A slightly different take on stress management

A slightly different take on stress management

With all of the continued uncertainty in the world, we are getting a lot of requests for tips on stress management. We’re all under more stress than usual right now. COVID-19 is a worldwide trauma, and our bodies are all starting to feel the effects of that emotional and psychological toll.

A quick note on stress: We often think of stress as inherently bad. It makes sense. Stress can give us things like heart disease and ulcers or lead to unhealthy relationships. But, there is actually more than one kind of stress, and some kinds of stress can actually be quite good. The goal isn’t to eradicate stress. The goal is to learn how to manage its presence.

Without getting into the physiological and psychological weeds, here’s what you need to know about the bad kind of stress: The best way to keep it from killing you is to work it out of your system. The experience that we call “stress” is basically a bunch of electrical and hormonal activity in our body. Our bodies are designed to use that energy, not store it. We experience the negative effects of stress when we store this energy instead of releasing it. So, the big question is how do we dissipate this energy?

There are 2 broad categories that come to mind: turning the volume WAY up and turning the volume WAY down.

What does that mean?

Turning the volume way up

Turning the volume way up means physically working all those stress hormones out by increasing our physical activity level. Think of it like literally sweating the stress right out of you. Going for a run. Crossfit. Boxing.

We live in a modern world, but our brains are written on an ancient operating system. Our stress response is primarily designed to protect us from the “run away from a bear in the forest” kinds of danger. Not the “did I properly sanitize that shopping cart” or “am I still going to have a job in a month” kind of danger we’re currently experiencing. Turning the volume way up means giving that “I’m going to run away as fast as I can or hit this threat as hard as I possibly can” energy a place to go.

(Side note: This is different from “primal scream” kinds of tactics, which research shows to be pretty ineffective. The important thing is to do things with your body that require you expend energy.)

Ways to turn the volume way up in the midst of COVID isolation:
With social distancing and stay-at-home measures in place, it’s hard to get to the gym these days. Here are some resources that we have found helpful in the past, and are especially relevant now that our access to fitness facilities is limited. We’re not personal trainers and can’t vouch for the efficacy of any of these programs. These are just some of the ways we and some of our clients have found to turn the volume up in the past.

Turning the volume way down

Turning the volume way down, like it sounds, is the complete opposite. Instead of focusing on the body’s ability to work stress activity out, we focus on the mind’s ability to send an all-clear signal down to the body, which helps diffuse the stress energy.

When you experience a threat, your limbic system sends a shot of stress signals to the rest of your body. Imagine going for a hike and suddenly noticing out of the corner of your eye a dark slender object on the ground just in front of you, slithering back and forth. You immediately stop whatever you were doing and take a closer look. On closer inspection, you realize that it’s not a snake. It’s just a piece of plastic wrap that someone accidentally left on the trail. We’ve all been there. We feel that initial startle response, and then we notice the feel of calm wash through our body as we feel our heart rate and respiratory rate slow down when we realize that it was a false alarm.

What’s happening in that moment is that the more “conscious” parts of our brain are sending an all-clear signal down to the more primitive parts of the brain, causing hormones and electrical signals in the rest of the body to return to normal levels.

Obviously, the sending of this “all-clear” message is a bit more complicated when the threat is something like coronavirus – more nuanced than snake/not-snake. However, there are some things that we can do to help facilitate similar kinds of mental activity.

Meditation

The best way to get started with meditation is honestly to utilize our access to technology. Sitting quietly for 10 minutes is great. But it’s not meditation. When we’re getting started, we need more guidance and intentionality than that. In my opinion, phone/tablet apps are the most cost effective way of getting high quality guidance. Here are the ones I am most familiar with:

Journaling

Journaling helps our mind slow down in a different way than meditation. If you’ve never cultivated a journaling practice, having a template can be really helpful. My favorite template comes from the Five Minute Journal.

Research shows that journaling via pen and paper may have greater mental health benefits than typing. However, my handwriting can be atrocious at times. Sometimes I don’t enjoy the act of writing because I find that I’m spending more time focusing on how bad my handwriting is instead of the actual words or reflection. Just like meditation, there are a ton of great journaling apps out there. I’m partial to Day One. It’s the only one I’ve ever used. Bonus: It has the 5 Minute Journal templates built into it, which helps make getting started a breeze.

Prayer/Reflection

This is the most highly personal way of turning the volume down by a wide margin. In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown talks about the significance of this in her initial research. For some people, this is God. For some, it’s fishing. Whatever helps you slow down and connect with that power that is greater than all of us. The process might start by taking a few moments to reflect on these two questions:

  1. When have you experienced that power in the past?
  2. What brings perspective, meaning, and purpose to your life?

In Summary

Most of the activities listed above are pretty common stress management techniques that you’ll find anywhere you google “stress management.” However, organizing them in terms of turning the volume up to work out the body’s stress or turning the volume down to send the body an all-clear message can be helpful in figuring out which of these techniques might work for us in any given moment.

We all need to be able to do both. If you find that you keep trying things from one category and it doesn’t seem to work, try switching to the other and see what happens. Over time, you’ll begin to get an idea of the times which one your mind and body need in any given moment.

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