What Can You Do When Stress is Everywhere?
Stress is all around us.
Or, more accurately, potential sources of stress – stressors – are all around us – everywhere you look!
Even as I sit at my desk writing this, I can look around my office, and find sources of stress everywhere. I see things that need to be done – papers to be tidied and organized, emails to be answered, and blogs to be written. Oh, and I notice that the walls could do with a fresh coat of paint, and the hardwood floor should be refinished at some point.
I look outside into our front yard. Oh, but it’s looking a bit overgrown – there’s that weeding I should get around to, a lawn to be mown (I must remember to tell Andy), and the porch could do with some flowers. What will the neighbors think? What will my clients think?
And of course, there’s more than what is, literally, in front of me. There are all the other things whirling through my mind – my whole to do list, my worries and my concerns.
Overwhelm is just around the corner.
Stress is tension. Or, rather, excess tension is the physical expression of stress in our body. When we feel stressed, our muscles tighten and our breathing becomes more restricted (we may even hold our breath). We are in a form of fight, flight or freeze.
It’s not healthy. It’s not productive. It’s not pleasant.
And yet, we pretty much take stress as a given these days.
We complain and “catastrophize” and worry.
We put so much of our attention on what is going wrong, what could go wrong, and what has gone wrong.
In fact, we’re programmed to do this – to be on the lookout for danger. It’s a survival mechanism.
We don’t, however, live in a jungle. A tiger is unlikely to attack.
Yet, all our little worries are taken in by our body – by our whole self – as if there’s a tiger about to spring.
We are living our lives in a permanent state of fight, flight, or freeze.
Where’s the joy? Where’s the ease? Where’s the presence?
How we pay attention is important. In fact, you could say that stress is all in the mind. Stress only become stress because of how we are thinking – it is what we are believing and telling ourselves about our work, the garden, you name it. AND we repeat these thoughts to ourselves, over and over again.
Stress is indeed everywhere.
That is true, AND that is also a lie.
However bad things may be, I would hazard a guess, they are not the entirety of what is going on around you and in your life.
For sure, if we look around, we can for sure find stress everywhere, AND, if we can shift our attention, so is EASE.
I can look at the garden and notice, instead of the to-dos, the dappled sunlight, the green leaves, the lush life in front of me. I can be grateful to live in a neighborhood with gardens, and sidewalks and friendly people.
I’ve written before about the benefits of shifting our attention from the tension in ourselves to places where we notice relative ease – to the parts of us that are actually feeling comfortable, or less tense, that are not “shouting” at us, to the places that feel “normal.” This is incredibly useful.
In a webinar I presented last week, we explored a slightly different tack – we chose to surround ourselves with ease. We chose to notice the ease around us – not the stressors – using this sequence of thoughts:
If we choose to notice ease all around us, in every direction – above, below, in front, behind and to either side – then there is nothing to tense up against.
If I am walking and noticing the ease in front of me – then there’s nothing for me to push against. And guess what, my walking becomes a little easier, a little freer.
And if I choose to notice the ease behind me, then there is nothing pushing on me or holding me back – and my walking becomes easier and freer – lighter, more pleasant and enjoyable.
You get the idea. I’m paying attention to the ease around me, not the stressors. If I chose to notice the ease, there’s nothing for my body to fight against.
So, what can you do when stress that is everywhere?
You can choose to pay attention differently – to think differently.
In the words of William James,
“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”
As always, I’d love to hear from you. Please leave your comment in the space below.
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While too much stress is not good, we need some stress to grow etc. What I mean by that is you cannot strengthen muscles or increase aerobic capacity unless you create some small stress that motivates the muscles and lungs to increase capacity. Of course, too much stress is counterproductive in fitness training and results in muscle breakdown so you have to know what you are doing. Mental stress such as is brought on by competition or learning is also good to a certain extent – by challenging ourselves to learn a skill, a language or to compete in a word game or card game we create an arousal response which helps us focus. Again, there is too much stress and arousal level gets high, performance and/or learning suffer. What I am attempting to communicate is stress is a necessary and important part of being alive; too much stress is detrimental. Personally, I find writing lists a huge help as it gets it out of my head and onto paper and I can get a thrill checking it off or deciding I didn’t need to do that anyway. And, of course, constructive rest is a great help to relive stress. The stress of family difficulties like health problems is not good and anything we can do to alleviate it in a healthy way is really beneficial.
Thank you, Judith, for this thoughtful response. You are indeed right that not all stress is “bad.” I guess there is a tipping point at which healthy stress becomes unhealthy, and it is that sort of stress I was writing about here.
By the way, I am also a list-writer – it helps me no end. I can’t imagine trying to keep everything in my head!!