Have you heard the claims that stress is one of the leading causes of disease and chronic illness?
Have you ever noticed that you have a tendency to get sick once you get through a particularly stressful time?
Did you know that stress is actually something you have some influence and control over?
I teach stress management classes in a functional medicine doctors office. Many students are there because they already have physical symptoms that are directly related to stress. I have discovered from these students that there are certain stressors that rise to the top for most people:
Being too busy or Overwhelmed
Internal Commentary on Life
One way to perceive health symptoms is that they are signals that something is out of balance and needs to be addressed. Life transitions, anxiety, depression, diabetes, high blood pressure, moodiness, irritability, fatigue etc are signaling you to pare down your expectations in order to survive the day. You may even feel you don’t have enough energy to get through the day. Your body often puts the brakes on overdoing it before you continue your downward descent of trying to do it all.
Stress management at its basic level requires that you have enough sleep, exercise, nutritious food, time with supportive friends and loved ones, life purpose and community life. All of these factor into your ability to handle what comes your way.
Making substantive changes in your stress level require you to change HOW you interact with your tasks, relationships, time and energy on a daily basis. The best way to reduce the impact of stress on your life is to get concrete about what your present reality is, and create a plan on how you’d like that to improve.
Try this Stress Assement
Consider making an appointment with yourself. Bring a journal and a pen or a computer to allow yourself time to do some writing and reflecting.
1. Assess where you are now
Take a few minutes to outline how much time you actually spend in a given day/week on tasks, job, family, home,commuting, self care, hobbies, community, other. Include the little time wasters, like TV, computer, phone scrolling, etc
What themes seems to reoccur in your life that really unsettle you or make you upset?
What areas of life make you feel overwhelmed?
Do you feel you simply don’t have enough time in your day?
Do you feel safe and supported?
Do you have a safety net with your resources?
Are your basic needs being met right now?
2.Determine where you’d like to be
Ask yourself, in an ideal world how would I spend my day? What are your life goals?
What percentage of my time would you spend at work, with family, friends, in pursuit of hobbies, engaging in your community, sleeping and self care, taking care of household chores and responsibilities.
What emotional milieu would you prefer?
What is in your life that brings you joy, peace and contentment?
What might be in your life that would make you jump out of bed excited for the day?
3. Find the gap
Next notice the difference between the reality and the ideal. Your ideal scenario might not be realistic, but often having elements of your ideal life pepper your day, will improve the overall feel of that day.
What keeps you from moving in the direction of what you want your day to look like?
What is immovable?
What might be negotiable or able to be delegated?
What could you put on the back burner for a little while or indefinitely?
Is there something that I could ask for help to accomplish?
Are your friends supportive of your life goals?
Is your job meeting your career goals?
Do your finances require your attention and intervention?
Is there a health behavior you could add to your life that will actually make you feel better in the long run?
4. Explore “Should, Must, Have to” messaging
Ask yourself WHO said you HAVE to do all these things?
Really take a moment and check in with yourself. Many times our roles and rules have become straight-jackets.
Are these roles and rules your own? Or did you learn them growing up? Do they still serve a purpose? Do those roles and rules need to be updated to reflect your current life situation?
What could you peel back and let go of?
Are you the only one who can do this thing? Could someone else do it instead?
Can you tolerate doing nothing? Being bored? Going with the flow?
Do you need to work on becoming more flexible in your thinking?
Do you have time to reflect, meditate, putter, create, explore?
5. Identify how you talk to yourself
Internal dialogue is challenging to identify and rectify. This is the little commentator in your head that critiques your words, actions, interactions and usually chides, shames or berates you. This voice can cause you to second guess yourself - when you act against the way you really would prefer to act, or regret things you did for fear of disappointing someone else.
Life will throw things your way and you need to recognize what is being asked of you, pause and consider your best response and then respond accordingly.
Recognizing when you start reprimanding yourself for not anticipating, preparing, having experience with, or handling things smoothly as you thought they should have been handled are big clues to internal stressors.
What would you say to your child or best friend if they had experienced a life situation that was completely new to them? You might validate that new experiences don’t come with a users manual and that you have to wing it sometimes.
What if they were making mistakes learning a new language? Might you encourage them to keep practicing?
What if they said something off color or at the wrong time? Sure you would correct it, but most likely it would be gently and with their heart in mind.
Shifting the emotion and attitude that narrates your daily activities can move you from stressed to neutral - allowing you greater freedom in how you choose to respond. Speak to yourself as if you are the encourager, teacher, parent or friend. Gentleness, humor, love and respect typically rule here. Imagine if you were able to stop bullying yourself for being human? How do you think that might impact your overall stress level?
6. Recognize space created
Once you have determined what you can let go of, you may notice you have a little more space to breathe. The human tendency is to fill that void with a new thing - because voids feel uncomfortable. But I encourage you to NOT fill that open space. To hold that created space as a sacred. Allow yourself time to simply be without doing anything. You might just discover that this empty space is just the breath of fresh air you needed. It might even motivate you to find more pockets of empty space. Some of these pockets can become time to explore and create, but only after you block off time for you to recharge and do nothing.
I am curious what this process brings up for you. What clarity did it uncover about your own stress patterns? What is one concrete action you can do today that will reduce your overall stress level?