Perhaps we should amend the famous cliche by adding the following: The only thing certain in life is death and taxes…and stress! None of us can escape stress – it is, quite simply, omnipresent and ubiquitous in our busy lives today like a toxic element that floats in the air that we all breathe. The modern world moves at a heightened pace, elevating all our senses. Everything moves faster, reverberates louder and unfolds in real-time, with the expectation we process and respond in an elevated manner.
Stress causes adrenal fatigue, creating a constant elevation of cortisol levels (cortisol is your body’s main stress hormone, your internal alarm system). It’s like driving your car at a higher RPM than necessary; it’s an unnatural state for your body. This triggers inflammation and compromises your immune system and puts your body at dis-ease. Websters defines stress as a bodily or mental tension resulting from factors that tend to alter an existing equilibrium. Simply put, we are out of balance in our daily lives as stress throws our bodies out of its inherent harmony.
So what exactly is stress? I could crash my website naming all the legitimate stress factors but it all starts and ends with our thoughts: It’s how we view and interpret the stress factor; the stress happens in us, not to us. When we perceive a threat to our body or our ego, whether it’s real or not, our body floods it with cortisol. Whether you believe that lightning will strike you or think your boss is going to fire you (even if he is not), it produces the same response in our body. Your mind is dictating the reaction based on your perception of the thoughts, imaginary or real.
To illustrate this, let’s follow a common scenario: You are late for a very important client meeting, stuck in traffic on a hot day. It’s bumper to bumper and you’re already 20 minutes behind schedule for your 3 o’clock meeting. You feel agitated, honking your horn, pushing buttons, turning the radio dial. Your palms are sweaty and all your muscles tighten up. Road rage kicks in as you change lanes, then back again, silently cursing at all the other drivers. You bang your fist on the steering wheel, wiping the sweat off your brow. Your mind is racing, buzzing like a fridge. Finally, the slow crawl opens up and you see your exit ahead. You peel out on to the shoulder lane and see your destination on the horizon. You check your watch. 3:35 You’re a hot mess. You pull into the parking lot and race in to the lobby of the building, only to discover the room is empty. Where is your client?! You hit the panic button, sweating profusely. Everything is a disaster and you look just like The Scream image above, feeling an altered existing equilibrium as you are WAY out of balance. No messages on your phone, you check your calendar. Meeting scheduled at 4:00, not 3:00. Your mind blows up while your body simultaneously decompresses, a rare non-convergence of the Mind Body Connection. But your mind quickly catches up, realizing this is good news, and syncs with your body to allow you to ultimately calm down.
If we examine this, we realize all of this stress overload was of our own making. Within all of the universe, ONLY you had the expectation to be there by 3:00, thereby putting your mind in a frenzy. Imagine if we got in our car at the same time but correctly knew all along our meeting was at 4:00. How calm we would have been in traffic, enjoying the music rather than flipping manically thru the dial, and not sweating a drop. All this commotion was internal, happening in us, not to us. We created this entire scene of chaos in our mind, with no external forces at play.
If we can agree with this premise that stress is an outcome of your thoughts, then it only makes sense to explore how to control and manage these thoughts. After all, if we all want to reduce stress and the power lies within us (to some degree), what could be more valuable?
It starts with awareness, offering the ability to observe our thoughts. Our minds are whirling (please see my blog The Mind’s Merry Go Round) with a cascade of thoughts. When we feel anxious, agitated, angry or any other negative emotion, we tense up and go into dis-ease. But if we hold these thoughts in awareness, not clinging or attaching to them, recognizing they are just a powerful negative energy swirling in our minds, we can slowly allow ourselves to let go. With a few deep breaths, we can decompress by focusing on very slowly inhaling and then exhaling, providing an anchor to your chaotic mind. Or try this visualization: Ice to water…melting; water to gas…vaporizing, as your whole body softens, especially in the neck and shoulder area, melting and then ultimately vaporizing.
Dealing with stress is part of everyday life, but we can successfully mitigate much of it with mindful awareness. Observe how your thoughts color your judgment and attitude with such toxicity, and realize you have the power to detach from them. It is only when you hold tight and cling to them that they will control you. So next time you are stuck in traffic, desperately late for a meeting, check both your thoughts and your calendar!