By Rob Jost
The word itself, stress, almost has a visceral feel to it. Reading it on the page, we see the ‘s’ and the ‘ss’ squeezing the poor little ‘tre’ in the middle. Pronouncing it, there’s a sharpness to it, but I can almost hear a faint distant sound of ‘tum tum tum’ doom at the end of it. Have we just accepted stress as a normal part of our busy and product oriented society? Have we become resigned to feeling the fight, flight, or freeze as a daily rollercoaster of emotions? If we have, an argument can be made that we haven’t adequately adapted to stress in our daily lives. Stress, or the feeling it sends in our bodies, is a natural way to biologically signal there’s something going on. In pre-historic times, it was a survival mechanism to survive life as prey to the predators. While our modern lives resemble very little of the ancient times, the body’s response still hasn’t caught up, and it’s safe to say it won’t for quite some time (think centuries). So, unless we put our hope in a major scientific breakthrough to suddenly alleviate stress from our lives, it’s here to stay. Now, the controversial part – that’s quite OK.
As human beings, we have access to many “toolboxes” that help us deal with life’s difficulties, but we frequently forget that they’re there. We all come equipped with them, but we think it’s somewhere out there outside of us to find. And, maybe we’re not solely to blame, as the advertising industry is quite good at sending messages that the fix is somewhere out there, outside of ourselves. Perhaps if we buy the next thing, that could be the thing that gets us feeling better, not just for a brief time, but for good. And, sometimes it’s wonderful to treat ourselves, but there may be an even better way to handle stress. It requires a bit of examination, lots of patience, and a huge amount of compassion for ourselves.
Examination of our feelings – we may begin the internal dialogue with “wait a minute, what’s going on with me right now? My heart rate is up, I feel annoyed and tired, and I don’t like this!!!” Many of us may tap into what’s going on, but we then quickly run away from the unpleasant feeling. But, remember, it’s there to tell us something. Patience helps with this process, as it guides us through the situation. Patience and willingness to examine what we feel, stay with that feeling, and work through what it may be telling us. This is the really hard part, and a big reason people shy away from facing their emotions in the first place. When we tune into what’s going on, stay patient with it, and add a huge amount of self-compassion, we have a decent chance of getting through the stress. An example of a stressful situation may look something like this, but insert any stressful situation you’ve been in recently and try to work with it through the next paragraph: “wow, I just handled two very stressful phone calls, my boss is bugging me for the latest report, and I just realized I’m late to pick up my kids from school.” Now, we begin to work through the solution.
We recognize that we can handle what comes our way with compassion, and take calming breaths to reset our biology so it works with us, not against. Some of us turn against ourselves in times of panic, some of us turn against others. Whichever may be the case for you, it’s much better to diffuse the situation by not escalating it further, either internally or externally. This is the calming, patient piece that resets all the upset we feel. Compassionately, we take a deep breath, or a series of them, reassess the situation, and get on with what we’ve gotta do. “Hmmm, maybe I handled those awful phone calls really well!!” could be the narrative in our mind that sends a more uplifting and calming sense of ourselves. “I’ll let the boss know the report will have to wait until my kids are picked up, or maybe even until tomorrow, and…oh my gosh the KIDS!” See, even in our attempted calm, the stress may flare up again…and that’s OK. We’re human, not robots, and in this case concern for our offspring again biologically knocks out any attempt to self-regulate. But, we recognize that it’s our biology kicking in, letting us know that our little ones need to be kept safe. We calmly pick up the phone, call the school to let them know we’re running late, and will be there to pick up the kids. In this case, we “fought” back against our biology by accepting it, and compassionately using it as a way to figure out what to do next.
While our life stresses vary, the formula stays the same – examination (of feelings), patience (for ourselves and others), and compassion. If it was just a matter of words, then we should all lead stress-free lives forever, however, life is much more complicated than that. It’s an ongoing process of recognizing our stress, dealing with it internally first, then later deciding if anything can be done to minimize it in the future. Undoubtedly, life will offer us many opportunities to practice, and with each time we deal with something, we learn and grow in the process.