Ask a friend or coworker, “How are you?” and often you’ll hear, “stressed!” What happened to “I’m well” or “great” or even “happy?” We seem to accept stress as normal, even honorable. It feels like a requirement for success and justifies how hard we work.
The Oxford dictionary defines stress as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.”
That’s a pretty grim definition. Aren’t all of our lives demanding? Research (The American Psychological Association) indicates unresolved stress could cause health issues, depression, anxiety, interrupt sleep, and fuel fights. It compromises your effectiveness in your personal and professional life.
It steals your joy
There is no doubt stress steals from the quality of your life and relationships. But, what if you flipped stress around, and discovered a way to deconstruct and transform it, using it as a guide, like a barometer of well-being?
As strange as it seems, stress can be enlightening. It makes you aware of goals and situations that really matter. It shows you what’s going on in your life. Awareness of it helps you strip away what doesn’t matter and helps define what does.
You can choose to live a reactive or proactive life… It’s up to you
Succumbing to stress is an indicator of living a reactive life. But, you have a choice. If you deconstruct it by identifying the cause, it becomes a framework for making life more manageable. That’s leading a proactive life.
One of the ways to identify the triggers of stress is to look at your life’s timeline. Write down all the major events from your past and present. When I did this exercise and looked back on those events, I discovered the cycles of my life, the good and bad. I saw clearly how some of those events were life-altering, but somehow, I’m still standing.
The very thing I thought was un-survivable is what most people refer to as “the worst that can happen.” At least that’s what people say when they learn I lost a child.
My 16-year-old son woke up with a fever and was dead the next morning. That damn fast. The doctor said it was the flu… turned out it was bacterial meningitis.
There was nothing easy about that time. I was certain I’d never feel joy again. How could I? I’d lost my child. My family was in such emotional chaos. I felt tremendous pressure to make life “normal” again. It was an effort to perform as “mommy” to my three living children. My husband and I lived in two different worlds… his was work and mine was home. When we met at the end of the day, we didn’t know what to expect. Our emotions were rarely the same. I struggled to just wake up in the morning because I wanted to hold onto that brief moment between sleep and awake when I didn’t remember my son had died.
I made it through, though. I learned that grief does not last forever. It becomes more manageable.
People don’t realize that stress is often grief related. Unresolved grief can show up years after the loss of a loved one, losing a job, a divorce, or loss of a home. It can undermine your feelings of well-being and confidence.
Unresolved grief is an unease that can follow you like a shadow
Left unresolved, grief affects your decision-making and ability to focus. It’s a feeling of unease that can follow you like a shadow. It’s that voice inside your head that tells you-you’re not allowed to feel happy, only stressed.
Look at your life’s timeline and search for clues to stress-related events and unresolved grief. See if something triggers those feelings. Once you’re aware of it, you can never be unaware. You can name it and change the way it’s affecting your life.
Stress just might be “old stories” hanging around too long
For example, if you lost your home during the financial crash in 2008, you could feel anxiety when you decide it’s finally time to buy a new home. That’s grief-related stress. It’s also the old story about owning a home.
Now, look at it in a proactive way. When you resolve old triggers of stress, it makes you more cautious. This time, you’re doing all the right things to protect you and your family. You have a backup savings account. You’re purchasing a home with a reputable real estate agent and lender by your side. Your mortgage payment does not keep you up at night.
When you feel confident, you take the next step, putting an end to the negativity tied to the old home experience. You now have new memories waiting for you to create in your new home.
Life is chapter driven and cyclical. When we recognize our ability to navigate the cycles from chapter to chapter, it diffuses our emotions and the fear of what happens next.
There’s a difference between situational stress and emotional stress
Sometimes the cause of stress is just flat out too much to do. Grocery shopping, picking up kids, doctor appointments, fixing dinner. That’s situational stress that is temporary. Don’t clump it all together and feel overwhelmed. It’s fixable. Chip away at it in baby steps, and if you must… just order pizza.
Work-related stress is where creativity comes into play. We have to create ways to solve problems. My late husband was a screenwriter. We solved story problems by doing improvisation, pretending we were the characters.
I’ve carried that over into my real estate business by improvising with my clients. We create their dream home and then play with different ways to achieve that. I use it in negotiating and solving escrow issues. It’s actually fun looking at a problem as a story that could have many different ways to turn.
