Stress and MORE STRESS.
If we allow stress to dominate our lives, we’re going to pay a high price for it in the long run, harming our health. We can better manage our daily stressors.
Do you ever feel like life just keeps slamming you with stress? I know I really work at minimizing stress, staying focused and calm, and staying present. But there are some days where I really struggle. It’s as if there’s a giant conspiracy, constantly testing me. In the past couple of weeks, I keep running into rising stress, despite my best efforts. I had to fill up my car with gas at over $6 a gallon. Stress! I’m supporting someone through a major health crisis and sitting with a surgeon being flippant about the side effects of major surgery. Stress. Waiting for four hours for him to get a body scan and another three hours for a cat scan and then waiting for days for the results. Stress. A no-show by my insurance agent for a scheduled meeting, followed by no apology whatsoever for wasting my time, much less ignoring my needs. Stress. A terrible algae bloom in my above ground pool that I use for physical therapy. Stress. The store being out of pool shock to fix the algae. Stress. My old car needs work now and it’s silly to invest in it, but there’s a real problem with inventory and pricing on cars right now, so stress.
I don’t need to go on because I’m betting many of you are experiencing the same thing. Stress and more stress. I can’t imagine what moms must feel like that desperately need formula and can’t find it. I can’t imagine what someone who is seriously ill and doesn’t have insurance must be experiencing in trying to get medical support. I can’t imagine how someone making minimum wage can even begin to think about paying for rent or groceries right now.
On top of these newer stressors, when Dr. Doni Wilson and I recently spoke about her book, Master Your Stress Reset Your Health, she said that we have come to accept stress and anxiety as being hand-in-glove with being successful. Many of us believe that we are supposed to be superhumans and just ignore stress, carrying on with long hours and sleepless nights, suffering quietly with headaches, tension, and stomach sensitivity, rather than risk being perceived as unable to “keep up” with the demands of modern life. But we’re not robots or machines, we’re human. While some stress is inevitable, and, in certain situations, even necessary for effective functioning, we must keep it from overpowering our daily lives.
So, we were already stressed and then we added a whole lot of big, constant and ever-morphing stressors over the past couple of years. I think it's important to remember that our baselines have probably changed due to the strange circumstances we’re living in. A store being out of something would not have stressed me out pre-pandemic because I would have known that more would arrive soon. But I no longer have that certainty. In the good old days, if an insurance agent had ignored me, I’d just find another insurance company, but I don’t have that luxury of time anymore with contract deadlines, staff shortages and limited options. I never even cared much what gasoline cost before because it stayed within a certain range. Those days are gone. It’s the in-our-face uncertainty about pretty much anything anymore that can make us feel like everything is stressful combined with very real right-now issues that we can’t control and that we’ve never experienced.
Mindfulness helps us stay in the present moment, but atypically these days, it’s more common that the present moment may really be presenting us with a stressful situation, so what do we do? We can still turn to the breath to re-regulate our emotions. Three deep breaths, in through the nose (if you are able) and out through the mouth, with the out-breath longer than the in-breath. I use 3 seconds in, six seconds out. Once my system is regulated, it’s easier for me to think clearly and recognize that I have no control over the situation and there’s no benefit to getting upset. That clears out the junk to allow me to start considering what actions I can take.
Because of the constant stress many of us are under, it’s more important than ever to truly practice self-care. If we want to be effective in our jobs, to be the best parents we can be, to contribute to solving our communities’ problems and to maintain our long-term health, we cannot ignore these stress levels on a day-to-day basis. I’m talking about consistent self-care, not a bubble bath. Several times a day, check in to see how you’re feeling. Notice your body. Is it tense? Is your heart racing? Take simple actions with each check in. Take a short break. Drink some water. Take several deep, cleansing breaths. Don’t allow the stress to build up all day long and try to deal with it at bedtime. These mini-self-care practices throughout your days will keep you calmer and healthier.
Start your day not only setting intentions for what you wish to accomplish but in identifying which tasks may be fraught with stress. For example, if you have to call a government agency or an insurance company for a missing payment, an error in your filing or to ask a question about benefits, strategize. What else can you do while sitting on hold for an extended period of time? Work on something else, play music, watch a TV show. Odds are, you’re not only going to sit on hold for a long time, but you may be cut off multiple times. If you’re doing something else, it won’t feel as frustrating.
If you need to make a purchase that is a necessity and know there’s a shortage, try to avoid resistance. Instead of thinking, I don’t have time for this, reframe it to, I now have to make time for this. Don’t ruminate about how ridiculous it is or how you used to just drive down the block to the store. This is now a project and it needs dedicated time and effort.
As the saying goes, we’re all in the same storm, but we’re not in the same boat. Each of us has unique challenges due to the same big-picture circumstances, but your problems probably look very different than mine. It’s important to remember though that we are all in the same storm. I think the more compassionate or empathetic we can be to others, the better we’ll fare the storm. That government clerk that’s not answering your call is also in that storm. The store that can’t get the products you need is also in that storm. That insurance agent that’s ignoring me could be dealing with all kinds of problems that I’m not aware of. We can’t control most of what’s happening around us but we can always control how we respond to events.
I think realistically that we need to consider and accept that things are not going to be normal for some time to come. As each wave of new challenges hits, we have to decide whether we want to fight in futility against it or simply ride the wave the best we can. Allowing ourselves to get angry about circumstances we can’t control only harms us. If my heart is racing, face flushed, stomach and teeth clenched, and I feel like my blood is boiling because I’ve been on hold for 3 hours trying to get through to the unemployment office, guess what? It’s not affecting that government service at all. It’s only making me sick.
Our anger could impact other individuals we’re interacting with, however. The person on the other end of the phone at the unemployment office that finally answers my call may feel just as unwell, dealing with angry people all day when he or she has no power or control to fix the problem. The store clerk that gets screamed at because the infant formula shelves are empty probably isn’t feeling so great either. Remember, different boats in the same storm. When we become dysregulated because we’ve allowed our stress to explode unchecked, we’re just spreading our stress around. And to what end? It solves nothing and it harms our health as well as others.
Be careful not to go to the opposite extreme, by judging yourself harshly for losing your cool. The solution isn’t blame, shame or judgment, it’s compassion. We’re decision-fatigued, disappointment-fatigued, and living under anxiety-producing circumstances. Again, we’re human, so be kind to yourself. Practicing self-compassion will also help you be more compassionate towards others enduring this storm and studies show, that actually makes the giver, you, feel even better.
As we discussed last week regarding building optimism while being realistic about our circumstances, stress is widespread and real and we cannot ignore it without putting our health in peril, but we can practice responding in a healthier way and we can practice mindfulness which supports us in accepting reality as it is without judgment. These are challenging times for most, no question. But it’s not the first time in history we’ve collectively gone through a transition period or even a long-term catastrophic phase and our ancestors or predecessors made it. We’ve already gone through a lot and we made it. There’s no reason to think that we won’t get through this and hopefully will have learned some important lessons once it’s all behind us. The upside of being human is that most of us are quite resilient and if we’re not, we can become so.
To recap, work on self-regulation through mindfulness, breathwork or any other method that works for you. Practice self-care throughout your day. Be kind and compassionate to yourself as you endure challenges and struggles and then turn that compassionate lens outward to be kind to others in different boats.