We live in a crazy, busy, and chaotic world. We also live in an abundant, nurturing and rich world. What we expect to see, is what we see. If we expect to see something different, we then see that. All of these world conditions exist, and many we can create. What do I mean? That our lives are a combination of what happens around us, which we have no control over, and what our reactions are, which we do have control over. Think of a traffic jam: there is the traffic jam, then how we react to that traffic jam. Being able to manage parts of our lives to invite calm, joy and lightness can be done.
We know that high levels of stress can contribute to most major illnesses and risk factors for them, like heart disease, high blood pressure, depression, weight gain, sleeplessness, and the list goes on. We also know stress is a naturally occurring phenomenon for protection in our DNA. When a caveman met up with any unknown it was generally life or death. Very little of our unknowns are life or death: the darkness has no saber tooth tigers waiting for us. We are still surrounded by unknowns and they still can trigger anxiety and stress, but we have to evolve to manage the triggers differently if we don’t want to live with chronic stress, burnout and depression.
Being able to stop and identify what is going on in our bodies when we do not feel well is our first step of finding what triggered our stress. I notice where stress articulates itself in my body: is my stomach flippy, am I wearing my shoulders like earrings? Turns out walking around looking like Nixon with my shoulders around my ears is a sign I am stressed. We all carry stress in different places: some folks clench their fists, while others have lower back pain. I always find it interesting how our bodies are reflective in poetic ways of what we feel. Those whose shoulders jack up to their ears might feel like the weight of the world or their world is on them. Those with stomach problems feel gutted or carved out, lower back pain can be someone who feels unsupported, balling our fists means we are readying for a fight. Our mental state is connected to our physical state: always the somatic ties of body to mind and soul.
Once we have identified the first signs of stress in our bodies we can trace it back to the triggers. What caused my reaction? What just happened in the last minute, hour, or day that I can trace back to the person, the feeling, the situation that started me feeling stressed? This is about pulling that thread of conversation, of action that brought us from feeling okey-dokey to uh-oh. As an example, I am in a hurry and I hit a traffic jam, my blood pressure goes up, I am feeling my stomach go wonky and my shoulders are at ear level. I take notice of what I am feeling; I identify those feelings as feeling overwhelmed and powerless in that moment. I make note of what I’m feeling and then later I can reflect back to other times I was stressed: were these themes there? Or were there other themes? Do I see patterns to what triggers my stress? Do I see patterns to how I react to the stress? I start to think like a researcher, like an anthropologist studying me. I try to be neutral and curious and look at what is happening without judgment.
Knowledge is power. The act of identifying our patterns and triggers, then maybe the whys of those feelings, help us to look for ways to minimize our stress. Minimizing our stress comes in many forms but the root of each lives within our locus of control. Going back to the traffic jam example, I start with the knowledge that traffic tends to make me feel overwhelmed and powerless. Then I begin with solving the lowest and simplest form of the physical problem here. Can I remove myself from this stimulus, the traffic? Can I be flexible with my schedule to minimize the times I am in traffic jams? That can lead me to tweak my schedule, the route I take, public transportation, etc. If I cannot remove myself from this traffic, can I come at this problem another way? If I am stuck with the traffic, how can I make it better? If I am struck in the car for commutes, what can I do to make that trip more enjoyable? I then can look at how I am seeing this “stuck” time in the car and take my feelings of powerlessness and create some choices for myself. Can I make my trip better with audio books, music, pod casts, ride sharing with others, learn a language, daydreaming etc.? I can choose to see this traffic jam as a time for me time, quiet time, learning time. I cannot control what happens outside of my car but my choices in my behavior and how I use my time I can control. Long-term I can find a different and more permanent solution perhaps if this is a huge part of the anxiety and stress in my life.
