This word is an active part of our culture’s daily wallpaper. We have job stress, financial stress, stress on our relationships. We worry and perhaps lie awake at night and then our stress level increases. We complain that it’s all too much and get overwhelmed, and declare that we are stressed out!
Clue #1: Deep Breathing
I wonder if Dr. Hans Selye (the endocrinologist who in the 1940’s borrowed the term from the physics world) could have predicted it’s popularity? Dr. Selye observed that certain symptoms in illnesses could be attributed to a pattern of responses to external events. In other words, the stress response. This stress response refers to the mind / body reaction to external events, aka stressors. The brain takes in data; let’s use traffic as an example. Then in reaction, the brain sorts that data into the danger category, and the glands release fight / flight hormones as if traffic is somehow threatening. Traffic is traffic, but the brain perceives it as dangerous, due in large part to how we think or breathe. Shallow breathing, higher cortisol levels. Conversely, deeper inhales and longer exhales slow cortisol production, along with it’s nasty effects.
Clue #2: Focus energy on what we can do something about
Some stressors can be broken down into categories: events we can do something about, and those we can’t. Think of the Serenity Prayer. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference. What can we actually change? I might not like the traffic, and can’t control it, but I can manage how I breathe.
Clue #3: Use the above two clues to help mitigate disorders
Dr. Sappington, my Abnormal Psychology professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, explained to his young undergrads that most of us carry certain psychological traits that, if combined with poor coping behaviors may manifest as a mental illness. In other words, mental health is often a function of how well we cope. If the stress is not managed well, those traits can eventually form the cluster of symptoms which comprise a mental illness. If the stress is managed well, the traits will simply be traits. Think “the need for cleanliness and order” versus “Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
Clue #4 Sharpen your saw
Dr. Stephen Covey used to tell a story about a guy who was trying to cut a tree down with a dull saw. He was working hard, hacking away, making very little progress. Another guy comes along and asked what he was doing. He looked up, disgusted at the stupidity of the question, and answered with “What does it look like I’m doing? I am trying to cut this tree down.” The other guy said “why don’t you stop and sharpen your saw?” He replied, “Because I’m too busy sawing!”
Clue #5 Identify and use healthy coping behaviors
Life is not always about productivity and grinding away to get things done at the expense of our health. All work and no play may be jeopardizing our mental health, by keeping us from coping well and becoming imbalanced. Then we use poor coping behaviors and become even more unhealthy.
Clue #6 Laugh. Often.
Laughter is the antidote to stress. It soothes tension, and can even reduce pain. Find your go-to movie or comedy series to offset the news cycle.
So what is good stress management? It’s learning to breathe and change our thoughts about situations; e.g., it’s just traffic. It’s going about our work and our day in a way that’s deliberately slow, peaceful and enjoyable, versus running a rat race. It’s also taking the time to sharpen the saw: literally taking care of our body, mind, spirit, eating well, exercising, reading, being still, watching nature, or doing things we enjoy. It means to rest and renew; to hit the pause button regularly, spending quality time doing the things that renew our energy and restore our physical and mental health.
What sharpens your saw? What brings you joy? What is within your power to control or change? Where do you spend most of your mental and physical energy? Do you consider that your life is in balance, or out of control? What needs to be different, and what small steps can you take in that direction?
Start with a deep breath.
Peace be with you.
Jeannie Ingram is a Licensed Professional Counselor, Certified Imago Relationship Therapist, Presenter and Clinical Instructor for Imago International Training Institute. She is also the Interim Director for Tapestries Counseling Center, a new non-profit in the Bellevue area of Nashville. She has a Bachelors Degree in Psychology and a Masters in Counseling from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, as well as a Post-Baccalaureate Certificate in Marriage and Family Therapy from Capella University.
Join Jeannie for a discussion on the topic of Stress on August 22 at 11:30am at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church - https://www.tapestries.care/events