How do you manage your stress?
If you are like most of us, at least according to the American Psychological Association’s 2015 report, you turn to things like television (40% of us), surfing the Internet (38% of us), or eating or drinking (23% and 14% of us, respectively). Among teens, the number one method of stress management is avoidance or denial.
What do all those strategies have in common? For one thing, they are all sedentary, and for another, they are all potentially unhealthy. The APA report cited above states that we are paying for our stress with our health.
There are many changes we can make to our lifestyle that support stress reduction, such as eating healthier, exercising more frequently, getting adequate sleep, nurturing our relationships, and practicing mindfulness.
But for most of us, the crucial stress management techniques we need are in-the-moment strategies for meeting crises at the point of impact.
For those moments, we have two basic strategies: top-down or bottom-up (as shown in the infographic below).
Top-Down Stress Management
Top-down approaches to dealing with stress are primarily cognitive — they involve clearly seeing the situation for what it is, and then finding a different way to relate to it (what psychologists call cognitive reappraisal).
Victor Frankl says that suffering is no longer suffering when it finds a meaning. This doesn’t mean you have to take a Pollyanna view of everything, but can you learn something from your predicament? Even if you can’t see the lesson right now, can you trust that some day this experience might yield valuable insight?
Jon Kabat-Zinn reminds us that everything is part of the curriculum. Why? Because it’s here. And you’re enrolled in every course in the catalog.
Stress has a way of making every incident seem like a novel crisis. But once we spend a few moments attending to our experience of stress — our thoughts, emotions, judgments, and sensations — we may remember other times when our to-do list was just as long, or when someone challenged us in a similar way. We have an amazing databank of life experiences to draw upon, but only if we make time to quietly search.
Catastrophizing and black-and-white thinking are one-way tickets to Stressed Out Land (where the lines suck and it always rains). Pause for a moment. Is what you are telling yourself about this situation true? … Okay, is it really true? Are you imputing the motives of other people with inadequate information? Are you only seeing what’s happening from one perspective?
The question I like to ask myself is this (from Brene Brown’s Rising Strong): What is the most generous interpretation of this situation that I can make? This single question has saved me numerous times!
Bottom-Up Stress Management
To even be able to pause and engage the cognitive, rational part of our brain, we usually need to engage in bottom-up stress management strategies, too. These ones, you can probably guess, don’t involve thinking. They are about sensation and embodiment.
Yes, breathe. It’s so basic, so simple, and yet so hard to remember to do when we need it the most! When you take a deep breath, you activate the body’s parasympathetic nervous system (the so-called “rest and digest” mode, as opposed to the “fight or flight” mode we are probably more familiar with).
Try breathing from the belly (diaphragmatic breathing) to encourage greater relaxation (instead of the shallow chest-breathing associated with stress). Lengthen your exhale (for example, breathe in for three counts and exhale for five) — this deepens the body’s relaxation response.
There is a strong connection between your body position and your disposition. Scan your body for obvious areas of tension, and take a deep breath as you relax the muscles in those places.
Check your posture — are you upright? Are you in a position that conveys alertness and dignity? A simple shift in posture can dramatically change your mood.
If you can, move! A change of scenery and a literal change of pace can do wonders for your state of mind. If you have time, go for a walk and/or get some exercise. We have mountains of research linking exercise and stress reduction (no mountain-climbing required.)
To reduce your stress, begin with your body and breath!
In our analytical, information-heavy culture, we often turn to the top-down strategies for dealing with our stress. Indeed, these cognitive practices can be very powerful and helpful.
The problem is that when we are stressed out, and our fight-or-flight response is activated, those higher-order functions of the brain go offline. This makes sense, when you consider that our system was designed to protect our ancestors from imminent dangers like a predator. If a lion charges you and you pause to analyze the situation and evaluate competing interpretations and solutio—— THE LION GETS YOU, GAME OVER.
Even though most of our stressors today are not life-or-death situations, the body often reacts to them as if they were.
When we learn to connect with our body, we become more aware of these habitual stress responses, which often occur below our conscious awareness. We learn practices to activate the body’s calming mechanisms, modulating our nervous system reactions to the world around us.
Many of us today have what we might term a dysregulated nervous system — when we experience pain or stress, we distract ourselves with our readily available devices, or we numb ourselves with various substances (alcohol, prescription or over-the-counter medications, food, etc.), rather than tuning in to the body’s signals.
Pain and dis-ease are signs that we need to rest and recuperate. The body knows how to do that — we just have to be able to detect the signal and listen to its gentle voice.
The most effective stress management approaches are therefore BOTH bottom-up and top-down: embodied awareness and cognitive reappraisal. As bottom-up strategies regulate and soothe the body, the mind finds greater calm in which it can clearly see what’s happening. The brain can then send its own calming messages to the body in a powerful, natural feedback loop.
In my work as a mindfulness instructor, the number one malady people are seeking respite from is STRESS, whether they are in middle school or middle age.
Perhaps one of your challenges is taking care of yourself in order to manage your stress and be more present in your life. If so, I have some great resources for you! You can read this article about 30 simple self-care strategies (or this article about how to even FIND the time to take care of yourself!). Check out this post about finding ways to connect with your body when you’re stressed out, or this post about the things non-stressed-out people know and do.
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