It’s a Monday. You’re running late for work, and your mind is flustered with worry. The pressure of obligations and expectations are squeezing tight and won’t let go. Instead of calmly evaluating the situation, you’re speeding around from one moment to the next. All you want is a chance to hit pause, but your life continually feels like a game of Jenga about to collapse.
Is this experience familiar to you?
We’ve all have been there at one point. We look back and laugh at these kinds of situations; everything turned out fine. There was no need to get worked up.
It’s easy in retrospect to see the humor, but harder to do so when we are that blazing pinball of worry.
One of our numerous mechanisms to “handle” stress looks something like this:
“If I think about everything that could go wrong, I’ll get what I want.”
How about not making matters worse than they are?
No one wants chaos, but oddly enough we often think and act in ways that magnify our discomfort.
We operate our days in disaster aversion mode.
“If I don’t keep my stress hormones elevated then disaster will surely strike down.”
We’re not protecting our young from saber tooth tigers anymore. Reacting in such a way is usually unnecessary. In most cases are stress isn’t to avoid some apocalypse, it’s to avoid the monster that’s already in us.
What is the beast?
Many of us are attached to our pride. The thought of being exposed is terrifying to us. It’s funny how we give something that’s not entirely real, a seriousness which it does not have.
I understand. Most humans don’t want to feel shame. We fear that we’ll let others down; especially those closest to us.
All of us want to provide to those we love. Just be honest with yourself. “Are you going to be able to sustain yourself at your current pace?” No amount of work and effort is equitable if you don’t give yourself the same love and care.
Look clearly at your situation. What are you really stressed about? Usually, we want one situation and don’t want the other.
Don’t look solely at events. What are the feelings you want to avert? Is there a sense of guilt or shame waiting for you if you don’t fulfill expectations? If you avoid confronting discomfort does stress actually help you meet obligations? Even if you failed to follow through or couldn’t give what you promised, your life is probably not at risk. There is usually a solution before the worst case, and if the worst does happen, you keep navigating towards your next step. No matter what happens, we keep moving forward and find ways to resolve issues. The constant anxiety and stress only magnify our discomfort and don’t help us think clearly for solutions.
I want to make clear that not all stress is undesirable. We need some tension to get up in the morning and be productive; this is healthy. The unhealthy version is becoming paralyzed over accompanying worry and sensations within the body, and not working towards a solution.
How do we start to form healthy responses to the demands of our life?
Allow stress to be.
I could’ve called my article “5 easy and quick ways to feel less stressed.”
There’s nothing easy about changing your emotional reactions.
It’s hard work and takes courage. If you want a quick fix, then read another article. Conversely, if you’re tired of letting stress run your life, and you want to do the work to start feeling better than keep reading.
Our society is full of “stress relief.”
Drinking, recreational and prescription drugs, sex, Netflix, video games. Marketers have made a hay day selling people on distractions. Unfortunately, these ploys don’t develop your skill to handle stress. You just “temporarily” turn off. Eventually, you’ll keep coming back to your choice of distraction to numb yourself all over again. Most people don’t see a problem with this; “If it works then why should I change?”
You’ll never be free from your turmoil in distracting yourself. You’ve cut the top of a big weed you’re trying to pull out, but the plant will keep growing back because the root is under the surface.
You learn by being present with the sensations. The big hurdle to doing this is building awareness. Many of us have spent our lives running on autopilot to stress and forget to step back and observe. Start with this three-step process:
No matter how busy our lives are, anyone can take five minutes to take a timeout. Wake up a little earlier if you don’t have time during the day. Mornings are ideal because you’re not at most stressed during this time. All you need to do is take five minutes sitting or standing and be aware of everything around you; notice how your body and mind feel. Ask yourself: “Am I calm or restless?”, “Is my body stiff or loose,” “How’s my mood this morning?” “Am I experiencing any pain emotionally or physically?” Get a baseline to start with and score yourself 1-10 for general wellbeing. Don’t overthink. Write down your best estimate.
