Stress, it is an experience that has become so ubiquitous in our culture that we no longer regard it as extraordinary. It is normal to have stress. Everyone is stressed. It is a part of everyday life. It is expected. Expressions such as, work hard, play hard promote a lifestyle which thrives on stress. Relaxation itself has become extreme as our past-times now seek to maintain the adrenaline levels to which we have become accustomed. We are both debilitated by stress and addicted to it, especially here in the Silicon Valley where an 80 hour work week, followed by a triathlon on Saturday and repaving the driveway on Sunday, is a typical week. In examining your own stress-level, the first step is to get real with yourself about how addicted you are to your stress.
The everyday adrenaline junkie…
Stress stimulates the release of adrenaline (epinephrine), norepinephrine, dopamine, and other endorphins. It triggers the body survival instincts, flooding these hormones and neurotransmitters into the bloodstream, elevating blood pressure, tensing the muscles, readying for fight-or-flight. Stress is meant, from an evolutionary perspective, to be a temporary state of heightened awareness and reactivity which allows us to avert physical threat. In our modern world, that threat translates into anxiety, fear of losing a job, a relationship, your looks, fear of getting a bad grade, not making the team, being unable to make your mortgage payment, etc. It is a constant, low-grade fear of potential consequences which might result, lest we stay on top of everything, all the time. Thus, that tense, hyper-vigilant, adrenalized state becomes the default.
So, how does addiction come into it? You may have recognized some of the
Hormones/neurotransmitters listed above. They are all connected to mood. In fact, many antidepressants are chemically synthesized versions of the hormones/neurotransmitters released in stress situations. In other words, stress kind of feels good! It is a mood elevator which can simulate feelings of intensity and excitement. The stress-response, and the neuro-chemical release it triggers, becomes addictive, an ingrained reaction which offers a familiar hit of stimulation.
Understanding the physical components of stress is important because it makes you aware of how habitual the stress-state is for your mind and body. It is a hardwired reaction. In order to rewire your brain, you must become aware of how your body reacts to stress in the moment, and then make a conscious choice to alter your response. In other words, this article does not deal with how to change your life and reduce the amount of obligations you have (although I highly recommend doing that as well!!). Here we will look at how you can change the way you react to stress physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Four steps to less stress…
Here is a simple, four step method for reducing stress. It only takes a few minutes and can be done anywhere.
- Take three deep breaths.
- In this, and virtually every challenging situation, beginning with a few deep, cleansing breaths will help to bring you down out of your head and into your body where you can begin to deal with the tension you are holding. It takes less than a minute and serves to immediately slow you down and disrupt the brain/body from jumping to the hardwired stress response.
- What is true in this moment?
- During stressful situations, the mind tends to race into the future, creating anxiety based on events which have not actually occurred. For example, as you are rushing to finish a project at work, you are already picturing yourself missing your deadline.
- Serious stress alcoholics may even follow that line of thinking further down the rabbit-hole, picturing being fired, being unable to find a new job, losing their house, etc.
- Suddenly the issue of completing a project has several, hypothetical and increasingly stress-provoking consequences attached to it.
- This is why it is important to come back to what is actually happening in the moment. Unless you are in grave danger or serious pain, you will most likely find that you can deal with what this moment presents. You are beginning to see how the mind generates stress. By bringing yourself back to what is true right now, you make that response less automatic and more conscious.
- Witness your experience.
- You began this process in step 2 by short-circuiting your minds tendency to project into the future. Now see if you step all the way out of your experience and observe what is happening for you. This is a subtle concept. It means noticing your mind and bodys reactions without being at the effect of them.
- In the example above, you might notice, Wow, my mind is jumping ahead ten steps and creating a catastrophe before anything has actually happened. My shoulders and jaw are tense and my heart is racing.
- You are observing the stress rather than becoming the stress.
- What would it feel like to let this stress go right now?
- Imagine performing the same task, minus the stress. How would you feel in your body? How would your thoughts change?
- See how fully you can step into this experience. How long can you stay there? Remember how this feels. When you notice that your stress has returned, see if you can gently bring yourself back to this experience. You have a choice over your physical/mental/emotional response!
Get into the habit of slowing yourself down and becoming conscious of your stress-reaction on a regular basis. You will find that you are able to catch your stress sooner and sooner, until you are catching it just as it begins to arise. Here are a few additional things you can work on if you are having trouble.
- If you find you are not recognizing how stressed you are becoming until you are consumed by it, or even until afterwards:
- Examine what triggers your stress reaction. Are there specific situations that really push you over the edge?
- Take a moment before you enter those circumstances to go through the steps.
- Keep your focus on how you feel.
- Return to deep breathing when you feel stress arise.
- Make a conscious effort to relax your body.
- If you are finding it hard to relax, try doing a conscious relaxation exercise.
- Tense each muscle where you are experiencing stress. Hold for 5 seconds and let go. Scrunch up your shoulders. Now let go. Squeeze your hands into fists. Let them go. Scrunch up your face. And release. Tense your legs. Release them.
- Notice how you feel. Now that you are more aware of each of these muscles, see if you can focus on each muscle individually and let go of a little more stress without tensing first. Can you let go of even more?
- If you are still holding onto some tension, you may want to experiment with a visualization exercise.
- Give yourself 5 minutes in a quiet place where you can be alone.
- Sit in a position which allows you to relax the most easily.
- Take deep breaths, in and out.
- On the out-breath, imagine yourself breathing out all your stress and tension. Some people like to visualize this as black or gray smoke.
- On the in-breath, see yourself being filled with calming, purifying white light.
- With each breath, see the smoke of your out-breath becoming cleansed, as you grow more peaceful and free of tension, until the out-breath is also white light and you find yourself completely relaxed.
Even if none of the obligations and commitments you have in life change, the way you react to those circumstances can change everything. You may not be able to remove all your stressors, but you can alter your stress response. It takes time and perseverance to change your brains circuitry and create more functional responses to stress, but the rewards are pretty enticing: better health, more satisfying relationships, increased overall quality of life… Do not take my word for it. Practice the steps, take charge of your stress, and see how much your life can change.