Stress is a powerful force in our lives. It may feel unmanageable and completely overwhelming when we’re undergoing it. Stress can even lead to physical sensations, such as headaches, low energy, digestive issues, shaking, chest pain, insomnia, etc.
But in most cases, this is simply a psychosomatic response to a problem we can’t understand. Stress appears as a barrier, magnifying the extent of the problem until it seems completely insurmountable.
Stress is usually the response to a threat, such as violence, illness, troubles at school, work, dissolving relationships or an inability to cope due to depression. In these moments, the point of stress becomes all-consuming, and we can’t seem to let go of the negative thoughts and feelings that follow. Stress affects our ability to focus, remain calm and make rational decisions that reflect our normal behaviours and beliefs.
Stress is like a hook for our thoughts and feelings. One moment we can be enjoying life, and the next, a negative thought or emotion about what we should be doing or feeling comes along and snags our brains. This recurring pattern can affect our ability to engage with others, resulting in unexpected mood swings or anger outbursts. The stress hook pulls us away from our values by distorting how we see the world around us, giving us a false impression of the situation by inducing panic and despair.
Normally, we have a set of values we like to live by, such as showing love and kindness to those around us. Stress overpowers those basic values and replaces them with a sense of urgency, where our normal values don’t apply. The truth, however, is that if we could step outside ourselves and our stress, we’d see our situation much more rationally. We may see, for example, that our stress is furthering the original problem of relationship woes by making us act rashly and out of anger.
When we’re in a calm state of mind, we notice that such a response goes against our values. But under stress, it seems we’re in a rapidly closing corridor, with only one option left open.
The most powerful method we can use against this stress is learning to engage in the present. Stress forces us to run away into possible futures and consequences that are imagined, normally without a degree of accuracy, given how emotionally disturbed our thinking is at the time. Stopping to engage in what we’re doing and really noticing the space around us calls our attention to the here and now.
What have you got in front of you right now? Pick it up and examine it. Notice the touch, feel, and smell of it. Be present with the thing in your hand. Focusing on the object forces you away from the stressful thought and back to the situation at hand.
Sometimes the stress we’re feeling is so strong and overpowering that noticing anything else around us seems impossible. We need to learn how to ground ourselves to deal with this situation.
Imagine being stuck at the top of a cliff or a high tree. Up there, your view of the world is much more perilous because of your perspective. But from down on the ground, everything seems calmer and more stable.
Engage by noticing how you’re feeling and what you’re thinking. Stop to examine the thoughts as they appear. Try to slow those thoughts down and reconnect with your body by taking deep, full breaths. Press your feet into the floor and feel the ground beneath you. Stretch your arms out and feel the weight of them hanging there.
Once you have grounded yourself and taken the time to notice your thoughts, it’s time to return to the world around you. Focus on what’s around you or near you. Who is talking, and what are they saying?
This exercise won’t drown out the storm entirely. Instead, it’s about keeping yourself safe during the storm by anchoring your thoughts and feelings in an effort to keep them from running away from you. You may still feel terrible during the storm, but grounding yourself helps you weather it without the storm turning on others around you or on yourself.
These exercises will likely feel hard, if not impossible, at first. That’s because when we feel overexcited, stressed or stimulated, we feel the need to give vent to our emotions, just as when we feel low, we’re less likely to engage or talk to others.
Practising these exercises helps for several reasons. First, stress manifests itself as physical symptoms, which means acting stressed induces further stress in the brain. Forcing the body to calm down also forces the mind to calm down.
When we practice these exercises, we strengthen the reinforcement and the success of the actions. Just as having a cup of coffee every morning reinforces the desire for coffee, practising stress management reinforces our ability to recover using exercise.
If you are in need of urgent help, or the feelings of stress are prompting other, more serious, feelings, make sure to contact Beyond Blue, an Australian helpline for those going through depression, anxiety or other mental health-related problems; 1300 22 4636.