This is the 8th post of a 13 part series on my Healthy Life Habits. In case you've missed the previous posts we've already covered:
I’m just going to put it out there: stress is the root of all our woes.
Hate your job? Stress is involved.
Fighting with your spouse? Stress is in there somewhere.
Pants getting tighter? Stress, stress, and more stress.
We think those things ARE our stress, but no. I’m not going to mess around with this topic.
Stress CAUSES all our woes.
Let me get more precise: Not managing our stress is the leading cause of all our problems, be they physical, mental, or…what else is there? That’s the bottom line of our earthly experience: what we think and what we feel. Period.
But, wait, Melissa, you’re wrong! I’m stressed because I got fired from my job and now the bank is foreclosing on my house and I have no prospects for a new job or a place to live and my wife left me and my dog died! *twang* That was not caused BY my stress, that IS my stress.
First, I’m very very sorry you’re in that situation, but, um, no, it’s not why you feel stressed out.
*ducks flying pointy objects*
I submit that it is how you are THINKING about those events in your life that is causing your stress.
Go ahead and glare. I’m not backing down on this one. As horrible as our life situation may be at any one time, we are the masters of our thoughts and feelings. Or not.
Let’s look at a less life altering example, but nonetheless painful.
I’ve been getting harassing emails from Healthcare.gov about being at risk for losing my health insurance financial aid. I have called them for help, revisited my application, and finally contacted a tax professional to help sort this all out. Nothing has changed. I am now getting recorded phone calls warning me to do something…but uh, no information about what I need to do. :-(
During the process I have vacillated from "fuck it" to "holy fucking shit"! I can’t afford $1400/month for health insurance! What the FUCK am I going to do?
*grabs chest and hyperventilates*
Am I having a heart attack? Wait! NO! I can’t have a heart attack because I can’t afford the medical bills because without the stupid effing government stipend I will have to buy even shittier health care coverage than I already have (which doesn’t pay jack squat because I have to set my deductible ridiculously high so I can afford the government aided fucking premium I have now that they’re threatening to take away)!
*throbbing temples, sweaty palms, bone-cracking chest pain* Can’t. Breathe—AAAAACKKKKK!!
All that stress? I created it…with my thoughts. Nothing else. Yes, it’s a crappy situation but I don’t have to be stressed out about it. In the end, things will work out. Maybe not the way I want them to, but I’m not going to die of a heart attack on the sidewalk outside the hospital because I couldn’t afford health insurance. I’m not. Neither are you.
We can go on about all different kinds of life situations that are much worse, but in the end it IS how we think about our situation that creates stress.
The events are real.
The stress? It's in our mind.
And we’re wired that way. Why? Who the HELL thought that shit up?
It’s all about survival. Right? Being chased by a big bad purple-people eater sends a jolt through our mind and body to run Run RUN! The adrenalin, cortisol, and hyped up central nervous system make us run fast and far. And he who runs fastest doesn’t get eaten and lives to pass his super-powered adrenalin reactor on to the next generation.
But if we live as if we’re always being chased, as if everything is a run or die situation, we are going to experience the debilitating affects of chronic stress. Misery, mental health issues, physical health issues, weight gain, buddha belly...
AND if we don’t practice mindful stress-management, then we are going to resort to knee-jerk ways of managing it.
Like…overeating comfort foods. Potato chips, ice cream, pizza, Ho Hos, bacon bombs, the list is unique for each of us.
Like…over indulging in alcohol or other mind-altering substances.
Or even better, combining the above.
There are many self-destruct ways to manage stress—fighting with your wife, screaming at your kids, manipulating your friends into proving they love you, eating disorders—but I think we get the picture.
If we don’t consciously learn to manage stress and practice stress management daily, then we fall back on unhealthy ways to tweak our brain chemistry and autonomic central nervous system.
Unmanaged stress kills and along the way makes us fucking miserable.
Sooooo, that was painful and ugly.
On to the good stuff...
Stress can and must be managed. How, you ask? You don’t have to take yoga classes or meditate at sunrise, although I highly recommend both. You can start wherever you are. Say, for instance, going for a short walk.
Wait, Melissa, isn’t that what you said we should do way back in Move Your Body?
Why, yes, yes it is. Isn’t that convenient? Moving your body IS a way to manage your stress. See, moving about helps process those stress hormones so your body can actually relax and go about the necessary repairs and bodily processes that can only happen when we are in a relaxed state.
Want a focused, more precise way to manage cortisol and adrenalin? Exercise on purpose. (now you're just devious, Melissa.) A combination of cardio, strength, and flexibility training is the best way to manage stress. Too much cardio and you might actually produce more stress hormones. Don’t challenge your muscles to go beyond their current capacity (even just a wee bit) and they will atrophy, causing the body to be less capable of burning through stress.
Are you forgoing the focused stretching? A lot of gym athletes scoff at stretching and a lot of them suffer with lots of pulls, strains, and overuse injuries.
Without the stretching you’re more likely to hold stress in the muscles (I’m not kidding read this article, Why Does Stretching Relieve Stress?) and that defeats the whole purpose of getting out there and moving around. Plus, gentle stretching keeps you from getting injured, thus benched, and unable to exercise to manage your stress. Doubt me? What happens when you’re playing tennis and have to suddenly change directions (duh. tennis.) and you’re tight? Uh huh. Ouch. And no more tennis for you at some point, even if you push through the pain. Especially when you push through the pain.
Another stress management technique? Take short breaks through out your day, go outside, soak up some sunlight, preferably the short blue light waves that make that mid day sky so damn…uh, blue. These are harder to come by in the fall and winter months so maybe invest in blue light therapy. I have a desktop version because it’s super convenient to turn it on for 20 minutes while I’m writing. Easy. And affective.
It’s impossible to cover all the possible stress management strategies in one little blog post, so do yourself a favor and google the topic. You will find tons and tons of ideas about how to manage your stress. Start with one that you like the sound of and practice it daily for one month.
Don’t like that one? Try something else, but don’t ba-humbug stress management because you don’t like one or two or twenty techniques. There is a happy place for everyone, but you have to want it and be willing to do the research and the work.
The bottom line is we need to learn to manage our minds, our thought processes that fuel our biochemical stress reactions. Will stress management stop you from being stressed ever again?
Ahahahahahahhaha. *wipes away tears*
No. That’s impossible. Remember, we are wired to feel it, but we can learn to manage it and also how to come down from a flight-or-flight episode.
My favorite stress management technique is practicing observing my thoughts and feelings without getting tangled up in them or fueling either. It’s a meditative thing, but all you have to do is sit in silence and observe your thoughts and feelings. When fear arises, sit with it, but don’t feed it. When aggravating thoughts manifest, don’t try to stop them. Let them float up out of your head like helium filled balloons and watch them disappear.
Ah. That’s better.
Is it ever perfect? Nah. Striving for perfection is guaranteed to stress you out.
Just practice every day and slowly you will start to be less stress-reactive. And when you are stress-reactive? You'll be able to ride it out instead of letting it escalate into a meltdown or heart attack.
Pick one thing to do every day. That's it. Let me know how its working for you.