We are in the midst of a global stress epidemic, and this is nothing new. Although our senses are more heightened due to an extreme season of change and uncertainty, our stress problem has been around for quite some time. We may want to point a finger at one person or one circumstance that’s driving us to feel stressed out, but the fact is our current lifestyle choices have brought us to a place where tension, pressure and discomfort easily push us over the line to breakdown, burnout and dis-ease.
Many studies have clearly demonstrated that stress is neither good nor bad, but rather a stimulus for change. The outcome of stress — our individual or collective response to change — is based on multiple synergistic factors, which include both the perception and reality of available resources.
Let’s start by looking at reality. If you’re not getting enough quality sleep, eating crappy food or going too long without eating at all, sitting for long periods of time, skipping workouts, and listening to negative news around the clock, you’re likely experiencing a personal energy crisis. With depleted nutrients fueling the brain and an inability to recover from the daily wear and tear, your human operating system is grinding its gears; magnifying any external stressors that might exist. And they always exist. Which is why building personal resilience with consistent self-care is so critical, especially during challenging times.
Beyond our systemic energy capacity lies what many would say is the greatest indicator of our stress load — the lens through which we see the world around us. It turns out that our perception of available resources dramatically shifts the way that our brain and body process information.
Because the stress response starts in the brain, when we receive information — both consciously and non-consciously through cues in our environment — we anticipate whether or not we may need additional energy to fuel survival. Put simply, when we turn on our stress system we activate a chemical cascade that is protective short-term so we can get out of danger. But if this jacked-up state stays longer than it should, what once built us up begins to break us down.
Here is the key point. If stress is determined by our perception of demand versus capacity, it can be helpful to evaluate where adjustments can be made to minimize our stress load and bring ourselves back into balance. Especially considering how critical a balanced hormonal system is to the healthy cortical facilitation needed to help us problem solve, collaborate with others, think in new ways, and take action. Personally, I can’t think of anything more important when dealing with a community-wide stress crisis.
If we are not in control of our circumstances (the demand for change) then our power lies in our ability to build up our resources (our capacity for change).
I’ve done a great amount of writing on tips and techniques to build our energy capacity, which simply depends on making common sense common practice. Eat real food about every 3–4 hours, move your body at least every 90 minutes, prioritize sleep and aim for 7–8 hours, disconnect from technology regularly, and practice relaxation techniques to rebalance and recharge throughout the day.
Get fresh air and sunshine, look for and share things you find funny with others, and spend time investing in your tribe. When we’re feeling stressed is not the time to sacrifice self-care — it’s exactly when we need it most. Decrease unnecessary stress and stimulation and increase nourishment and the things that fuel your soul.
But what if all of those aren’t working? What if the demand on our capacity is so great that we still find ourselves spinning out of control with worry? What then?
Ask more questions.
At the root of distress lies our perception that we are out of control. Even minor stressors can feel major when our hands are tied or our back is up against the wall, yet massive change can feel exciting and adventurous when we believe in the mission and know what’s at stake. Peak performers experience an extraordinary amount of stress through pressure, and most would say that they thrive on it, crave it, even love the challenge of it all.
We all are much more adaptive and resilient than we think. When we work together, and can actually communicate effectively to do so, our capacity is magnified. But when we’re locked in fear and uncertainty, our brains literally freeze-up — stuck in a viscous cycle of negative thoughts, toxic emotions, and pointing fingers of blame to remove our own discomfort of responsibility.
When we ask questions, however, we open up channels of communication both within our own brains and in constructive dialogue with others.
If we feel stress and recognize it as merely an indication that something is off track, we can use it to our benefit, remain in control of our personal actions, and stimulate new ways of thinking and being that actually move us towards progress.
Consider the sensation of “stress” (pressure, tension, uncertainty, chaos, fear, excitement, passion, drive) as your internal GPS, pointing out course corrections to get you back on track. Then, ask exploratory questions — what am I really feeling and why? What action could I take to feel better?
By exploring the root cause of stress we can better understand it, measure it, and manage it. When we just use a blanket statement of “I’m stressed” or “we’re in chaos”, we put ourselves in a victim state of helplessness that only fuels our inability to make a move. But when we are curious about our situation, clearly identify the cause, and determine even the smallest action step we can take, we once again establish a sense of control that is required to minimize the negative effects of stress and maximize our potential for progress.
While the forward motion you take may not seem to make a dent in the challenges you face, your brain recognizes progress as purpose and meaning, and begins to shift your stress response from one that’s chronic and toxic to one that’s tolerable or even helpful.
Questions to ask when your internal GPS tells you something is off track (aka you feel stressed):
- What am I really feeling? “Stressed” really isn’t a feeling, just like “fat” isn’t really a feeling. (Although I often feel “fat”, it turns out I actually feel tired, full, uncomfortable in my own skin, guilty for eating too much, etc.) Getting to the core of what you’re actually feeling (tired, overwhelmed, pressured by time, frustrated with someone) is the only way to be able to make the necessary adjustments. If you throw all of your feelings into a bucket of n0n-specific “stress” and carry it around all day, you’ll always feel exhausted and out of control.
- What is really causing me to feel this way? Dig in deeper to determine the root cause so that you can begin to make systemic shifts that provide big results rather than temporary fixes that often lead to bigger problems. For example, if you’re constantly feeling time pressured, ask yourself if you really have too much on your plate or if you have trained your brain to constantly feel rushed. Are you prioritizing correctly, or are you getting distracted with multitasking, social media, and interruptions?Invest in yourself by working with a coach to help you better manage your schedule, and you’ll see a dramatic return on investment as you reduce brain fog and get more done in less time.
- What is the smallest step I could take right now to minimize my stress? This is perhaps the most important question you could ask because it moves you from analysis paralysis into motion. And just taking action reduces stress because it brings you back into a state of personal control. You can’t control the world around you, but you can take action in some way to either change the circumstances a bit or build up your own resources to cope more effectively. And this perception of control dramatically changes the way your brain sees the world around you, shifting your physiology from breaking down to building up.
And my favorite questions of them all, which can be asked in any given moment to fundamentally refocus attention towards the positive are, “what can I learn here?” and “how can I serve?”.
If really want to change your brain for the better, spend some time reflecting on these two questions throughout the day. Whenever we experience a feeling that something’s not right, we have the opportunity to learn a new and better way of moving through life. If you think about the times in your life where you’ve learned and experienced the most growth, they were probably also filled with the most stress. It’s actually part of the formula for success.
In order to reach our greatest potential we must experience change and force ourselves to adapt. Life is all about change, and if we’re not growing stronger we’re getting weaker. The cells of the brain are like those of the body, and if we don’t use them we will lose them. When we embrace change, look for the lessons, and add healthy does of of purpose and meaning by finding ways to serve others, we provide the elements necessary to thrive.
Creating a mindset of curiosity enables us to shift stress into a life lesson, no matter how big or small it might be. The more regularly we can explore stress on a smaller scale, the better prepared we are to tackle it when it feels epidemic. The better we become at navigating our stress together, the stronger our tribe becomes when we need to take collective, positive action.
In time, we can train our brains to actually feel grateful for our experiences of stress, knowing that we are learning, becoming stronger, and able to reach greater depths of connection with those we love by facing challenges together.
Originally published at medium.com