How to you know you’re experiencing a stress response. Immediately, you’ll feel like you’re getting armed for battle. You’ll feel:
- § The rush of your heart pumping faster and harder, or
- § A queasiness and tension in the pit of your stomach, or
- § A tightness in your head or around your head, or
- § A feeling of energy in your muscles, or
- § A lightheadedness.
But if you don’t notice these symptoms or don’t do anything with the energy in them, after a while you’ll begin to experience the following symptoms:
- Fatigue, irritability and nervousness;
- Trouble concentrating;
- Sleeplessness or a desire to sleep all the time;
- Lack of appetite or a desire to eat all the time;
- Anger without knowing why, a desire to lash out at people for no apparent reason;
- All kind of pain throughout your body;
- Arms and legs going to sleep;
- Upset stomach;
- Shortness of breath;
- Dr. Selye’s prescription for dealing with stress was to identify the threat or demand that is causing it, turn the threat or demand into a problem that can be solved and work at solving it. This, I think, is the basis for good stress management. The necessary first step is to figure out what it is that is causing the stress. What is the threat or demand that you are responding to or think you may have to respond to or think you should be responding to? What is it that you need to do that is going to be difficult? Sometimes it is easy to figure that out; sometimes it is very difficult. It is difficult because, once you know what is causing the threat you are going to be compelled to either do something about it or decide that you are going to try to live with it. That is a tough decision. And, if you decide to do something about it, you are probably in for a battle: because, if it were going to be easy to deal with, you probably would have already dealt with it.
So how do you identify what it is that is causing the threat or demand? One good way of starting is to ask yourself: What is getting in the way of my loving and working in the way I want to? (Here I need to include an aside about the word “work”. When we use the word “work” in the context of stress management, we are talking about how we express ourselves, how we use our minds, bodies, hearts, voices, our creativity and problem-solving ability. Some people are able to do this at their jobs. Those who aren’t have to find ways of expressing themselves outside of their jobs – in the evenings, on weekends, on vacations.). This is a key question because human beings have an innate drive to love and work as they want to. And anything that gets in the way of that drive will be experienced as threat and will cause a stress response. Since the drive to love and work is innate and is part of our reptilian brains, you don’t have much choice over whether you express it or not. It’s not as if you can easily say, “Oh well, I’ll just have to learn to live without loving and working the way I want to.” Yes, you can override those drives and learn to live without expressing them, but you run a great risk of paying a price in terms of your health and well-being.
So this is a crucial question for you: Are you loving and working in the ways that you want to? If your answer to that crucial question is “No,” then you ask the next question: What is getting in the way of my loving and working in the way I want to? Your honest answer to that question will help you identify the threat or demand which is causing the stress in your life. Identifying the threat is a crucial first step in managing stress. But now comes the hard part. Because what is getting in the way and causing the threat is probably either another person, some moral principle or rule that you have decided to live by, or some fear, inability, deficit or block inside yourself. Whatever it is, it is not going to be easy to deal with. If it were easy to deal with you would have already dealt with it. It would be a no-brainer. So it takes courage to be willing to know what is causing the threat or demand and what has to be dealt with. And - here’s the rub - dealing with it is going to be difficult, uncomfortable and stressful. Yes, in order to deal with the threat that is causing the harmful “distress” in your life, you are going to have to use the energy from the stress response. That is why the First Principle of Stress Management is:
- NEVER SEEK COMFORT OR AVOID DISCOMFORT
Because, if you seek comfort, you won’t deal with the threat or demand that is causing the harmful and uncomfortable stress in your life. And you will buy comfort in the short run at the expense of discomfort in the long run.
It is very important that you honor this First Principle of Stress Management. Some of you may have been exposed to stress management techniques that focus on reframing the threat, thinking yourself out of it. This is the “Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff – and It’s All Small Stuff” approach to stress management. For the small number of people who tend to exaggerate threats or see threat where none is there, this may be a good approach. But for most of us it is very dangerous: dangerous because some stuff is not small stuff. Loving and working the way you want to love and work is not small stuff. If you don’t deal with the small stuff, it will become big stuff and then you’ve got more stress and difficulty to deal with. Not dealing with the small stuff can lead in the long run to a world of hurt. It also won’t work to avoid stress. Because if you try to avoid it, you again won’t be addressing threat or taking the action that is being demanded of you and, in the long run, you’ll be under even worse stress.
This excerpt is taken from pages 47-50 of Lighten Up. Dance With Your Dark Side. Click here to buy the book.