To deal adequately with stress, we need to approach what we are doing to ourselves from several angles.
Distress effects us on at least three levels – physically, mentally and emotionally. If we do not develop a strategy for dealing with the stress on all of the effected levels, we will only feel partial relief, and will soon “loop back” — to the level of stress we feel is “normal.” The problem is, most of us are “wound way too tight.”
A couple we know took a 3 week holiday. I asked him how it went. “Great,” he said. “Although I didn’t relax until the end of the second week.”
This is what I’m talking about. He’s in a high stress occupation, and that stress seems normal. He goes on holiday and for two weeks expects “the other show to drop,” despite the fact that there are virtually no stressors present. Finally, without his intervention, his body began to re-align itself.
We suggest that this process can be under our control, and that unnecessary stress can be let go of. This requires both patience and practice, and is not a “one time, fast fix.”
As we said in the introduction, very little of our stress is caused by actual, scary, stressful events. Our stress is mainly caused by our interpretations. The following exercises slow our minds and et us re-examine the stories we are telling ourselves.
The Name Game
The Name Game is a simple exercise for slowing down the mental chatter and carving our some mental silence.
Exercise: Sit comfortably. Begin looking around the space you are in. As you look at a door, internally say, “door.” Immediately move your head, focus on something, and name it. Do this for a minute or two.
This “game” causes the endless mental noise to “go background,” as you bring your focus onto a specific task. As you do this, you’ll notice that your breathing slows and your “stressed feel” lessens.
Exercise: Now, let’s tune in on all the “stuff” going on around you that you’ve filtered out, while you focussed on your internal theatre. Listen for a minute or two. What do you hear? How much had you heard prior to paying attention? Your ears were hearing all of those things (you don’t think sound waves aren’t there if you’re not paying attention to them, do you?), but filtering them out. So you could obsess.
More. Use your skin now. How’s the temperature? How’s your butt? Numb? Can you feel the chair? Check out your clothes from the inside. Can you feel the elastic or belt around your waist? (Oh! How nice! You’re doing this exercise in the nude! What do you FEEL with your skin?)
And more. What do you smell? How’s your mouth taste? (Where’s that coffee cup?) How do you feel, emotionally, today? What’s on your mind, in addition to this exercise?
You’re now quietly and alertly “in your head.” Just notice how comfortable it can be in there, when you’re not “on” about something.
The New Perspective
We’re now going to look at the story you were just stressing yourself out over. I don’t claim any ownership of this technique – many therapists have created lists of questions to ask yourself.
Let’s look at an example. Your boss calls you in and points out an error in your work, and indicates she’d like you to fix the error and, in the future, to be more conscientious.
You go to my desk, and think, “That’s not fair! She shouldn’t criticize me. Now I suppose I’m going to get fired. I’ll starve!”
What, you think people don’t do this? Of course they do. And they create stress in the process. And if you don’t catch yourself, you begin to believe this odd story in your head, and make it real. Soon, “what happened” is replaced by “what I’m telling myself about what I think I remember happening.”
So, you quiet your mind. Then you begin to examine your game.
- Is what I am telling myself an accurate representation, or is it me, creating drama?
“It’s not fair!” Ask yourself: what do you mean by fair? Was your work inaccurate? Do you think that no one should be criticized for inaccurate work, or do you annoy yourself only when you are criticized? Are you really going to get fired? Will you really starve?
- Is my focus on the present moment, or have I moved my attention to the past or the future?
Am I replaying what happened accurately, or am I remembering past incidents, either with my boss or with others, that I hurt myself over? Am I in the moment, thinking about fixing the flaw in my work and resubmitting it, or am I imagining some time in the future when I’ll be hauled in, drawn and quartered and fired?
- What is the purpose of what I am telling myself?
Am I focussed on a solution, or on excusing myself, blaming my boss, and, in the process, making myself miserable?
- What could I do right now that would allow me to bring peace to this situation?
Here. we move to actually doing something. In the above situation, once the drama is carved away, the solution is as simple as fixing the mistake and handing the correction to your boss, perhaps with a “Thanks for catching that error. I appreciate the chance to fix it.”
You will notice that this process moves us from mental “squirrel caging” (going round and round, never getting anywhere – repeatedly covering the same ground.) This process gets us off the loop of feeling bad and making it worse, by eliminating the stories (fairness, expecting to be “Teflon”, getting fired, starving) and back to the real issue – there is a problem to correct.
Meditation and Relaxation
Perhaps the most effective solution to the undisciplined voices in our heads is found through learning to meditate. We suggest checking with your local continuing education department(s) as courses are offered in Meditation techniques throughout Canada and the US.
If you wish to learn progressive relaxation and visualization techniques, visiting your local library will provide resources, as will checking the products of Sounds True, a purveyor of self development tapes.