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What If Stress is Not a Given?
Tactics to Rewrite the Story You Tell Yourself About Stress
I had drafted this Pocket post on stress just prior to the awful news in Israel-Gaza. The news feels heavy beyond words and continues to be an unmitigated crisis and tragedy. It’s as brutal to bear witness as it is impossible to turn away. A friend and fellow writer Emma Campbell Webster wrote a heartfelt, elegant piece that exactly encapsulates the quandary of how hard it is to continue business-as-usual in the face of the heartbreaking reality.
We all face individual bouts of stress, and this post is meant to support meaningful reorientations to that stress. Needless to say, when personal stressors and challenges reach extreme heights, or when collective moments such as these make for rug-pulling, bowled-over grief, added support from peers and professionals is highly recommended. Prayers up for peace.
We live in a stressful time in a stressful place. Add to this that we live in a culture that encourages and glorifies being stressed. From the onslaught of (bad)news and sensational imagery and headlines, to a global uncertainty about livelihood writ large, and a meta-crisis looming around the corner of all the culture’s numbing attributes, there’s just no escape from the stress, nor from the escapism. And there’s no stricter limiting function on our serenity, relationships, and achievement than feeling overwhelmed and stressed. Consider this piece a distilled, comprehensive primer for re-orienting to your stress.
Changing our Interior Orientation to Stress
Psychologist Kelly McGonigal gave a Ted Talk about how we can choose to orient to stress. In her talk she tells of a study of 30,000 adults over eight years that found that the effects of stress depend completely on mindset: viewing stress as harmful causes harm internally, while viewing stress as helpful creates what she calls “the biology of courage.” Even further, viewing adversity and stress as emboldening while connecting with others in a shared collective around the stress creates deep resilience. In other words, how you perceive stress and what you do with it can transform your context, and reduce or delete the negative impact of stress.
So, how do you go about changing your orientation to stress? Here are six macro-tactics from wellness and mindfulness experts, with key profile articles linked. These are each formidable schools of thought on shifting the perception of stress from harmful to supportive.
Bessel van der Kolk - Treat stress as an ally that gives you strength. See it as exercise for coping muscles rather than as toxic.
Jon Kabat-Zinn - Reframe stress as excitement, and look really closely at the stress. Recognize the racing heart and sweat as preparing you to meet a challenge.
Thich Nhat Hanh - Breathe consciously when stressed. This brings calm and reminds you that you have inner peace available now and always.
Eckhart Tolle - Witness stress mindfully without judging it as bad or good. This creates space between you and the stressor.
Brené Brown - Get curious about what your stress is trying to tell you. Listen to your stress symptoms for insight rather than fighting them.
Oliver Burkeman - Consider that our culture raises us to think that important endeavors must feel difficult because “the measure of an accomplishment is how much effort it took”; instead, “be willing to let it be easy.”
The key is to change your mindset to see stress as information rather than a threat. Paying attention to your body's signals with compassion helps reframe stress as something that can build resilience, focus, and courage. Reframing stress empowers you to meet the challenges of our lives skillfully.
But how do you do this? Mindfulness and meditation practices are a no-brainer, no pun intended. On a micro, individual level, sincere and chronic stress causes spikes in cortisol. Here are ten tactics and practices that can meaningfully reduce the cortisol impact of stress and return your system to equilibrium:
Cold Water Face Splash: Submerge your face in a large bowl of ice water for a few moments. The shock of the cold temperature stimulates the body’s relaxation response and helps calm the stress response.
2-1 Breathing: inhale once, inhale deeper, & long exhale!
Stress Shaking: Literally shake your body, starting from your feet and moving up through your limbs, allowing the physical movement to release tension and stress from your muscles.
Creative Outlet: Engage in a creative activity that you enjoy, insuring that it’s fun and not a perfectionist product-oriented practice. Free creativity provides a positive outlet for emotions and helps shift your focus away from stress.
Nature Walks: Spend time in nature, taking leisurely walks and immersing yourself in the calming sights, sounds, and smells. Let mother nature nurture your over-burdened system.
Humming or Chanting: Engage in humming or chanting and singing sounds, such as “Om” or other soothing tones, to activate the vagus nerve (in your throat) and promote relaxation.
3+ Second Hugs: Hug a loved one or even hug yourself, ensuring that the embrace lasts for at least three seconds or longer. Hugging releases oxytocin, a hormone that promotes feelings of safety and relaxation.
Positive Affirmations: Repeat calming and reassuring words or phrases, such as “I am safe” or “I am calm and in control,” to reinforce a sense of security and relaxation.
Stillness & Silence Practice: Set aside dedicated time for stillness and silence. Sit in a quiet space, focusing on your breath or observing your thoughts without judgment. This practice helps calm the mind and relax the body.
4-7-8 Breathing Meditation: Practices abound; choose your own adventure. This one is great for interior regulation. Breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds. Hold your breath for 7 seconds. Exhale firmly through your mouth, pursing the lips, for 8 seconds. Repeat this cycle up to 4 times.
When I’m stressed, I find it’s more challenging than normal to reach for these free, simple practices that support, de-stress, and rejuvenate. Having them as a grab-bag list might help in such moments.
Major Important Caveat #1: in collective traumatic times, or anytime, it’s actually not natural to bear witness to the state of the world and to carry on as if everything is ok. So, if you’re feeling not ok this week: it’s. ok. not. to. be. ok. Take care of your energy. Take action, donate resources, convene with your community.
Major Important Caveat #2: prioritizing self-care especially in these hard times, it’s critical. Once your oxygen mask is on and your proverbial breathing steadies, check in on your community. When times are particularly tough, I’m always heartened by the helpers that emerge. Be the helper wherever possible.
Take care of yourself,