This is the third in a series of Stress Reduction blog posts which are also being featured on the website of my great friend and colleague, Tom Sterner, author of The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life.
In the previous blog post on stress reduction, “Stress 101”, you were left hanging with the pithy sentence: “And the key to managing our stress is to learn how to CHANGE OUR EXPERIENCE OF STRESS by throwing out the old habits and replacing them with new ones.” This was followed by “Next up: Awareness, Awareness, Awareness.”
Why the three-word emphasis, you might ask? Here’s the answer: Awareness plays a very important role throughout the entire process of managing and reducing stress. We need to become aware of what our stressors are (when we experience stress), and we need to become aware of what we do in response to those stressors (our habitual responses to stress). Ultimately, we will work to replace our habitual responses with new ones that will serve us much better, all the while staying aware of when we are slipping back into old routines so we can get back on track.
The first step may be the easiest. I’ll bet many of you can sit down and come up with a lengthy list of everything that “stresses you out”, from your boss handing you a project with unreasonable deadlines, to your teenager telling you at the last minute that they need you to take them to a soccer practice that was just called by the coach. So go ahead, make your list. And leave some space next to each stressor to jot down your responses to those stressors. Or, if you’re particularly geeky like me, make it a table with two columns: column one will be for your stressors, column two will be for your responses.
If you haven’t already, now list your responses to those stressors. A lot of our basic physiological and emotional responses to different stressors will be very similar: increased heart rate, clammy hands, feeling overwhelmed or anxious: all components of the stress fight or flight response. I’m sure you’ll be able to add to the list.
Now that you’ve completed your comprehensive list (or table), let’s take this a step further. When we experience those physiological and emotional responses, what often comes next? I’ll give you a clue: it involves our minds. Yes, that’s right. Our minds begin to race with thoughts of “Why is this happening – it didn’t happen last time? What did I do?” Or, “If I can’t get this done by 5pm, then I may lose my job!” Or the oldy but goody “Why does he (or she) ALWAYS do this?” We are catapulted into the future, or flung back into the past, with these unhelpful, energy-zapping thoughts. Now we are on a runaway train, and the stress responses are increasing exponentially. They may even have already escalated into stress response behaviors: yelling, stomping around the room, slamming doors, withdrawing, crying, and so on. You get the picture, and you may even have listed some of these in your notes (or column two of your table).
This exercise has hopefully brought your awareness to your stressors and some of your habitual responses to those stressors. Now let’s bring our awareness back to the previous blog post, Stress 101, for a moment, and remember what all these stress responses are doing to our bodies and our psyche, especially if they stay turned on for too long: they are making us sick, interfering with our daily activities, and diminishing our self-esteem, to name a few. And the end of that road is burn out. Phew!
So, at this point, I would suggest taking a break from all of this up-close-and-personal, head-on collision with virtual stress. Perhaps this exercise even caused you some stress. That would be understandable – in some circles of thought, it is believed that your body doesn’t really know the difference between the actual experience of stress, and the virtual experience of stress. So take a break, grab a decaf latte, meditate, or take a walk, and get ready…..
Your next challenge, if you choose to accept it, will be to learn how to take your awareness to the next level, and trade in those old habitual responses for NEW and IMPROVED versions!