keys to freedom from it. Research on the science of intuition demonstrates that the body behaves according to the outcome of a situation well before the mind has consciously registered any information at all. Our bodies are trying to tell us something that we know subconsciously.
So why do we experience stress when there is no obvious threat – Is anyone hunting you on the way to the store? It is common to be ignorant of our true stress triggers because there are a few stages between the core reason and threat perception. When we cannot pin down the reason for our low hum anxiety or those sporadic stress-bursts, we might continue to feel the physiological experience of stress because as far as our body is concerned the threat is still present. The result is the all too familiar icky feeling without the ability to understand why it is there or how to stop it. That feeling is a clue.
It is important to learn to identify stress before it becomes full blown. This makes it easier to dissolve and easier to understand. Learning to recognize the physical cues of your body will help you to address the reason and stop the response before it becomes another cortisol laced affair. This is important because the body will continue to rev up the reaction until the brain acknowledges that the threat has passed. Before we can believe that the threat has passed, we have to identify it.
I will share with you a few simple techniques that can be used to uncover your true motivations to resolve your stress from the root up. Stress is not a thing that you can run away from. It’s more like a sad kid that would stop crying if you paused for a hug.
It is important to understand that we often choose to ignore stress because from our current perspective it is best solution. Meaning that our motivation is happiness, but how we go about getting there can be distorted. Stress is a legitimate solution when we are not sure how to investigate it properly. You will soon have a new approach, where by uncovering and dissolving limiting beliefs, you can taste from a new buffet.
Here are two simple exercises that used in conjunction will connect you with your body’s message, soothe your frazzled nerves, and create a new neural pattern that strengthens the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest response) that we keep hearing so much about. This kind of work will lead you to a coherency of mind, body, and emotions.
EXERCISE 1 – to create a calm baseline from which to be the observer of stress sensations. (Abdominal breathing with body scan).
- Choose a seated or supine position and get comfortable.
- Close your eyes.
- Begin to notice the movement of your breath as you soften your muscles.
- As you inhale through the nose, allow the belly to rise. You can place your left hand on the belly to help you feel the movement.
- As you exhale through the nose feel the belly fall.
- To get more relaxed, do a slow body scan – starting at the top of the head moving downwards to the toes, relaxing each part as you bring your focus to it. Places that we may hold without noticing include the space between the eyebrows, tongue, and hips.
- Work with the breath to let go of tension. Try to feel the area that you are focusing on and exhale wherever it feels tight. If the tension persists, stay with the spot a little longer and move on when you are ready. (This does mean that the spot has to feel like jell-o – striving for perfect relaxation will make things go in the opposite direction, just work with it for a bit and move on until the next time).
- Repeat the body scan as many times as you like to enhance the relaxation, keeping your focus gently with the body. Remember to go slowly each time.
- When you are ready, let go of the body scan focus and turn your attention back to the rise and fall of the belly.
- Stay here for as long as you like, deepening the breath as it feel comfortable.
Using this technique throughout the day at random intervals will set you on an auto pilot track for sensing in a relaxed way. It is normal to sometimes experience emotional discomfort during this exercise. If that happens, allow yourself to feel the feeling as you continue the body scan with the understanding that the discomfort will pass.
After some practice, you will have trained your nervous system how to revert and stay in a relaxed state (parasympathetic nervous system). You will also have improved your ability to sense your body from a calm space, and be prepared to identify the physical sensations of stress when they are still small.
EXERCISE 2 – The mind work.
When you start to feel the physical symptoms of a stress response, stop to LISTEN to the message. This means investigating your thought process and motivations. What are you really trying to do? What does that person really remind us of? Why are you in a rush?
Let’s say for example you notice that you are feeling stress at work. Try to zero in on a specific task that is bothering you for the purpose of this exercise. You can practice it with any task, or do it a few times with different tasks or situations. You may discover different motivations or the same one for different stress points.
Here is an example of how this might look:
1) Identify the experience of stress.
2) Decide that you are going to spend a bit of time working it out without distraction.
3) Get comfortable and take a few deep breathes in through the nose and out through the mouth.
4) Ask yourself: What am I trying to do now? Trust your first spontaneous answer. “Trying to finish” is a common response.
5) Now we dig a bit deeper. Continue to question yourself: “Why am I trying to finish?” “To do the job.”
6) Ask, why is that important? “I might lose my job if I don’t.”
7) Why would that be so bad?” I won’t be able to support myself”
8) Why would that be so bad?” My life would fall apart”
9) Why would that be so bad? “I won’t be worthy of love,” and “I would end up alone.”
Continue your line of questioning (asking yourself why is that important, why would that be a problem, what would happen if…) until you get at the root of why you really feel threatened. You will get a feeling of ‘Oh!” once you have dug to the bottom. Sometimes just acknowledging the belief is enough to dissolve it. And don’t worry about bringing it to the surface making things worse. It’s more like releasing a kite.
We can find relief in examining our stress simply by discovering that our stress is padded with exaggerated conclusions. In this case above, not being able to finish the task had nothing to do with the actual stress. It was really more about what not being able to finish meant. So by all means finish the report, but please don’t feel tortured while you work on it. If you find that you feel incapable of finishing, how to work with that feeling will be covered in upcoming posts – the short story is you may have a limiting belief about success that you could explore with a similar exercise, or about what it would take to bring your skills up to your standards. Let me assure you that you are absolutely capable, if only blocked.
If reading this was enough to trigger a stress response – calm your mind and allow yourself to experience the sensations with the understanding that they will pass. Then start the questioning process. What would happen if I examine my stress? …And go from there.
If experiencing the sensation is a bit daunting at first, another way to discover the triggers is to look at what you are avoiding. Avoidance is a great indicator of where to look for belief triggered stress. We can tune into our root beliefs and dissolve the ones that cause pain by paying attention to the things that we avoid. Really, we are not trying to avoid those things – we are trying to avoid the feeling, and looking at why is much more empowering stance. If it is tempting to avoid a person, place, or situation– that is exactly where you want to look for the starting point of exercise two.
Avoidance strategies include:
- Being very busy. The busier we get crossing things of lists, attending social functions, and re-organizing our closets – the less time we spend consciously (remember it is all still there whether we ignore it or not) experiencing our stress.
- Alcohol, drugs, cigarettes – These are sensation altering substances that we use to self-medicate out of certain feelings.
- Caffeine – An extra word about caffeine beyond its sensation altering capacity – it is often a solution for sleep deprivation and is linked in with the ‘being busy’ strategy – we even avoid rest to avoid ourselves!
- Excuses. We can get pretty good at telling a seemingly reasonable stories about why we can’t, won’t, shouldn’t or don’t. When you find yourself telling a story, stop to ask why.
- Diving into fantasy, movies, video games, internet etc. You can tell if you are using this as an avoidance strategy instead of for recreational pleasure if you experience relief while doing it and encroaching stress once you stop.
Stress could be a signal that you want a change.
Maybe you feel stress because you would prefer to be doing something different, and believe that you cannot. Examine that one as well! Take a look at why you have framed the whole thing as ‘don’t want to’ in the first place. If you work at a job that you don’t like, maybe it is because you believe that you lack the skills to do the one you want. Acknowledging this belief may lead you to taking a course, seeking advice, or doing the research that would fill the knowledge gap.
It could be a sign that you believe that you cannot do anything about something that you don’t like. Look at why you might think that, and solutions for resolving that reason.
The good news is that stress is not a monster. Discomfort is a signal from your body and a message from your heart that something can be shifted and improved. Take stress as a cue to re-create your life into the one you really want.