“You have nothing to fear, but fear itself.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt
When life gets to being overwhelming, a tightly packaged little phrase does little to soothe the soul.
Often, it’s the first thing someone offers. Often, it’s all they know how to offer. When I’m genuinely stressed out, the last thing I want to hear is a platitude or nice little saying.
It’s in those times that I find practical advice the most helpful, and often practical advice is in the shortest supply. That’s why I’m writing this for you- so you can find what you need, or have something to offer someone who is in distress.
First of all, it helps to know where the stress is coming from. The easiest stress to understand is what I’ll refer to as obligation stress. This comes from deadlines and from other responsibilities. This is the easiest stress to understand, and the easiest to work with.
There is also relational stress. This stress can be the most enduring, and can be a source of depression or even despair. This stress is a challenge to grapple with, and I understand how it can feel hopeless.
Lastly, there can be generalized stress. This is stress that doesn’t seem to have a concrete source or reason for being. It is the stressful undertone to the hum of life. This is one of the slipperiest stresses to deal with, but being aware of its nature can give you a leg up on managing it.
These three neatly categorized areas of stress usually exist all at the same time in us, and each to a varying degree.
The most important thing to understand about stress is that our bodies and brains do not see a difference about where stress comes from. All stress draws from the same well of energy; take care of that well.
The point here is that stress reduction in one part of your life will give you a greater resilience in dealing with stress elsewhere in your life. Reducing obligation stress will give you a better ability to deal with relational stress. Reducing generalized stress will give you a greater ability to manage obligation stress.
Obligation stress can be straightforward to deal with. In most cases, clear outlines of how your time is spent are helpful. Think of your time and your energy as two budgets. Everything you do in a day has a time value, and an energy value. Doing laundry can have a high time value, but doesn’t generally take a lot of energy. Getting exercise might not take much time, but it can be really costly on energy overall.
If obligation stress is something that is troubling you, take some time to get a sense of how your daily schedule is laid out, and see where you can make cuts. It will be worth your time. If you struggle with deadlines and goals, breaking things down into smaller and more manageable goals can be a tremendous help.
A note about making cuts: not all things are priorities in your life. If you have limited resources, you might need to cut something good for something better. For example, I have reduced my time spent on television and games in favor of writing, where I gain more personal meaning for the same amount of time spent.
If you are constantly overwhelmed by deadlines, it might be a sign that you are taking on more responsibility than you should. Just because you can do any particular task, doesn’t mean that you should do all tasks you are asked to do. Learn how to say no. You will become more effective at the tasks that you do say yes to once you are more effective at saying no.
The most meaningful things in life come from love. That means you need to deal with other people, and other people are going to naturally bring you stress. Some will demand much from you, others will make vague requests loaded with subtle cues that you just know you need to respond to, or there will be hell to pay. Not everyone is good at communicating their needs and wants, and we aren’t always able to interpret their requests. That’s stressful, especially when we want to be able to help, or at least calmly reply with a gentle no.
We have the privilege in of letting go of or limiting exposure to people who are toxic in our life. Be aware of how people leave you feeling- some will leave you energized and inspired to take on life, others will leave you angry or weary. You don’t always need to spend time with negative influences.
When you do have to spend time with those people, when they are family or coworkers, a different skill set is important to develop. It is very much the same as saying no to obligation stress. It is saying no to people’s behaviors that are stressing you out. If someone is always saying negative things about you, find a way to let them know what the impact of these statements is. It doesn’t matter if the comments are very destructive, or tiny barbs, the impact at the end of the day is unnecessary stress and unhealthy relationships.
Challenge those around you to have more clear communication. If they use vague statements, ask for clarification. If they are being indirect and emotional, let them know that it is easier to help them when they are direct. This can quickly help remove resentment from relationships.
Any challenge you face in a relationship that brings about stress will require you to learn more about yourself. You will not be able to change other people in most cases. It is helpful to know what you need from the relationship, to have an understanding of what the other person needs, and how to ask to have your needs met. Once you know more about yourself and about others, it becomes much easier it is to respond in a clear and calm way. It takes hard work and hard conversations, but it is tremendously worth it.
There is a stress that isn’t neatly organized into the above categories, and yet is an important part of daily living. It’s the stress that you wake up with. It’s the stress you can’t shake on a sunny day. It’s the stress that doesn’t let you connect to other people’s kind gestures. It doesn’t come from obligations, at least not directly. It doesn’t come from relationships, at least not directly. It simply exists, and begs for an explanation.
