Is It Possible To Free Yourself From The Negative Effects Of Stress?
I Stress A lot…
I tend to take care of my health. I’ve always been good at setting boundaries. Boundaries prevent me from letting bad habits take over. If I lose control over these set boundaries, the more uncertainty I feel. With more uncertainty and lack of self-control, the greater the anxiety.
We all have bad habits. The key is managing the one’s we can live with, and eliminating the one’s we can’t live with. The ability to act on this self-awareness is where most of us fall short.
I don’t know about you but I consider my life quite stressful. Which leads me to the one bad habit that I’ve never been able to manage – allowing chronic stress to control my mind and compromise my health. I’ve never been able to set boundaries for stress. It has chosen its own boundaries.
Knowing that chronic stress is killing us – that it is a threat to our health – only compounds its damage. True to form, my awareness of the horrific effects of this chronic stress intensifies my own anxiety. My stress feeds off itself, creating more and more damage as time goes by chronic stress intensifies my own anxiety. My stress feeds off itself, creating more and more damage as time goes by.
When your mind keeps you up at night…
I have tried to get the upper hand on stress, by reading and watching everything possible. But damn it’s hard! I’ve been nowhere near capable of silencing the demons. Yes, I meditate, try to be more present, focus on what I can change, sleep better, breathe, etc etc etc, but there’s a gravitational pull I can’t shake. It pulls my mind towards all the potential outcomes of an unwritten future. For many like me, this breeds, even more, stress.
So, what now? If we’re having a hard time controlling our stress, what can we do?
Ideally, we should do a better job of tackling the root cause of our stress, instead of focusing on the symptoms. In a perfect world, we would defeat the most egregious stress villains as they arise, like a game of stress whack-a-mole. In my case, the root cause of my stress is an 800-pound gorilla that refuses to budge. So, for the foreseeable future, he’ll be taking this trip with me. Who’s the 800-pound gorilla? Myself.
What’s stressing me?
People are dumbfounded when I tell them I’m stressed. They have a good reason. What could I possibly be stressed about? From the outside looking in, everything is great. And on an absolute level, I guess they’re right. On a relative level, they couldn’t be more wrong.
I’m a white male in Canada. Born of a beautiful and supportive family. I was blessed with the opportunity to obtain a great education, in a top notch school. I’m in pretty good shape for my age and still have my hair. The Canadian dream.
I’m embarrassed to tell my story because after watching a movie on the tragic situation in Syria, I’m reminded that I should be ashamed to stress over my life. But unfortunately, the mind, heart, and gut don’t always see things so objectively.
I carry a huge chip on my shoulder. One I’ve been trying to minimize as I get wiser, older, more secure with myself. But alas, it’s not always that easy.
Many people close to me would be surprised at the thoughts I had (and sometimes still have) on a regular basis. I’ll keep the details to myself. Sharing them wouldn’t be appropriate. All I can say is that at times it’s debilitating.
I don’t know if these thoughts stem from the relentless pressure I put on myself to ‘succeed’, or that my situation is that far out of my comfort zone, or a combination of both. But in the end, that kid who got incessantly teased for stuttering and having big ears always seems to be in the background defending himself. Proving that he, too, is worth something.
The result… I rarely live in the moment. The only time I live in the moment is when I’m working. So when people question why I work so much, I should just answer ‘to maintain a semblance of sanity’. Keeping my mind challenged is the only way to prevent my mind from pulling me further and further away from peace.
So, yes, I stress. And as ashamed as I am for being stressed in the first place, the journey to evolve has been more tricky than I could have imagined.
Like an old photo, sometimes it just takes a new frame…
Until recently, I was at a loss to find another way to deal with my stress. I couldn’t find relief. But this is a good news story. The good news is that there is another option – to reframe the effects that chronic stress is having on your body.
Kelly McGonigal, in her book The Upside Of Stress, has provided us with the recipe for a forcefield that may help protect us from the deleterious effects of chronic stress.
This isn’t about mitigating the stressors in your life. It’s about knowing and accepting that you are stressed, without judgment, followed by a shift in your mindset.
Stress can be viewed as either a threat or a challenge. Recent research has shown that this mindset, or label, can have a significant effect on our physiological responses to stress.
When people consistently see stress as a threat, they increase their risk of heart disease and stroke and can experience adrenal fatigue and burnout.
But when you reframe stress as a challenge, it can actually work in your favour. It can reduce its negative consequences, and help provide the resilience you may need down the road.
This, for me, was a revelation because it provides relief from the inevitable damage I thought was being done to my body. This seemingly insignificant shift has provided me enough sunlight to believe in another outcome and this has made all the difference.
How to Manage Stress
Here are some other techniques that Dr. McGonigal provides in The Upside Of Stress, which can help further negate the effects of stress:
- Link the stress you are feeling to a meaningful goal or something (or someone) you care about. This can make it easier to develop a positive mindset towards the stress;
- Take 10-minutes to write about one of your most important values. If you are living your values, all your stress can be linked to a value you hold. This mindset exercise can have effects that last months, even years;
- Research shows that people who volunteer, or help others, build up greater resilience, or are even immune to future stressful events;
- Remind yourself that struggle is part of the human experience, that there are others going through the same pains.
Richard Rohr eloquently sums it up for us:
“The enemy is never the problem but the opportunity; the problem will never be solved through eliminating or silencing the opposition but by learning to hold the tension of the opposites and launch them in a new direction.”
Amazing! Like kung fu, you take the energy of your stress and direct it to something positive.
This may sound simple but it finally connected the dots in my brain. As intensely as I am feeling the stress, I can redirect this intensity to serve me in the future. Not only can we grow from stress, but we can now control this stress; avoiding the potential health consequences.
So if you’re dealing with a lot right now, first ask yourself if your stress is in the pursuit of a meaningful goal. If it isn’t, then start putting a plan in place to change that. If it is, then consistently remind yourself that this stress, or should I say this challenge, will serve you well. Remind yourself that stress is a challenge, not a threat.
I truly believe that this mindset shift can add years to our lives. I can’t prove it, but this shift in perspective has helped me and this is all the proof I need.
Cover Image Courtesy.