Managing Stress – Slow Down, Take Stock, Make Choices
I am sitting at my desk, typing away, and my head is pounding. The coffee I had this morning didn’t fix it. The gallon of water I am halfway to drinking hasn’t done anything. Maybe I am grinding my teeth at night? Or maybe something else is going on?
My instinct? To push through. Even though this headache has followed me for many weeks, I have no interest in slowing down to figure out a way to eradicate it. Instead, I am far more interested in managing it. Got my one-way ticket for the just-barely-making train. Or as my parents would call it, the “struggle bus”. This is the main issue: I like to think it matters if I do everything all the time. This narrative in my head tells me if I don’t do it – no one will. I am indispensable! There is barely enough time in the day! These distortions are so hard to recognize. Even harder to reject.
Despite those unhealthy thoughts, I can feel my body and brain starting to communicate over the past few days. I am starting to instinctively close my eyes and take a few deep breaths every few hours. Because I have been training for this. I have been practicing mindfulness for quite some time now. I know that I need to let my body inform my brain on what’s going on. The worst part? I can’t even try to deny that I need to commit to some behavioral changes.
For reference, my role at the Sanford Outpatient Center is that of a clinical therapist. I run groups and see individual clients. One of my most treasured tasks within that role has been creating and facilitating the Mindfulness Meditation group. In that group we have focused on slowing down, taking stock, and making daily choices in a value-consistent manner.
The bulk of the work does not lie in great, big changes. Rather small shifts in thinking and being that invite more peace and stillness into daily life. This is how we learn to listen to what our physical bodies are telling us.
Developing a connection between our brains and the rest of our body seems silly – aren’t they all housed in the same person? Why should it matter? And yet, research tells us that that our stress can actually affect our bodies immensely. White blood cell counts go down when we have too much stress. This affects our ability to fight infections in our bodies. We can overproduce adrenaline if our stress goes unchecked – this has long lasting effects on health over many years.
Knowing that managing stress is imperative, how do we know if we are stressed? Many of the confirmation signs can be found in the way our body feels:
- Slouched posture
- Clenched teeth/jaw
- Tongue on the roof of your mouth
- Uneven breathing
- Furrowed brow
- Tight chest
- Uncontrollable yawning
- Fast heartbeat
- Pit in your stomach
- Gut issues
The above are just some of the many symptoms of stress. And the first step in dealing with stress is knowing it is there. This is the empowering part. If we know that our bodies are holding discomfort due to a psychological symptom such as stress, we now have the opportunity to do something about it. Moreover, we have the requirement to do something about it…if at all possible. Seeking stress relief is vital. All adults should strive to carry out this call to action with an attitude of gratitude. Thank goodness there are things we can do to manage stress. Many that are free and quick (meditation, anyone? Deep breathing, stretching, etc.). We are all to be held accountable to being honest about how we are doing. Our friends and families can’t be relied upon to call us out.
So, in the instance of the pounding brain I am experiencing as I write this, what’s next?
First, brainstorm what has been helpful in the past. Schedule an appointment with your therapist to help you brainstorm if needed. Then, actually do that thing. Maybe it’s cutting out fries and shakes, because they make you feel sluggish and aren’t helping your stressed-brain fog. Maybe it’s going on more nature walks and leaving your phone in the car. In my case, I just called off a weekend trip to stay home and scheduled three yoga classes for my weekend instead. I always say I don’t care if it’s eating a ham sandwich or going to the movies, do SOMETHING. Other options for stress relief are:
- Ride a bike
- Stretch before bed
- Listen to podcasts
- Watch stand-up comedy
- Keep your living environment clean and tidy
- Have an organized desk at work
- Avoid procrastination
- Smile (even if you don’t want to)
- Call a friend
- Try something new
Bottom line, we must address stress-management with the intensity that we approach everything else in early recovery.
It doesn’t matter if we are the individual going through recovery, or simply supporting someone who is on their recovery journey. Listening to our bodies when they are stressed is the ultimate self-care. It is also one of the ultimate relationship healers. It is even one of the ultimate recovery tools. If we take care of ourselves, we lessen the chance of impulsive behavior. We are aware of what we are thinking and feeling – so we behave in a way that is value-consistent.
At Sanford Outpatient Center, we work hard to help clients and their support systems get moving in the right direction. The programming can progress quite fast and require a lot of energy. If we don’t take stock of what our bodies are communicating to our brains, we will miss warning signs of unhealthy stress. You were built with a brain that is used to informing your body of interpretations. These interpretations can be suspect to bias and produce unhelpful reactions. Every once in a while, quiet that outside noise (and there is a lot of it), and give you body a chance to inform your brain. You’d be surprised what you find.