We are biological beings with the miracle of consciousness. For some odd reason, Western history has fashioned and formed a split between the mind and the body. We go to the doctor for broken bones, colds, and surgeries. We go to the psychologist, psychiatrist, pastor, or guru for problems of the heart and mind. Modern science is beginning to unravel this false split between the mind and the body however, and it’s shifting the field of medicine and psychology in important ways.
Perhaps much of this will sound like common sense, but it is worth exploring, because it will lead to new personal insights.
I said earlier that the body doesn’t make a difference about where the stress comes from, but it treats it all the same. If you are depressed, studies have shown that your strength in the gym is reduced by a significant amount. If you are stressed long term, studies have shown that your immune system and digestion are weakened. Studies are beginning to show that if your stomach isn’t digesting properly, that you will have mood issues.
Anyone who has gone through a particularly intense workout will be able to relate to having a harder time feeling motivated later on in the day. It’s called being tired, and it affects both mind and body. Revolutionary, I know. This is why medicine and psychology both will recommend you get sleep for your health. Sleep replenishes your energy and capacity to deal with physical and emotional stress.
If your body is not being fed a healthy diet, and given the proper amount of exercise and rest, you will feel more stressed out. It might surprise you to know that diet is a cornerstone in mood regulation. When you feed yourself poor quality food, your body will respond poorly, because it is made up of what it consumes.
If you eat too much sugar or neglect to drink enough water, worse than gaining weight, you will suffer from systemic inflammation. Inflammation doesn’t play well with your nerves or your brain. Studies are beginning to show that OCD is sometimes linked to inflammation in a part of the brain that manages your rest-and-digest versus fight-or-flight responses. Sugar can literally make you anxious.
Not drinking enough water can literally make you irritable and foggy minded. This is not to mention the effect that poor diet has on hormones and how they can play havoc with your moods. I will spare you more detail, but know that there are books and blogs written about this, and it will be worth your time to study if you are serious about treating generalized stress.
Traumatic events and prolonged stress also have a way of changing the structure of your brain. The brain is very flexible and adaptable, and like a set of muscles, the more you use certain pathways in it, the stronger those pathways become; the less you use certain pathways, the weaker they become. This is why rest and relaxation is essential for a daily and weekly routine.
There is a part of the brain called the reticular activating system (RES), and it is responsible for setting your level of awareness in your environment. It is unconscious, and located near the part of the brain that regulates your breathing, heart rate, and other automatic processes. It holds an electrical charge, much like a battery, and it plays a direct role in shaping your anxiety response.
In studies with lab rats, scientists have found that repeatedly shocking that part of the brain will increase the charge of the RES, and the rats in response will act much more generally anxious and stressed out. This isn’t because of new obligations and deadlines that the rats need to meet, or because their husband rat isn’t taking out the garbage. This is simply a trauma-inspired change in the brain structure.
Think about how long it takes you to relax after someone has jumped around a corner and surprised you, or you’ve narrowly avoided an accident on the road. You’re extra alert after that, and it can take anywhere between five minutes to a few days to feel back to normal. If it happens enough, or is a big enough shock, your normal can change.
The good news is that scientists also discovered that small shocks to that same part of the brain can help reduce the response it gives. These small shocks stimulate your brain below a threshold that leads to panic, so they are manageable. Think of lifting many small weights to gain strength, versus trying to lift a weight that is too heavy for you to budge. These small shocks are known as ‘quenching’, like throwing water on a raging fire.
If your ‘normal’ stress response is interrupting your lifestyle, take heart and know that you can find a new normal that is healthier and much more functional. You can earn a greater degree of resilience to life’s stresses.
Effective psychotherapy can help you work through traumas and anxieties in a way that can provide quenching. By revisiting old traumas or the events around them in a controlled and limited way, a therapist can help you bring small shocks back into your brain to unwind the big shock of a trauma that you’ve experienced. Therapists are there to help you earn more resilience in a faster and more structured way than you could do on your own. They are there like a personal weight trainer to help you find an appropriate weight to lift- and to stop you from lifting something that will hurt you. Once you have that resilience, you won’t be dependent on them either. It is in your brain and it is yours to keep.
Effective psychotherapy can also help you with strategies to manage obligation stress, and provide you with great insights and tools to help you manage your relational stress as well. If you are serious about getting a hand in overcoming stress, find a therapist you can work with. Not all therapists will be a good fit for you. Your therapy should always be in your control.
This has been a quick introduction to managing stress, and I could have covered a number of other stress management strategies and topics. If you think I missed something that you’d like to know more about, please get in touch with me. I would love to hear from you and connect you to more useful resources.
What are some ways that you manage your stress? Comment below!