Stress. A little is useful for energizing us and helping us get things done. Too much, or chronic stress, and the body becomes unable to adapt and cope. (Benson, H. and Stuart E.M. The Wellness Book) What is stress? Separate from the stressor, stress is what you feel inside. It’s not just what’s in the environment, it is the interplay between what’s happening in the environment and your perception of what’s happening (see it as a threat versus a challenge) and your belief about how well you can cope with it successfully (can’t).
Since it is something that happens within you, there are shifts you can make in your thinking, beliefs, behaviors and emotions that build stress hardiness. (Are you feeling overwhelm already? See the act of reducing your stress as a finesse, a creative challenge, like a game.) Stress hardiness, the ability to experience stressors without experiencing a stress response, is facilitated by anything that helps you 1) have confidence in your ability to influence your life positively, 2) see what life puts in front of you as a creative challenge to finesse rather than as a threat, 3) commit to helping you support yourself to live effectively, 4) share your stresses with a friend (research of Kobasa, Maddi and Kahn).
What helps you finesse stress is using yourself as a tool. That means you have to get to know yourself! Knowing yourself is not some frivolous, childish objective. It has real, positive life consequences. It enables skillful adaptation and wise decision- making as concerns your well-being.
Being willing to know yourself, in regard to your daily stress, means checking in with you throughout the day to see how you are doing and what you need to do to adjust your stress downward.
The questions to ask are:
*How am I?
*Is my current level of stress/anxiety helping my performance or hampering it? *What is happening in my body (heart rate, muscle tension) and with my breathing (because slow, deep, full breathing means you are relaxed)?
*What are my thoughts? (Are they helping me to get things done and have a nice day? Or are they critical and discouraging?)
*What feelings am I experiencing (sad, mad, frustrated, agitated, peace, neutral, pleasant, enjoyable, serenity)?
*0 being no stress and 10 being severe stress on a 10-scale, my stress level is __?
These and similar questions give you information and cues about where to focus efforts to adjust your inner experience in order to ditch stress and enhance functioning and well-being.
Here are a few ways to adjust your stress level downward.
If your muscle tension registers high, or your breathing is short, fast and shallow, do a breathing exercise. (First note where you fall on the stress scale 0-10.) This one takes about 90 seconds. Breathe in as if through your diaphragm. Put a palm over your belly button and one over your upper chest. Letting go of trying to control, breathe to push your palms away from you. Breathe this way 6-12 times. Now recheck your stress level on the 10-scale. How has your muscle tension and breathing changed?
If your energy is frozen—it feels like you almost can’t move—or if you are fatigued—feels like you don’t want to move, you’d just rather eat and nap for energy restoration, note your 10-scale rating and do what’s called the Infinity Dance (or did I make that name up?) for one minute. Music or no. You draw figure-8s, big and small, anywhere your arms can reach. High above your head, in front and behind you, project 8s under your feet. Move your knees, hips, waist, shoulders, neck and head consecutively in figure-8 motions. Let it be fun. Now, recheck yourself on the 10-scale. Notice how your energy level and mood have changed.
If you are agitated and can’t sit still, Shake It Off! Shake every part of you as hard as feels good all at once and without controlling. Let it go! Your body will stop naturally when it’s had enough. 15-30 seconds. Do you feel better? (I love this one.)
If your thoughts are critical, anxious, pessimistic, worried, self-doubtful or defeated, do the following:
Stop that thought-train and say to yourself,
“I can do it.”
“I’m going to bring all my resources to bear, and I can do it.”
“I am supporting myself in getting this done.”
THIS IS how you change your thoughts and your thinking style to decrease felt stress. Encouragement builds you up. Gives you confidence! Lowers your stress.
If your feelings are at issue and you are stuck feeling an emotion you can’t get out of (if it’s lingering for more than 15 minutes): place one palm over your forehead, one at the same place behind your head, close your eyes, let yourself feel the feeling you are stuck in—and at the same time BREATHE! This allows the emotion to be released from your energy system . After 15 seconds to 3 minutes you should feel less or no emotion and more neutral.
What is empowering to you decreases stress and increases your well-being. All of these activities lead to inner balance. Resilience. Doing regularly the ones that combat your particular stress builds stress hardiness. That means you can experience a stressor without going into a fight or flight response. That means you have successfully finessed stressed biology into a more relaxed way of living.
There are infinite healthy ways to reduce stress and increase relaxation. But the functional foundation for doing so is being willing to tune in and know what’s going on with yourself; it’s having a list of resource behaviors (things you do to get rid of stress) that effectively increase relaxation and that you actually use on a regular basis. The finesse is in how you live.
References and suggested reading:
For stress management and health, The Wellness Book, Benson and Stuart, 1992, Fireside Simon and Schuster
For evaluating and changing thoughts and beliefs: Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, Burns, D.D., 2001, Harper Collins
Overcoming Destructive Beliefs, Feelings, Behaviors, New Directions for Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, Ellis, A., 2001, Prometheus Books