We hear the word stress a lot in our society today. Often, it is referring to a mental or emotional experience of tension, strain, or pressure caused by unfavorable or demanding circumstances.
I imagine it is fairly safe to say that we have all experienced stress to varying degrees, on a daily basis and throughout our lives. Stress is not necessarily a bad thing—a healthy form of stress can propel is into action, motivate us, and help to us to accomplish things (either projects we are working on, or even keeping us safe from danger). Challenging circumstances are not inherently a problem, nor is our body’s response to it. Our nervous system was designed to help us face life’s difficulties. However, for a variety of reasons, we might find ourselves overreacting, or feeling stress too often, in inappropriate circumstances, or experiencing an elevated level of stress hours, days, weeks or longer—which can lead to more serious problems.
Symptoms of stress may include worrying, difficulty concentrating, racing mind; irritability, frustration, short-tempered; feeling overwhelmed, lonely or depressed; body aches and pains; a lowered immune system; changes in appetite or sleep cycle; or engaging in unhealthy coping mechanisms such as alcohol or drug use. This is not intended as a diagnostic tool nor medical advice, but if you experience any of these symptoms regularly and they are disturbing the quality of your life, it would be a good idea to seek help from a professional.
I work in a field where I am privileged to learn a lot about other people’s experiences. On a daily basis, I hear from from people who are experiencing anxiety, depression, feeling overwhelmed, have experienced a significant loss or betrayal, or are dealing with other emotional and psychological challenges. To some degree, feeling uncomfortable feelings and dealing with life challenges, is a normal part of life. However, in our society, we experience far too much unhealthy stress. As a therapist, and fellow human, part of what I am really passionate about is providing support and resources to begin to change and minimize the negative impact of stress, primarily due to the way we live.
I hold a personal belief that suffering is not an inevitable or necessary part of life.
Pain, yes; physical discomfort and experiencing unpleasant emotions, yes—but suffering, no. Certainly, the experience of suffering can be a gateway to personal growth. Many times, challenges can present opportunities for us to mature into wiser, more loving, joyful, peaceful, integrated beings. But there are also ways in which our painful experiences can be made worse when we don’t have the tools, resources, support, or emotional capacity to face them.
There is an odd thing that I see happening in our society (and I am guilty of it myself). We have become so accustomed to living with some degree of stress, that it is almost celebrated. It seems like the busier we are, the more we accomplish, the more we take on and accumulate, the more we are rewarded with praise, admiration, and recognition.
When is the last time you heard someone say how relaxed they are, how much free time they have on their hands, or how good they feel? If we do, it’s often rare and fleeting, and it’s seen as the exception rather than the rule.
I suggest however, that the opposite is true. It is our natural state to enjoy life and feel relaxed. Stress is a response biologically designed to help us respond successfully to life-threatening events. Yet, most of us live with it on a daily basis in response to self-imposed and society-imposed standards that have nothing to do with our survival.
Albert Einstein once said, “Problems cannot be solved at the level of thinking they are created”. Trying to think our way out of our problems and challenges often results in more confusion, anxiety, stress, digging us into a deeper and deeper hole of stress.
Jack Sparrow said, “The problem is not the problem”—and herein lies the difficulty that many of us face. The challenges we encounter in life are made far worse when we are already in a state of stress or anxiety. Many times, we can’t actually think our way out of a problem—we need to change our emotional state, gain some perspective, and approach it instead from our hearts and from our felt-sense of things, rather than from our intellect. You may have had an experience in your that felt overwhelming or impossible, but once you were able to get some space, become calmer, breathe deeply, the situation seemed to shift a little and you gained a new perspective. This is not because the situation changed, but because you changed.
American theologian, Reinhold Nieburh wrote the Serenity Prayer, which has been adopted by numerous twelve-step programs:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
A few years ago, I was at a yoga workshop and the teacher relayed a slightly altered version:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change, the courage to change the one I can, and wisdom to know that it is me.”
We have all experienced how frustrating and often impossible it can feel, trying to change a situation or change another person. Neurologist, psychologist and holocaust survivor, Victor Frankl, said, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves”.
So how exactly do we change ourselves to reduce stress and anxiety, and create positive, meaningful change in our lives?
We recognize that our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health creates the foundation from which everything else in our life takes shape. Caring for all of the aspects of ourselves has more significant repercussions on the quality of our lives than anything we can attempt to change or fix in our outer world.
Nutrition plays a very large role in our overall health and well-being. Poor nutrition can contribute to a decreased ability to handle challenging situations that can lead to stress. Where possible:
- Eat natural, whole, organic foods
- Eat more fruits, vegetables, & water-based foods
- Avoid chemicals, sugar, processed foods
- Drink plenty of water daily
There are plenty of natural supplements that help people cope with stress, anxiety, even panic attacks like GABA, Ashwaganda, and L-Theanine. Always check with your health care practitioner before taking new supplements or any medications, to make sure they are right for you.
Medication for dealing with mental health issues should only be used when it is prescribed by a doctor. Medication typically works best for people who have tried everything else without relief. It is also recommended that medication for mental health issues be used in conjunction with counselling or therapy.
We are designed to move. Our bodies need exercise, sunlight, fresh air and nature in order to function at their best. Exercising 3-5 times per week for a minimum of 60 minutes can be very helpful to reduce symptoms of stress. If you can find an activity you really enjoy to do, even better! And on the days you don’t exercise, getting outside for a brisk walk for even 20 minutes can help.
For the first time in history, humanity is conducting the largest social experiment that has probably ever existed. We are biologically predisposed to live in nature. To live off of the land, grow our own food, be in communion with forests, water, and the elements. Never before has humanity been so disconnected from the earth we live on.
Albert Einstein said, “I fear the day technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.” I would add to that—that I fear the ways in which modern living has surpassed our connection to nature. The world will have a generation who experiences sickness, violence, fear, and darkness.
Remember your roots and your connection to the earth. Get out into nature: hike, swim, climb a mountain, breathe fresh air, plant a garden, commune with animals.
Things you can do to help prevent or reduce stress:
- Listening to Music
- Focus on Gratitude
- Focus on something you love
- Journaling / Free-writing
- Martial Arts
- Read something inspiring
- Watch/listen to something inspiring
- Play with children
- Have a bath
- Physical exercise – walk, run, swim, favorite outdoor activity
- Engage in a hobby you love
- Contemplate something grand (moon, starts, ocean, the Universe)
There are so many books, website, courses, and workshops with excellent information. A simple Google search will turn up a ton of information. Ask people you trust what they have done, and consult professionals who have successfully dealt with the circumstances you are experiencing. Ultimately, you are the one who will decide which strategies work best for you.