In honor of National Stress Awareness Month, it might be worth looking at what exactly stress is and why we need a little bit of it in our lives. In fact, a good amount of stress can be an effective motivation to take action and do the necessary things. Many people, when subjected to brief manageable stress, are at their best and most productive. Public speaking, for example, can cause someone temporary stress, but that stress can motivate them to prepare well, train, and know their craft, fueling a fantastic display of what they know and are. able to do. A healthy temporary stress response can be our greatest friend in this way. This is why I encourage people to allow their children to experience some stress in a healthy and supportive environment. We can all learn and grow from stress.
This becomes problematic, however, when the stress becomes overwhelming. Chronic feelings of worry, difficulty sleeping, and not eating or overeating can all be signs of being overwhelmed. Overwhelm occurs when we face chronic stress that is not just temporary or situational, and can come at us from many different angles. Suddenly everything feels stressful, even the things we would normally enjoy. When people reach this place of stress, they often find themselves numb from excessive drinking, drugs, shopping, or hours spent paralyzed in front of electronics. At this point, stress is no longer our friend and it can start to make us sick and ineffective at managing life. It can damage relationships and lead to physical and mental illness.
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The first step in dealing with overwhelm is to try to notice it before it sets in. Mindful practices such as meditation, prayer, nature walks or yoga can help enormously with this. They might give us a break to listen to our body’s signals that things are going wrong. That tightness in your jaw? Notice that. Stiffness in your shoulders? Notice that too. How’s your breathing? Calm breaths are accompanied by a rise and fall of the belly and are long and deep. Stress breathing tends to come more with a rise and fall of the chest and is accompanied by incomplete exhalations. Notice this too. If your body is telling you that you are under too much stress, listen and take a moment to listen to what you need. Sometimes we don’t want to listen to ourselves, because clinging to what’s causing us stress somehow protects us. Maybe we think we have to take all those hard courses because if we don’t, we’ll go unnoticed. Maybe it’s because we have to keep a perfectly clean house, because if we don’t, people will think of us as an imperfect mother or hostess. If we can notice our body’s cues and then listen to the stories we tell ourselves, we might find it’s okay to question those stories a bit and let go of the things that don’t serve us well. It can reduce stress and hopefully help us get out of overload.
Personal care is also important. Getting enough sleep, eating well, making time to move healthily, and fostering meaningful connections with others are all important stress relievers. The problem is that by the time we reach submersion, if we just tell ourselves to try these things, it often doesn’t help. Without questioning the thoughts that are essentially telling us we’re not safe to slow down, and allowing those thoughts to unwind a bit, sleep, healthy eating, healthy movement, and meaningful moments of connection only happen. probably won’t show up.
In a world where there’s plenty to be stressed about, take some time to tune in. See what your body is telling you about how you take care of yourself. If the answer you get is a red hot, “Not so good!” so please pay attention to this. If it is not possible for you to find a place of emotional safety with periods of relaxation and joy, ask for help. A good therapist, mentor, trusted friend or yoga instructor can be the compass you need to find your inner ease.