Learning to Manage Stress

 
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“It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.” - Lou Holtz

One day a professor noticed that his students were starting to buckle under the pressure of school and life - he could see that the stress was impacting them. So he started that day’s lecture by raising a glass of water and asking his students how heavy they thought the glass of water was. Immediately students started shouting out different answers, ranging in various weights. After a minute the professor said, “it doesn’t matter what the absolute weight is - what really matters is how long I hold it. If I hold it for a minute, it’s not too heavy. If I hold it for an hour, my arm will hurt, and if I hold it for a day, you will have to call an ambulance. Even though the weight doesn’t change in any of those scenarios, the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes. If you carry your stress and tensions all the time, sooner or later, you won’t be able to carry on because the weight of it will be too much to hold.”

So why is stress management important? For starters, I don’t know a single person who doesn’t experience stress on an almost daily basis. Yet, similar to sleep, stress is often an afterthought when it comes to health and wellness. It’s considered an inevitable part of life because life IS stressful. It’s filled with responsibilities and demands that are often challenged by other people and situations. Our modern society demands and rewards doing more - working harder and longer; preparing more, organizing more, multitasking more, making sure our kids and parents and friends have more and get more from us. That’s a lot of “more.” It’s too much and then when we can’t live up to those expectations - or we think we can’t - we beat ourselves up for not doing better. We say, “if I was a better worker or boss, a better parent, a better daughter or son, a better partner, a better friend, a better - insert any role here - I would be better.” This makes me think of the Chinese proverb, “Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.”

We create our own tension because we buy into some idea of who we are supposed to be, who others are supposed to be, or some expectation of what things should be like or how they should go. When things don’t go as planned or life drops an unexpected surprise in your lap, it creates tension and stress. But it’s not actually what does or doesn’t happen that creates the stress; it’s how we react to it that does. Going one step further, I would say that it’s actually our resistance to what is or isn’t happening that creates the stress.

Biologically, there is a reason we have a stress response - it is what has kept us safe from predators and one of the reasons we haven’t gone extinct. It is a highly sophisticated system that is meant to be protective, not harmful. However, our response to day-to-day stressors isn’t a response to feeling threatened; it’s a resistance to what is happening, for whatever reason - misaligned expectations, unexpected circumstances, or just having our buttons pushed the wrong way. In our increasingly demanding world - one that promotes a busy culture and often shames self-care, many of us are experiencing high levels of stress and not managing it well, if at all. Managing your stress keeps it from becoming harmful.

One of the tricky things about stress management is identifying a need for it. You have probably become pretty well-conditioned to adapt to stress - as most of us have - and you are able to push through seemingly unscathed. You might even pride yourself at being efficient and productive through times of stress - perhaps even thriving as a result. The issue is that your nervous system still bares the brunt of that unchecked stress, which, over the long run, can negatively impact your health. You may also not be aware of how your body is being impacted by stress because the physical reactions to stress build slowly over time. One of the most common physical reactions to stress is the tensing of your muscles, which have become so common that most of us think it’s just a normal part of life. It’s not. The same thing applies to an upset stomach - most people experience an increase or decrease in appetite, as well as trips to the bathroom, when faced with stress, but they chock it up to normal nerve stuff. It’s not. Stress actually increases inflammation in the GI tract, which can lead to GI-related health conditions that come with a host of unpleasant symptoms.

Acute or chronic stress takes a toll on you in other ways, both physically and cognitively -  from your heart to your immune system, as well as your endocrine system - which involves a host of critical hormones, as well as the process of memory, learning, decision making, attention, and judgment. In fact, an estimated 75-90% of all doctor visits are for stress-related issues.  

But that isn’t to say that all stress is bad. There are some researchers who say that moderate amounts of stress are good for you - they make you stronger, more resilient, and more motivated to accomplish goals. It’s not necessarily the stress that creates the problem but rather how you view and respond to that stress.

It’s about not resisting what is happening and finding a way to manage it. It’s also about taking breaks from carrying the load. Going back to the story I started with, you have to put the glass of water down occasionally and rest before you can hold it up again. Periodically putting down the burden you carry - the stresses and tensions you hold - gives a chance to refresh, reframe things, and carry on.

So how do you periodically pause? There are a lot of different methods - from meditation to breathing and other tools to help put your stress on hold - that make a big difference.

Whatever burdens or tensions you are having now, let them down for a moment if you can. You have to put your glass of water down occasionally or you won’t be able to hold it any longer. Aim to put your glass of water down each night. You can pick it back up tomorrow. And more often than not, it doesn’t seem as heavy when you pick it back up.