The other day, my colleague looked groggy. He hadn’t slept all night. When I pressed him about what was on his mind, he told me he had a dream about his daughter. In the dream, she lost her vision. The nightmare woke him up, and he worried over his daughter’s eyesight for the rest of the night.
His daughter has perfect 20/20 vision in reality. Nothing in her life or his indicates that she is going to lose her vision. Still, the dream stressed him out to the point that he couldn’t sleep.
And there’s the time I went on a silent overnight retreat — a really cool experience designed to work on inner peace. Except, I spent the whole night horrified. The task was to stay overnight in a cabin in complete silence, meditating and praying in perfect stillness. But when dark arrived, I realized none of the windows or doors to my cabin locked. This slowly drove me into a full state of panic and I spent that first night anxious, worrying about how to secure the room. I also realized how afraid of the dark I was.
Do these stories sound familiar? Often when we look at stress logically, we can easily see that it’s unnecessary, misplaced or even illogical. Other times, stress comes from serious life circumstances. How we experience, feel and engage the stress, and then how we manage or be at peace with it, determines whether we allow it to snowball.
When we encounter a stressful thought or event like the loss of a loved one, a deadline at work or the potential of being downsized, our bodies begin a sequence of internal changes in anticipation of the imminent threat and prepare us for a fight-or-flight response.
In the work environment, I have observed when people get stressed they tend to experience fight-or-flight, as well, becoming harder to work with or harder to reach as they isolate themselves. When that happens, they have to work harder at accomplishing their tasks, and figure it out themselves. They often don’t ask for help, which leads to more stress. And the snowball gets bigger and bigger.
I’ve also noticed stress causes people to become more negative about themselves. Then they will project more negative thoughts, creating negative energy in their lives and for others, and the stress snowball grows.
Research points to the fact that a high number of us live in chronic stress. With all the instability in the world, I cannot imagine our external circumstances will change much. Ongoing stress, when left unchecked, causes the brain and body to work double time, causing physical and mental health problems.
Are you feeling that way?
Fortunately for you and me, there is a tremendous amount of work that has been done about how to slow down the cycle and intensity of stress.
Stop the Snowball
What if I told you that by simply accepting stress, along with the fear and anxiety that may cause it, we can stop the stress snowball in its tracks? We can learn to live with stress in a positive way, and maybe even use it to achieve positive outcomes.
A lot of people tell me they want to avoid stress that comes from anxiety and fear altogether. They don’t like being anxious and afraid. Who does? But connecting fear and anxiety to stress is a key step in learning how to effectively cope with it.
Experiencing fear and anxiety at times is a fact of life. Rather than avoid these feelings, what if we could just admit we’re anxious, afraid and therefore stressed? That’s the first step to slowing the cycle of stress.
On the positive side, fear and anxiety can save our lives at times. If you’re afraid of walking in a dark alley at midnight in an area known for muggings, then that fear might be a good thing. In fact, in that same comprehensive 2014 NPR study that suggests many of us live with chronic stress, a majority of respondents said experiencing stress had had a positive impact on some aspect of their life.
Three-Pronged Approach to Stress Management
I propose three tactics for dealing with stress:
- Accept it and focus on the benefits. If you try to avoid stress, you can create more stress, rather than accepting it as a part of life. Sometimes stress can help increase your ability to cope with it or make you more resilient, and ultimately help you live a more fulfilled life.
- Get at the real reason behind it. Stress can come from a major life experience, such as health issues, an accident, or financial troubles. But it can also come from within. Take Robert, for example…
Robert is a twenty-something executive who has learned he can gain the respect and admiration he has always wanted by saying yes to an increasing workload without identifying methods to work smarter. Finally, saying yes meant he had surpassed his ability to complete the work in any number of hours. The fact that he has to let his teammates and supervisor know terrifies him! His stress was caused by an underlying desire to please others, not his workload.
- Create a stress-free zone that you visit regularly. One of the easiest and most freeing ways to deal with stress is to find your stress-free zone. In other words, create a space for yourself that is totally stress-free. I like to take a 15-30 minute walk on my own in a park almost every evening. I don’t answer the phone or check my e-mails on this walk. Once I walk into that space, I have a sense of relief. Your stress-free zone may be working through one of the modules on your meditation app, it could be visualizing a picture of your children, etc.
What Does Stress Management Look Like for You?
Let’s take a few minutes to find some clarity around areas of stress in your life:
- Where are those areas, and are you working even harder to avoid them?
- Where does your stress come from? Is it fear-based or anxiety-based?
- Where is your stress-free zone? Maybe you already have one, but you haven’t made that connection yet. Visualize your stress-free space, then claim it. Name it. Do all you can to eliminate stressors and anxiety when you are in that space.
- Are you too busy and stressed to pause? Most times, we think we can’t pause because we don’t have the time. We have to work harder at what causes the stress, but working harder only creates more stress.
Finally, as I often advocate, find community that can help you manage through life. While the reasons are not fully clear, studies have shown strong friendships and community clearly enhance our ability to live a more fulfilled and happy life. In times of fear, anxiety and stress, community and friendship may just be our best hopes. Strong friends and community are golden, as they will lock arms and stay with us, always!