Did you know that up to 80% of illness and disease is precipitated by stress? While doctors once thought our genes predetermined our destiny, we now know that it’s our internal and external environment which signals our DNA to effectively turn on a disease process. Today I‘d like to talk to you about stress, the long-term effects of stress and finish by sharing some strategies and practical ways to help you with managing stress in the midst of the chaos life can bring.
The stress response, also known as the fight or flight response, evolved as an immediate reaction to physical threats in our ancestors’ environment. In a state of stress, our immune system is effectively turned off to put all energy and biological resources to dealing with the situation at hand.
Once our ancestors escaped or killed their threat, the body would return to a state of homeostasis, where it was able to rest, relax, and regenerate cells. Our immune system would then turn back on where it would be able to fight off foreign invaders, illness, and disease.
Although there are different types of stress, today I’ll focus on emotional stress which is a state of mental or emotional strain resulting from demanding circumstances.
So where did stress go wrong?
The answer is in chronic emotional stress. Chronic stress comes when we believe we have little or no control over managing the stressor.
Emotional stressors are things like the kids are yelling, traffic, bills, a breakup or fight with your spouse, or mostly anything else that taxes your system without being an immediate threat to your life.
These sort of life matters are normal and don’t necessarily have to trigger a chronic stress response, but in our overworked, overwhelmed, “you are not good enough the way you are” world, they lead to lasting stress which can be detrimental to your long-term health. The fight or flight response kicks on just the same, whether you be in an actual fight for your life or you are dealing with stressors from your spouse, siblings or boss. Work-related stress falls in this bucket too.
Did you know that nearly half of working Americans are chronically stressed on the job? Did you know that Monday morning between 9am-12pm is the time of day and week when we have the most heart attacks in our country?
We have to learn to better manage our stress before it consumes our lives.
Unrelieved emotional stress leads to anxiety which can cause depression and physical disease. You can literally be stressed to death, which is why it’s so important to take back control and create calm in the everyday chaos of life.
According to the American Psychological Association, chronic stress is linked to the six leading causes of death: including heart disease, cancer and suicide. Unmanaged stress and emotional trauma is the root cause of many, if not most psychological conditions, as well as addiction to alcohol, substances and food. It leads to anxiety, neuroses, depression and a whole host of preventable and manageable disease processes.
We must be proactive, in order to preserve our long term health, happiness and well being.
So while humans are highly adaptive creatures and we can withstand nearly anything, in order to survive the modern world we must start to make stress management a part of our daily lives. I’d like to offer a 5-step framework for you to add to your stress-fighting toolbox to help you effectively manage stress.
Framework for managing stress in the midst of chaos:
In order to address a stressor, we must first acknowledge its existence. We must be aware of what is truly causing our stress, before our dis-ease leads to disease. Call the stressor out by name, separating yourself from it, then identify a path around it or straight through to the source. For this to work, it’ll take a willingness to have uncomfortable conversations, ask uncomfortable questions and take on a new approach and perspective to what is truly the cause behind the discomfort. Often times, these are nagging feelings of lack of self worth, a poor self image and unrelieved emotional trauma we’ve been carrying around since we were kids. Fortunately, our mind, just like our bodies, is malleable. Through the power of your own awareness, you can start to face the stressors wreaking havoc on your life. To pinpoint the pain point ask questions like:
- What people, situations and experiences stress me out, and what do they have in common?
- When left unattended, what are the predominant thoughts my mind most often wanders to?
- What am I stressing or obsessing about most right now?
- How are these stressors impacting my health, relationships and life?
- What’s another way to look at this situation or stressor? What can I learn from this experience?
- If I had a magic wand, what would I change, cut out or correct about myself to improve my life in the next 3 months?
- What do I simply need to let go of?
Although we are the creators of our lives, there will be times when things seem unfair, unjust, or downright wrong. Maybe someone cut you off, flipped you off, or you lost a dear friend, family member or your job. Perhaps you misjudged, misspoke or made a mistake. Welcome to the human experience! Dwelling in the past serves no one – neither does worry, judgment, rumination or regret. Let go of the memories and reminders that keep you tied to the stress response. Instead, train yourself to take action using the fuel from the pain of your past to propel you forward. Have the courage to practice forgiveness and acceptance of your current state and know that you are only a few small changes from an entirely different experience in life.
Be proactive, instead of reactive, which means taking action to confront your stress before it consumes your life. You must take care of yourself or you will be ineffective in your ability to serve your family, your community and the planet. Self-care is not selfish. It’s vital to our ability to effectively manage stress and become emotionally fit in our increasingly overworked and overwhelmed world. Action is the most important ingredient for the recipe of a stress free life.
Meditate, exercise, journal, preplan, practice, prioritize, go for a walk, or find some other way to proactively address the stressors predictably popping up in your life. Surround yourself with people that bring out the best in you and be sure to create space so you can rest, relax, and feel grateful for who you are and what you do.
Stress management is a journey, not a destination, which entails we remain aware of what’s working and what’s not so we can adjust our approach along the way. Albert Einstein once said, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results.” Living a stress-filled life is insanity, but you can find a friend in flexibility. If something you are trying isn’t working, adapt your approach to help you consciously create a stress-free day. Take action and then make appropriate adjustments to eliminate the distress once and for all.
If you want to move laterally in life, go at it alone. But if you want to move vertically, out of your current state of stress and realm of overwhelm you’ve got to find someone to hold you accountable. This also includes having the courage to reach out for help. When you are out consciously creating your life and proactively managing stress, know that you don’t have to do it alone. You can not effectively meet the demands of life by yourself – especially if you are managing a family, a team or creating change in your community. If you don’t have a team, spouse or mentor to cheer you on, you need a coach. Either way, surround yourself with people that will hold you accountable when, instead of managing stress, you let stress manage you.
Emotionally fit people will not settle for a life of chronic stress. Fortunately, stress management can be learned and practiced by each of us. Stress management is a skill. Let this framework guide your proactive approach to the conscious creation of a stress-free future filled with health, happiness, and true well being.
Stay tuned to learn more strategies on how to proactively engage with your environment, manage your stress, and stay calm and in control in the everyday chaos of life. Be sure to sign up for our next Stress Management Webinar where we’ll do a deep dive into the systems and strategies needed to stay sane in today’s stress-filled society.