While last entry was about getting a better understanding of the mechanisms and evolution of stress, as well as recognizing the signs and symptoms of stress overload, the next portion aims at revealing some of the common factors which contribute to our society’s rampant rise of stress-levels—and what we can do about it.
* This includes identifying some of the cultural values (3) prized in North America, whose internalized ideals are systemically running people down into the ground through rigid behaviors. Each topic will be broken up into a separate article, including how that value can influence people’s outlook and actions that lead to stress.
Being Productive Provides Worth/Meaning → Ambivalence towards Self-Care
Owning Our Self-Care Jitters
This first one may seem odd to you…’self-care’ seems to be one of the hot-words found in every health and wellness magazine. Hell, even business-oriented literature is fond of referencing it as part of their regimen for increasing productivity through a more balanced work/leisure schedule. That being said, there seems to be a big gap between intellectually ‘getting it’ and actually embodying the philosophy.
We all can intuitively appreciate that ‘always being on’ and running on fumes is not sustainable to our well-being. When we see our partner, family member, friend, or colleague looking a little worse for wear we are all to willing to be that helpful person to remind them not to work too hard and that they need to take a break. And yet, when we find ourselves in a bit of a bind—ie. start to feel consistently low, resentful of going to work, less inclined to socialize with others, and becoming increasingly agitated over minor things—we tend to have a selective memory-lapse on all the ‘good advice’ we gave to others.
You are The Exception: How we Rationalize Away From Self-Care
Somehow we convince ourselves that we are the exception, leading to rationalizations that “it’s just a phase” and “it will work itself out”. Perhaps we ascribe our low mood to environmental factors which are affecting our biology—ie. “it’s allergy season”, or “these shorter winter days aren’t providing me with enough sunlight”. While these things may have some impact on our psychological and physiological health, we tend to overestimate its effect on our systems.
My guess is because it is a lot easier to address these external stressors that only need a pill or vitamin than to actually inquire and question our behavioral patterns. Because inquiry requires time; time that could be used towards what our ‘rational’ brains believe to be more worthwhile pursuits—such as work, catching up with friends, networking with colleagues, exercising, picking up a new hobby, or signing up for a stimulating workshop or course online.
Reworking Self-Care Expectations
As you can see here, however, the logic is flawed. Our mind recites a list of all the things that it thinks we need or believe we should be doing, while our bodies are telling us “NO!”. So what’s the give? Do we ignore all these suggestive inclinations? Haven’t we heard before the benefits of connecting with others, as well as the satisfaction that comes from developing more skills in areas you are interested in? And the answer is “Yes”, but it depends on the context. And when you are experiencing symptoms of prolonged stress, including stress-related issues such as burnout, chronic fatigue, increased illness and chronic pain—sometimes LESS IS MORE.
The desire for these activities may be driven by a part of us that believes that we must be ‘doing’ in order to gain self-esteem. This same part, which can fuel our ambition and drive in life, can quickly turn into a fierce critic when we seem to not be living up to its expectations. This is the voice that comes in to reprimand you after having a thought along the lines of “I need some time for myself”. It tells you that you are selfish, a loser, weak, or lazy. Its trademark bit of advice to you is that as long as you keep moving—keep doing—you will be ok.
Sure, physical exercise can be a great way of reducing stress—but that is dependent on your energy levels, your personality type, and your general lifestyle. If you are someone who constantly pushes yourself to your limit, and regularly goes to the gym, then working-out might be used as another outlet for putting more pressure on yourself to perform.
Socializing with others has been proven time and again to boost mood, decrease loneliness, and get us active. However, this connection-seeking can also be taken as a way of trying to jump-start an engine with a depleted fuel tank. Energy levels required for meaningfully engaging with others can be exhausting—especially if we are accustomed to playing the role of the ‘always up’ and jovial personalities, or the ‘rock-steady’ support figure in the group.
And if you’ve gotten to the point of either near or complete adrenal exhaustion, so that it is affecting your day-to-day life, your physical and emotional symptoms are a way of letting you know that your body needs to relax. So Listen to It!
What You Can Do About It
1) Mindful Minute Exercise –
Similar to recognizing the benefits of taking a break in our hectic schedules, most people also connect with the belief that mindfulness/meditation can have positive effects on our mental and physical well-being. What the majority of people who share this sentiment also state is that, while they see the benefits of meditation, they don’t see how they would be able to incorporate it in their lives—ie. “I don’t have enough time or patience to just sit and stare at nothing!”
But who said anything about requiring long periods of time, or even that you had to be sitting in order to practice it? There are many updated mindfulness practices which are geared towards modern city-goers. And while I can appreciate that time can feel like a rare commodity, how much of it is lost in ruminating over the past or fretting for the future?
Therefore, I would suggest that it is at those times where you are feeling unsettled, agitated, and uncertain that you could most benefit from setting aside a little time to check-in and recenter. You might be surprised by how much time suddenly is available once you’ve created some inner-space between your thoughts and given permission for your body to relax.
Duration: 1 minute
When: Anytime you notice your thoughts racing; increased tension in your body; heightened sense of confusion/panic/pressure to decide on things
I) Stop whatever you are doing or thinking, and either standing up or sitting down—eyes open or closed—take some deep breaths from your belly. Imagine that you are breathing into your stomach-area, taking notice of the cycle of your belly expanding, and then contracting in a rhythmic flow. Thoughts will come, which you can acknowledge before retraining your attention back on the belly.
2) After a short period of time, as you are breathing, widen your focus from your belly to other areas of the body. Likewise to before, as you bring attention to each part, imagine breathing life into them through your breathwork (ie.your chest, your heart, your side, and then out further into your arms and legs). Imagine that each breath is revitalizing these areas, restoring a sense of wholeness.
3) For the final stage, you can alternate your awareness from the sensations of your nostrils as you breath in and out of your nose (picking up on things such as the heat or coolness), followed by releasing control of your pointed focus to encompass the whole body.
* Again—thoughts will come, and that is to be expected! The goal is not to abolish your thoughts but to increase awareness of the other 90% of your experience…your bodily sensations. Check in afterwards to see how you feel, and take note of any differences.
2) Daily Debrief / Gratitude Exercise –
Living in a society that promotes productivity, social influence and materialistic pursuits as markers of achievement and success, our nervous systems are primed to be in a state of perpetual alertness as we are constantly scanning our environment to fill the void. This will undoubtedly put a toll on our mind and bodies, as the threat of scarcity, or “never enough” seems to always be present.
Therefore, it can be extremely beneficial to ground us back to reality by remembering what we do have, so that we can give our nervous systems a break.
Duration: 5-10 minutes
When: to be done before you go to sleep.
1) Think of 3-5 things that you are grateful for from the day. It can be anything, big or small—but think about experiences! For me, an example could be my morning coffee…but instead of being grateful for the cup of coffee, bring yourself to the memory of drinking the coffee: where you were in the room; the smell and taste of the coffee, the thoughts (or perhaps lack of thoughts) that were going on as you were enjoying the beverage; how you were feeling in your body as you were drinking it.
* All these details are what make our memories come alive and help integrate the experiences in our neurocircuitry so that the brain has an easier time accessing these feelings and sensations in the future. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “What you focus on comes into focus.”
Originally Published on Connect-In Counselling