Stress is the indicator that something needs to change
Look at different options for turning your chaos into transformation. Stress is the indicator that something needs to change. It does have a beginning and an end if you get creative and solve it… one step at a time.
Here are 11 effective strategies for changing the pattern of stress:
1. Look at the stress and define it. Could it be connected to anything from your past? If so, identify it. Call it out. Tell yourself this is not the same experience. You proved you could already live through that difficult time… and survived. Allow yourself the joy of new challenges with the confidence of knowing you’re capable of handling a lot more than you thought. Your life has proven it.
2. Create a sleep 911 practice. You know it happens in the middle of the night. You wake up and feel pressure, fear, anxiety. You toss and turn trying to solve the problem at 3:00 am. In reality there’s nothing you can do at that hour. Make a specific plan for how you’ll handle sleep interruptions in the future. My ritual is to first acknowledge there’s not one thing I can do to solve the problem in the middle of the night. I even say it out loud. My next step is to get out of bed, make myself a cup of tea, eat a cookie, get back into bed and read a book. It’s a “pattern interrupt” that allows me to fall back to sleep.
3. Give stress a time limit. Consider the fact that this stressful time will have an end date. Take action to solve the issue one step at a time. Don’t worry about the whole picture. No one solves anything by taking it all on at once. Just take the very next step. For example, if you have a speaking engagement coming up, and you’re stressed about writing it, just begin the first paragraph!
4. Stop negative self-talk in its tracks. Don’t ruminate on negative thoughts. Once you’re aware of the mind chatter, you can’t be unaware. That’s all it is, mind chatter. Time to address that annoying voice in the back of your head and dismiss it from active duty.
5. Refocus on the positive. Think about one thing in your day that was positive. This is where gratitude can fuel your body with “feel good” chemicals. Try redirecting your thoughts by saying, “I’m so glad I…” or “today I am happy about…” Maybe it was lunch with an old friend, or your roses finally bloomed. Think of anything that makes you smile. The power of positivity plus gratitude could shift your day.
6. Stop using “should have” and “what if” statements. Dwelling on missed opportunities accomplishes nothing. It comes from feeling out of control and making things more important than they are. You can’t change the past. Instead look at it for the gifts. It’s hindsight reborn… and that leads to wisdom.
7. Ask for help. Reach out to supportive people. Sometimes an outside perspective is a perfect prescription for negative stress. People love helping people. Let those around you have the “gift of giving” by listening to your needs. Enlist them to do improvisation with you to help solve problems. People love to play!
8. Get a massage. People undervalue the importance of human touch and working out the tension that stress leaves in the body. Yes, your partner can offer a quick massage, but really letting go and working out the kinks is often more effective with a professional masseuse.
9. Give yourself a dose of feel-good chemicals by doing a workout. According to an article on the effects of exercise WebMD says your body naturally releases soothing endorphins in reaction to a good workout, triggering a positive feeling and lowering stress. When my son died, I started back at the gym a week later and discovered no matter how depressed I was walking into the gym, I always felt emotionally stronger after.
10. Reduce decision-making by putting things on auto-pilot. Make use of the best of what online has to offer by setting up online banking and auto pay. Make use of auto-ship. If you know you run out of body lotion or protein shakes every two months, get it auto shipped. Plan your clothes the night before. Make sure your vitamins are out on the counter and put your coffeemaker on auto brew.
11. Create a morning ritual: Tony Robbins, Steve Jobs, Arianna Huffington, Oprah, Lady Gaga all created morning rituals. Rituals set the tone for the day. When you commit to a schedule and a ritual, you tackle the day with renewed strength and optimism. Try meditation, yoga, or journaling. Then, take on the day.
Have faith that difficult times will not last forever… Life has cycles.
Apply one or more of these stress-reducing rituals today and your tomorrow will be even better.
Have faith that difficult times will not last forever. Life has cycles. Stressful times are always followed by a rebound… but the quality of rebounding is up to you.
When you look back on your life, it had stressful chapters, but you’ve proven you have the strength to handle whatever comes your way. All of it makes up the story of you, and how you became who you are today.
Isn’t it time to let the power of positivity work for you?
The next time someone asks, how are you? Try responding “I’m happy, thanks!” See how that feels.
It might just jumpstart a new cycle in your life. Happiness.
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Originally published on Huffington Post