I hear more and more people talking about stress. Increased feelings of stress. I hear it on Facebook, emails from friends and family, even in everyday conversations. I spoke recently on the topic of self-compassion and stress-management at a major corporation in Houston. After I finished, I was amazed at the number of women that came to talk with me about their own struggle with stress and anxiety. The number of personal stories validated the stress in our society and the feeling of being overwhelmed as we attempt to manage too many expectations.
Most people experience an abundance of stress. The election and approaching holidays add an extra layer of stress and worry. The stressors are not going away, but we can use helpful tools to take extra care of our relationships and ourselves.
3 Types of Stress
Before we talk about balancing stress, it is helpful to understand how stress functions in our daily life. In simple terms, we face three types of stress: balanced, acute, and chronic. Whenever I talk about types of stress, I like to use the example of a zebra.
- Balanced Stress: When a zebra is lion-free, he is in a balanced state. A balanced state is the ability to relax and also be ready for threat when stress is present. The zebra can relax, eat juicy nutrient grass, enjoy his zebra companions, and play with his zebra kids and wife. Balanced stress is like getting the temperature just right on a thermostat.
- Acute Stress: When a zebra senses a nearby lion, everything centers on the threat of the lion. Stress chemicals and hormones release to focus all energy toward reacting to the lion. All internal systems shut down to focus energy on escape. The zebra will not sleep, digest, enjoy intimacy, or relax until the threat has been averted. When the lion leaves, the zebra’s body readjusts to a normal, balanced state. Eating, intimacy, relaxation, and play resume.
- Chronic Stress: In the zebra world, chronic stress does not exist. Chronic stress would be similar to the experience of a lion stalking the zebra 24-7. This chronic stress negatively impacts the zebra’s digestive system, sleep, intimacy, and leads to chronic fatigue. Imagine driving a car continuously even when the temperature gauge shows the car overheating. Keep driving, and the car will break down.
What does a zebra have to do with me?
The human body’s threat system is much like a zebra’s threat system, except for some important factors that maintain chronic stress and make it difficult to rebalance:
- The stressors at work, home, and in our society do not go away.
- We have the ability to replay past mistakes or rehearse worry about future threats.
- We can be harsh with ourselves in our own minds. Some of us talk to ourselves in a way that we would never talk to a loved one. Negative self-talk is like having a lion in our heads 24-7.
How does chronic stress impact our bodies?
When we are in a state of constant stress, our bodies continually stay in threat mode. Like the zebra, all of our internal systems are diverted to face the threat. We keep driving our bodies even though the temperature gauge is redlining. Unaddressed chronic stress impacts our digestive system, our ability to sleep, intimacy, our ability to think clearly, as well as our joy in daily life.
Adjust the thermostat
The first step in compassionate stress management is to take a moment to notice. Where is my internal temperature gauge right now?
- Issues with digestion
- Relationship difficulties
- Sleep difficulties
We can feel so rushed that we may not notice what is happening in our own bodies. Can we give ourselves permission to pause at least a couple of times during the day and check in? Allowing ourselves to notice may be challenging. The stressors can seem too big. For instance, what if I feel torn between my work and my responsibilities at home? What if my marriage is struggling? These issues take time to explore. Reaching out to a counselor can offer much needed support to take a close look at some tough areas. The counseling process organically creates options for moving forward and reducing stress.
The second step is to respond with care. What do I need? Explore different tools and see what brings some needed stress relief.
Resources for Stress Relief:
- 4-7-8 breathing – calms the nervous system and improved breathing
- Emotional Freedom Tapping – clears emotional blocks and calms the nervous system
- Compassionate Self-Talk – compassionately addresses the habit of negative self-criticism
- Compassion and Anger – Calm the threat system physio-biologically with compassion toward self
- The Benefits of Cultivating Gratitude for Stress Relief