Stress is a necessary, and to some extent, healthy, part of life. We must stress our muscles in order to build strength. To attain competence we must go through
trying experiences. But how much and how often?
Individuals differ in their tolerance for both physical and psychological stress. I will focus here on psychological stress - the less understood aspect of our nervous system and body/mind.
Tolerance increases with competence. A new job is extra stressful if you don’t know how to do what is expected of you and must learn day by day. A new relationship, as exciting as it may be, also tends to bring on uncertainty and stress. When you know what you are doing and/or truly trust the other, anxiety fades.
Chronic anxiety is one symptom of too much stress. Other symptoms include trouble sleeping, headaches, backaches, stomachaches, irritability, a hot temper. And, if you don’t get help, broken relationships.
We often need help both in noticing that we’re stressed and finding relief. Unless you are self-aware, you may be unloading on others without realizing it. You may be ignoring your tension level until eruption occurs. Then somebody else’s angry or hurt reaction might tune you in: What’s happening to me? Why am I getting so bent out of shape?
Finding out why can be tricky. You might be telling yourself you should be ok with whatever is really bothering you. Maybe you are afraid of change. And maybe you are concluding, like most people, that “Everyone Else” manages just fine, what’s wrong with me?
Not true. Most people find themselves in surprisingly difficult situations multiple times in their lives. They just aren’t talking about it. Humans need help sorting out their lives and feelings - their stressors. We just need it at different times and we’re quiet about needing it.
Stress is cumulative. Too much for too long without relief leads to dis-ease. Your nervous system can only take so much, even considering high tolerance. The best way to manage stress is to cultivate practices that become routine.
Develop physical and emotional outlets. Regular aerobic exercise moves stress hormones out of your system and lets your body/mind come back into balance. Safe aggression can also help discharge the hormones. Yelling/shouting/singing loudly while alone in the car, pounding a pillow, dancing your butt off. You are releasing energy, tiring yourself out. Practice yoga, meditation, deep breathing.
An understanding friend or therapist is the best outlet: if you can be listened to on a regular basis without judgement and with empathy, you will experience immediate relief. Most of us seriously blame ourselves for our misery, and are vastly relieved by another’s understanding.
Other outlets include activities that are so absorbing you lose track of time. And of course a beloved pet, a hot bath, a great massage can alleviate the physical symptoms for awhile.
Many complex stressors, however, require new ways of thinking and behaving, skills that will literally change your brain in a good way - increase your competence - if you put the time into learning them.
For instance, we know through research that attaining a sense of control, no matter how small, can help you with stress.
Experiment. For example, write down your feelings without judgement. There is something about the motor activity combined with labeling that will give you more sense of control: yes, I really am angry jealous, uncertain, sad, etc. You don’t have to know what to do about it yet.
Much stress comes from trying to ignore or negate our so-called negative feelings. Feelings are in the body. They come very fast. They need to be noticed, and they will create more trouble for you if you don’t allow them.
In fact, the most important practice you can develop, in stress management is naming, listening to and accepting your feelings. Unpack them. What are they telling you?
Once you do unpack them you can define a direction to move in, test out new strategies. We do not change all at once. Bit by bit, you will master the new behaviors needed to calm your nervous system, make the necessary changes. You will find yourself noticing and enjoying your own progress.
Though the big stressors in life - a job we hate, a bad marriage, loss of social, emotional, physical security - take way more time to resolve than most of us want, the learning process does not have to be miserable.
And the psychological dividends, in terms of increased competence, health and happiness are great.