I step-by-step problem-solve by thinking critically about the physical, emotional, and psychological aspects of my stress triggers, and I can also bring in friends who do this well and chat over wine, coffee or tequila. I can also pull apart the mental aspects of what stresses me. For example what expectations I had for this event, person, job, that were not met. Stress from expectations we had for something or someone is a huge stressor. Having expectations can be the building blocks for stress if we are not careful. Being flexible with what we expect helps as does communicating our expectations. Knowing our expectations are just our thoughts about what we would like to happen or what we see happening doesn’t make it so. It just makes us frustrated nobody is following what we scripted in our head. Crazy is as crazy does, especially if we have not shared that script. When those expectations are communicated and create real-life feedback and data, they are built on reality. Sometimes we need to invite in friends, counselors or life coaches to problem-solve some of these triggers and their roots. Asking for help is one sign of wisdom, so feel free to get your wisdom on.
The last place I go to in this process is what tools and practices can I use to invite in clarity, balance and wellness to my life? There is nothing I will tell you here you don’t already know. Things like taking me time, meditation, gratitude practices, journaling, exercise, healthy eating, and strong social network, doing things that we are passionate about. All of these and many other things work. The trick is you have to do them. You have to make it your wellness a priority in your life. A hammer is a tool made of a chunk of metal and wood or plastic, it does nothing. When we choose to pick it up and use it to hang a picture we have a result. If we choose to use it to build a tiny house in our backyard or make beautiful furniture we then start to master a tool through repeated use. We then derive pleasure from that tool and in our lives because of our mastery of it and what it brings to us. Picking one small tool, a practice, to help manage our daily stress though the above list moves us toward being an active agent of change in our life. We own how we spend our days, in what frame of mind we do that, and that in return ripples out and splashes back. What we think and do have resonance with not only our world but for everyone. The abundant, crazy, nurturing, busy, rich and chaotic world waits. What are you going to do about it?
Below is my list of questions that I use to help lead me to finding ways to reduce stress. They are by no means complete or foolproof but they are a start. I hope they help!
Steps to Identify and Manage Stress
Step 1- Questions I ask myself for identifying stress in my body
- Think back to the last time I was stressed: How did my body feel?
- Where in my body do I first feel unwell?
- Where do I carry my stress in my body at the end of a busy day?
- What do I notice is different in my body after a massage, walk on beach, relaxing day?
Step 2- Questions I ask myself to identify what triggers stress for me.
- What events, situations, feelings do I see that triggers my stress?
- Do I see patterns to my stress triggers?
- I am most stressed when I feel _______________
- ____________________ always stresses me out
- The last time someone asked me if I was stressed where was I and what was I doing?
Step 3 – Questions I ask myself to eliminate or minimize my identified stress triggers
- What resources can I identify to help me, e.g. therapist, friends, coaches, books?
- How can I minimize my stress triggers I have identified with critical thinking skills, problem solving techniques and resources?
- Can I remove the stress triggers?
- If I cannot remove the stress triggers can I improve the situation to make it more bearable?
- What three things can I do under my control to make this situation more bearable?
- What part do I play in setting these triggers up?
- Can I adjust my thinking and expectations around the triggers?
- What two small things in my thinking or behavior can I adjust to make things better?
- Is there something I need to let go of that does not serve me around this trigger?
Step 4 Questions I ask myself to invite in clarity, balance and wellness and the action items attached
- What tools or practices can I bring in to invite in clarity, balance and wellness?
- What resource do I have to help me create wellness?
- Make a list of five to ten things that make me feel good and the date the last time I did it
- What is one thing I can add monthly/weekly /daily to my schedule that makes me feel strong?
- What is one thing I can remove from my life that drains me?
- What is one thing I can do daily to make me feel calm?
- What three practices in wellness do I most want to cultivate? e.g., exercise, mediation, me time,
- What is one tiny step for one or all of these things I could do this week?
- What class, app, coach, friend will help me with my journey to less stress?
- In what ways do I show that my priority is my mental, physical and emotional wellness?