We all know that stress can have a negative impact on our health and lives. But how can we not just manage stress, but minimize it so that it doesn’t run the show?
I have found that learning how I react to stress, both physically and emotionally, as well as noticing my thought patterns, is a great first step towards minimizing stressful feelings.
Study the ways you react to stress
Do your shoulders tighten up and start creeping towards your ears?
Does your head start to ache?
Do you get a knotted feeling in your belly?
Do you hold your breath?
Do you eat more sweets or drink more wine?
Do your thoughts speed up or do you just want to take a nap?
Do you feel more prone to angry outbursts or crying?
Do you feel anxious, worried or impatient?
These are just some of the ways you might react to feeling stressed out.
All of us have a patterned response to stress. Once we recognize our particular pattern, we can then start to notice the precursors to our stress reactions. For example, if we know our shoulders get tight, we can make a point to notice how they feel throughout the day. If we know our minds race we can notice if our thoughts are speeding up and taking on a worried tone, or if they're staying steady and even-keeled. Noticing our reactions and their precursors are the beginning to getting a handle on stress.
How Does Studying Our Stress-Reactions Help?
When we know our stress-response, it is easier to catch ourselves moving into stress mode, before it becomes full-blown. We can then take a moment to step back and breathe for a few moments. Then we can assess what is triggering the stress response. We can look at the situation, and look at our thoughts and feelings about the situation, because our thoughts and feelings are generally what stress us out, not the situation itself.
Once we know what our thoughts and feelings about the situation are, we can decide if they are relevant for the situation or not. Once we’ve determined that, then we can decide how we want to move forward.
One simple example might be needing to bring a main dish to a potluck on a Friday night. You promised to bring the dish, but the week wound up getting crazy and the potluck is now in 2 hours and you have nothing prepared. You’re stressed out because you promised to cook a main dish and feel like a guilty wimp who can't get her act together. A simple solution, of course, would be to get “take out”, but you don’t like that idea. You decide to ask yourself why you don’t like the idea and realize you feel ashamed at the thought of bringing “take out”. You ask yourself why that idea makes you feel ashamed. You remember that your mother placed a high value on cooking meals and thought that buying “take out” for her family was lazy and showed a lack of care.
Ah so. Now that you understand where your feelings of shame come from, you have more room for self-compassion AND to make choices, rather than just react to thoughts and feelings. Whether you decide to quickly cook something or to get "take-out" is irrelevant. The important thing is that you can now make that decision from a more grounded, aware place that honors both your needs as well as your commitments. Of course, this is a very simplistic example, but the process can be applied to any number of situations.
While cultivating an awareness of our reactions and thought patterns around stressful situations can really help us minimize stressful feelings, it’s really important to reach out for extra support when needed. Talk to trusted friends or family members; find a counselor; come in for acupuncture.
Please contact me if you have any questions or would like to know how acupuncture and Chinese medicine might be helpful for you.