Once you’ve practiced five minutes in the morning for a week, you’ll be ready for part two. Take ten is going to be ideal for lunch breaks, or other times during the day when you have a down period. For even the most hectic schedules, waiting in traffic or picking up a prescription is fine. First, turn off your phone. To get the most out of this exercise, you want as few distractions as possible.
Observe your environment. What are people doing around you? How is the weather? What sounds can you identify? Be as perceptive as you can. Catch five details, whether visual or sound.
Next focus on your sensations in your body. “Can I feel my hands? What does that feel like?”, “How about my feet?”
Usually, during the day we are carrying tension in our body and are unaware of it. Ask “Where do I feel tension or discomfort?” See if you can give the sensation a shape and location. Notice how this decreases the intensity. Again give yourself a score 1-10 for general wellbeing.
Don’t be discouraged if you forget the exercise or don’t catch enough detail. Remember to be patient and compassionate with yourself. Any start you make is better than none. Put an alarm on your phone, or write a note on your steering wheel to help you remember to practice.
Continue to use both take five and take ten until you start seeing improvements. You should begin to feel less stressed within the first week. The goal of these exercises is not having rigid expectations and goals, but to create space between yourself and emotional reactions, so that you learn to respond to stress in healthy and productive ways. It’s no mystery the more consistency you have with the exercise, the more benefit you’ll feel day to day. Over the weeks make sure to track your progress by seeing how your scores fluctuate. If you do not see improvement, ask yourself if you’re present for these short breaks, or if you’re taking more time to think.
After you’ve utilized these short periods of time and you see notable improvements, you’re ready to confront stress and know the monster has no teeth. When you’re no longer running from emotions, you’re in control of life.
The takeaway point is we’re not trying to get rid of stress; we’re changing our relationship with it. We experience calm and clarity as a result.
I want you to intentionally put yourself in a situation that will cause you stress; this could be a phone call to your banker, attorney, agent, or client. Maybe it’s a specific thought that causes a disturbance. Most people actively avoid uncomfortable emotions. Start recognizing stressful situations as opportunities to grow and practice. This perspective will change your life.
When you first feel the sensations of stress arising, assure yourself you’re OK.
“I am in no imminent danger, my life is not at risk right now. I will find a solution.”
We often catastrophize when we begin to feel stressed and believe the sensations as a point of reference. The key is to step back and let the experience run its course without getting involved.
Instead of thinking how “awful” it feels, and how you wish it were gone, label the sensations you feel as “stress” or “anxiety.” Don’t run from discomfort rather be with it completely. Avoid calling the feelings “good” or “bad.” When we get stuck in the good/bad polarity, we’re unable to step back and observe without bias. Welcome whatever is at that moment like it’s your best friend; allow it to be. Whatever you feel is not the ultimate truth of who you are, just a passing moment.
Ask yourself “What is the likelihood of that happening?” I always tell myself when I think that I’m going to fail, or drop the ball on something, that life usually works out in one way or the other. All I must do is stay persistent and have a positive outlook. Envision yourself succeeding. I know that’s not easy when you’ve trained yourself to think of the worst, but develop a sense of trust in yourself. If you’re doing your absolute best, believe that is all you can do. Worrying about what if’s does not help you get what you want; it robs your happiness and peace of mind.
These exercises are not traditional meditations, but instead, use a similar concept of stepping back and observing the mind. With time and practice, you’ll notice a “space” between an event and your reaction. You will catch yourself before you react and say, “Oh yeah, that’s just a thought,” or “That’s blown out of proportion. Everything is good.” Make sure to be patient with yourself; you’re not going to be a yogi overnight. Don’t be surprised If you’re getting caught up in stress tomorrow after reading this. Count the small milestones you make and write them down every day.
“I was able to react constructively today with my stress, instead of getting overwhelmed.”
“I did the take five and ten every day this week.”
“My scores for wellbeing are improving from last week.”
Most importantly, don’t take yourself too seriously. I know our situations can feel very imminent and threatening to us, but recognize your perception of the situation is always scarier than reality. If you’ve done everything on your part, then let go. Laugh a bit, and understand life is short; stressing yourself out over something you can’t control is a waste of time.
If you are willing to stay persistent and positive, you can change your life for the better. I hope these exercises will help you along your journey to calm and clarity