Accepting & Managing Stress as a Normal Part of Life

Stress is necessary for life. Tension is how the body and the world work together and don't fly apart - literally. Stress sharpens our focus and improves our functioning when at a balanced level; when we use it instead of fighting it.

While stress and tension are necessary and valuable, too much stress and tension can be destructive to our mental and physical health and well-being. The goal in life often seems to be to get to a place where one can live "without stress." [see Kelly McGonigal, PhD, "The Upside of Stress"] This place of a totally non-stressed existence is not humanly attainable. Even the most privileged among us has stress; will I get sick, will it rain on my day out, can I take time off, how will I ever retire, will I feel loved, etc. To care about anything in life--including yourself--is to be open to stress, tension, and worries. If you care, you will feel stress. Some people have worked and do work hard to let go of caring about anything at all in life as a way to reach a sort of care free life. Even efforts to let go of attachments to material and emotional "things" requires a lifetime of awareness and continual effort to learn the skill of letting go of tension and stress. This continual practice of letting go of attachments takes effort; even the pathway to "enlightenment" is fraught with stress. While elimination of all stress is not possible while staying alive, it is possible to reduce stress and the negative outcomes of feeling too much stress. It helps us to have a realistic goal for accepting the presence of stress and managing our responses (resistance) to the stress in our lives.

If you are feeling stressed, notice and accept how you are feeling - no judgment - just notice and even name that you feel overwhelmed. Resisting stress or denying it (i.e., ignoring it or pretending it isn't there) actually make the stress worse and the negative effects on your health increase. In a sense, fighting against the stress is like playing tug-o-war with it. The harder you resist the harder the stress pulls and the greater the tension and exhaustion. At some point you are going to fall face first into the mud pit or fly backwards when the rope snaps from all the tension. Why not refuse to start the tug-o-war? What if you could notice that your stress was there taunting you with a rope and a mud pit and instead of taking up the gauntlet, you just nodded to it and kept on walking--kept on living--acknowledging stress is there while choosing to disengage from the struggle. This lack of resistance to stress leaves space and energy to engage in calming yourself and taking actions that reduce the impact of stress and maybe even removes some sources of stress. Consider that in time and with lack of attention, the stress relaxes, or even changes to enable you to keep balanced instead of pulling you off balance. How can you make stress your partner instead of your opponent?

Here are a few ways you can notice your stress sitting there waiting for you to resist, grabbing the tug-o-war rope, and instead invite the stress to work with you to be more effective in creating the life you want. You can be creative using stress instead of stressed out.

Some common feelings pointing to stress and an action to use the stress to motivate you and leverage you away from the negative aspect of stress include:

-Threatened (take action to generate courage and do something empowering)
-Anxious/nervous (make use of the energy to focus)
-Overwhelmed (help someone else)
-Like an Fraud or Imposter (step back and observe yourself from an outsider view without judgement of deflecting your strengths and talents)
-Defeated (observe and learn from the situation)
-Incompetent (take a break and do a small task you are good at, then return)

See the stress and then re-frame the stress into a thought or action that moves you forward using the stress as a motivator and not resisting the stress. If the stress you feel wakes you up early, instead of lamenting the "lost sleep," get up and use the stress-driven energy to do some creative work, to clean the kitchen, to take a walk, meditate, exercise, or do something else productive or pleasant to you (self-care). Consider the extra time you are alert that you might typically be groggy and unfocused as a gift, not a curse, and use that gift of extra focused time to tackle something you need or want to do.

My father used to wake us up at 2AM for family trips. I came to enjoy the very early morning preparations to get on the road so that we could all relax and start enjoying the trip all the sooner. I believe it was how he productively dealt with the stress of planning a family vacation with four children. He got moving with that stress-energy as a collaborator for focus and planning instead of becoming stressed out. Stress can be contagious. If he had given in to the tug-o-war of resisting stress, the whole family would have been stressed out and the trips would have been angry, grumpy, angst-filled brawls for hours instead of magical times of dozing to the rythymic sound of tires on pavement, watching the stars out the windows, and the rising sun -- something as children we really did not typically see since we were in bed early and up after sunrise. His creative use of his stress around family trips for 6 people meant that we were all excited and eager to help. We all caught his excitement instead of his stress and his stress management reduced his own and all our stress.

When we use stress as a collaborator instead of an enemy, we also retrain our response to stress and we begin to anticipate the extra energy from stress instead of dreading the normal stress that comes with life. We learn to have a positive approach to stress and to expect it to work with and for us, not against us. Support instead of sabotage. We, in turn, feel better about our abilities and capacity and we become more positive and effective people to work and live with. We see possibility instead of catastrophe and our hope becomes contagious to others through our vision and confidence from using and managing stress effectively.

The most common sources of stress reported in the US adult population are worry about finances, employment, and the national climate (e.g., politics & perceived or real threats to our society or country).

Ways people might manage daily stress include:

-exercise/movement-walking, etc. (even just 5 minutes)
-Yoga or stretching
-meditation or prayer
-short intentionally planned regular breaks (10-15")
-crying (expressing sad, upset emotions)
-one minute of deep breathing
-playing a game (table or active)
-talking with a good and calming friend
-singing/music (expressing strong emotions, activity that lifts or soothes the mind/soul, listening or playing music that you feel connected to in any way)
-reassess and reduce things planned - simplify!
-rituals (shower, soaking, coffee/tea break, reading)
-show generosity and empathy for another
-keep a gratitude/smile journal & review it routinely
-read relaxing/positive/uplifting statements
-release the worries - write it down and throw it away, shred it, burn it, etc.
-creative writing/journaling
-radical acceptance of what's happening now - choose the moment/pathway you have in front of you without apathy or approval - lean into the moment instead of fighting it
-positive “I” statements/reminders of who you are being and want to be
-make a short list of important tasks and organize them by priority or relevance in the next 3-5 years
-Make something creative or crafty
-use soothing scents
-feel running water, soak your hands, feet, or body
-watch fish swimming or a fireplace (or candle) burning

For more tips on managing stress in a helpful way read, Kelly McGonigal's book, "The Upside of Stress"