Using Stress to Take Control of Your Life
Can the experience of stress be positive?
Is all stress “bad?”
Beginning a business hasn’t been a small feat. I didn’t realize the amount of stress I was experiencing until I started getting sick every month, my avoidance tendencies increased, and I felt stuck and stagnant in my energy and relationship with my business. I questioned this experience and drastic shift in my being as a person. I came to the answer of two dreaded words (at least at this time of my life): stress and anxiety. I thought to myself, “I don’t have anxiety” and as the months went on my realization shifted to, “I DO have anxiety.” How can I, a therapist who helps others manage anxiety, experience anxiety myself. Well…we ALL experience anxiety and stress. The trick is how to use stress and anxiety as a means for change, choice, awareness, creation of a witness, understanding, and education.
I want to counter my above paragraph with an important point: not all stress is “bad.” If I wasn’t under some sort of stress, would I have created a private practice, manifested groups and classes, and followed my dreams? My system thrived with slight activation, motivation, and excitement that powered me. As that continued and shifted from slight activation to full activation most hours of the day my system could no longer handle the constant state of fight or flight. In the beginning, I lacked awareness and the use of skills to navigate stressful situations. As I learn more and find the tools that work for me, I move into a new, less stressful place with my business, my relationships, and myself.
What is stress? A teacher of mine, Jessica Byron, MD, states, “Stress is an organism’s total response to environmental demands or pressures. The stress response is the biological, psychological, emotional, behavioral, and social responses to a perceived (real or imagined) stressor, threat, or challenge”(2017). The stress response is known as the “fight or flight” response, an automatic response from our sympathetic nervous system. The response is activated in times of real or perceived threat or danger and provides strength, speed, and power in order to avoid harm. This is the survival response. This response occurs through the secretion of hormones and neurotransmitters, adrenaline (epinephrine), noradrenalin (norepinephrine) and cortisol, into the bloodstream and into every cell in the body. The secretion of neurotransmitters into the bloodstream is one change that occurs in the body through the activation of the sympathetic nervous system. The stress most people experience today is not only physical stress. The stress includes psychological stress, emotional stress, and social stress. Busy schedules, overcommitting, financial pressures, loneliness, strained relationships, and rise in personal and professional expectations. WOW!
In the book, The SuperStress Solution, Roberta Lee, MD, writes that, “anxious is the new normal.” The tricky thing about stress is that we can experience stress with or WITHOUT a threat or stressor. The “imagined” threat or stressor is real and manifested from our thoughts. Our thoughts and mind packed full of expectations and immense pressure on ourselves. Byron states, “Stress occurs when there is a mismatch between perceived demands and the ability to cope” (2017). Coping and coping skills are ways to deal with, manage, and navigate stressors. Negative health consequences occur when our bodies stay in a constant state of hyper-arousal (activation of sympathetic nervous system) and there is no opportunity for repair, relaxation, and/or release.
This brings me back to the question, “Is all stress bad?” My answer is “No.” Small amounts of stress are necessary when our systems are able to return to a state of homeostasis, a stable equilibrium, relaxation, and repair. Without the repair, release, and relaxation long-term health effects can occur and our satisfaction for life decreases. The relaxation response occurs through activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. The hard truth is that this rarely happens in our society and in order for repair to occur, we have to be aware, mindful, and make intentional shifts in our everyday lives to practice and incorporate relaxation and repair.
Changes and effects of chronic stress and sympathetic nervous system activation on the body:
Immune system is suppressed
Reproductive system is suppressed
Digestive system stops metabolizing food normally
Constriction of blood vessels, except the muscles involved in fight/flight
Decreased production of salvia
Decreased perception of pain
Kidneys decrease output
Bowel and bladder sphincters close
Increase in heart rate and blood pressure
Stress effects on health:
Increased blood clotting
Increase blood sugar
Worsening of mood
Adoption of less healthy habits
Problems with memory
Jessica Byron, MD, states, “There is a body of evidence that indicated that stress affects the common pathway of the brain, endocrine system, immune system with inflammation being a key player in the development of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and major depression” (2017).
Scary… I know…
Educating myself about stress assists in my understanding of the negative effects of chronic stress and the impact consistent activation, stress, and anxiety has on my body and overall health. With that knowledge, my mindset shifted and I made an intentional decision to take control of my life, rather than letting life (and stress) “happen” to me. I strive to feel satisfied, refreshed, relaxed, and easeful. Each day, I work towards making a choice to choose relationship rather than stress, wellness rather than stress, and satisfaction rather than stress. It’s an experiment and with compassion for myself in this new transition, I integrate coping skills into my daily life. I invite you to incorporate one or two new coping skills into your daily routine. Below, I listed a few ideas for coping skills and shifts in perspective.
Coping skills to integrate in daily routine for a shift in lifestyle:
Yoga Nidra: A deep meditative relaxation practice. You can find audio CD’s on Amazon. I recommend Dr. Richard Muller. 20 minutes of Yoga Nidra is equivalent to 3 hours of sleep!
‘Being’ vs ‘Doing’: Conscious effort to pause, function from a place of intention, awareness, and mindfulness. Bring your everyday experience back to the present moment, this day, rather than the past and/or future. Are you functioning based on your beliefs and values or those of your family system, society, and higher systems?
Present moment awareness: Practice of mindfulness.
The witness: The witness is the ability to see or witness yourself outside of yourself. The “observing witness.” Through the witness, you are able to recognize patterns, ways of acting, and responses to situations, conversations (with self and other), and an opportunity for change arises.
Meditation practice: This can show up in many different ways- sitting practice, movement, walking, Yoga Nidra.
Time for connection: Make space and time to connect to you and others in your life.
Boundaries: Can you say “no?” Set boundaries around work time and allow for play.
Breath: BREATHE! 4-6 count inhale through the nose, 6-8 count exhale through pursed lips. Lengthen the exhalation. This activates the relaxation response and parasympathetic nervous system. Breathe into the belly for deep belly breaths.
Trust and gratitude: Start a gratitude practice. Every morning or night before bed write down or tell someone one thing you are grateful for.
Learning about the effects of stress: Book recommendations listed below.
Yoga/movement: Moving your body in a way that works for you. Get the blood flowing.
Self-care: This can look many different ways. I have a blog addressing self-care on my website if you are looking for ideas.
I provide the list for ideas. By no means are these the only practices. It’s best to figure out what you are drawn to and what works best for you.
“Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” by Robert Sapolsky
“Full Catastrophe Living” by Jon Kabat-Zinn
I am available to support you on this journey. Please contact me with questions, needs, or concerns. We are not alone on this earth, on this life journey, and support is always available. The hardest part may be asking for support and help when you need it, and it’s the bravest step to take.