Stress: It Doesn't Have To Be "The New Normal"
Reprinted from 406 Women Magazine
I wrote this article for 406 Woman Magazine, and we think the message is well worth sharing here. In the article I use one of those embarrassing moments, when you fall or trip in the mall. Think about your embarrassing moments.
Maybe it's that situation at work where you said something stupid. Maybe it's when you made a basic mistake in a report, or a major spelling error on a slide in your presentation. Maybe you did trip walking to that meeting you were late for, dropping your very important folder all over the floor. Find a situation you can relate to as you read the following article that follows.
We all have stresses in our lives. However, when a situation feels like it’s too much to handle, we get triggered into a fight, flight, or freeze reaction.
The problem isn’t the stress. The problem is that we don’t work with our reactions and let our system settle in the midst of the stress or afterwards.
Maybe you’ve gotten stuck in a chronic stress response, thinking that your stressed state is normal. My goal is to help you interrupt that chronic stress state, settling your system so that you discharge your stress naturally throughout your day.
Imagine yourself walking in a mall. You’re shopping, carrying loads of bags full of goodies and your too-heavy purse. Someone calls your name. You turn to look over your shoulder to find the person and suddenly you trip, spewing everything all over. Ugh!
Many of us would be so embarrassed we’d pop right up, hopefully before too many people saw, and merrily chirp, “I’m fine, really! Just fine.” We’d quickly gather our bags while trying to make polite conversation with the person who called our name, starting with asking them, “So how are you?!”
Unfortunately in our culture, a mishap like this can trigger feelings of embarrassment, worry about looking bad, or feeling too emotional. We disconnect or suppress how we feel, what’s going on inside. Instead, we turn our attention to the other person, avoiding looking out at others, not realizing until we get home that we scraped our knees when we fell.
“Shake It Off!”
A more helpful stress release reaction after being in a triggering situation is to allow emotional energy to flow, to talk about it, notice body sensations, and shake.
Yes, I said shake. Have you ever seen two dogs fight or scuffle with each other? The first thing they do after they separate is shake. This is their nervous system discharging the energy of the fight.
Cue Taylor Swift’s song “Shake It Off!”
Our systems are wired the same way, but – unlike those dogs – we get into chronic, tight stress states and don’t allow our bodies to discharge the stress. We pretend we’re fine. All the while, that stress energy is trapped in our nervous systems, reducing our resiliency when the next stressful event occurs.
So shake it off. Let that shakiness be there because it is how our bodies naturally discharge stress. Let your hands move, your legs wiggle. Allow your body to move in order to reduce the stress and settle down.
You Are Not Crazy
People come to me and say, “I don’t want to be so sensitive!” Sorry, sweetie. Welcome to the human condition.
You are not crazy. Our minds, at their steady state, naturally scan for danger. Our bodies are wired to be sensitive and reactive, to deliver a fight, flight, or freeze reaction, as necessary.
Let me take you back to when saber-toothed tigers roamed the earth and our Homo sapiens ancestors gathered around the fire to keep warm.
If you were sitting around the fire when someone heard a noise in the dark, and you said, “Hey dude, chill. It’s probably just Fred getting firewood,” you were dinner.
On the other hand, if you were overly cautious, shouted, “OMG! What the heck is that noise?!” then jumped to your feet and shouted, “Run!” you and your buds survived.
Those slightly paranoid campers are our ancestors. This is what we have to work with.
What Happens When We’re Triggered
When you’re triggered by stress, you’re no longer present; you’re off balance and don’t have access to all your resources for handling the situation well.
Physiologically, your focus narrows and your breathing changes. You’re not thinking with your whole brain. In fact, when triggered, the body moves resources (blood and oxygen) from some parts of the brain and body to other parts to prepare for fight, flight, or shutting down altogether and freezing like a scared possum.
That is not an optimal state for problem-solving or relationship-building, yet this is how many of us walk around every day.
What to Do to Balance
Here are some more tools for helping you bring yourself back into balance from a triggered state so that you have access to more of your resources in the moment.
This will help you discharge the stress energy and stay connected to you – meaning connected to what’s happening inside you and aware of your environment – and provide you with more resources to work with for the situation at hand.
The tools below can be done while waiting in line, or sitting at your computer, or the dinner table. Other people will likely not even notice you’re doing them.
Expand Your Focus
When we’re under stress, our focus becomes narrow, our attention zeroing in on either something in the environment or on our internal thoughts. The simple tool of orienting helps expand focus and increase access to our resources.
When you notice yourself in a narrowly focused state, gently and slowly look to your left and notice something you haven’t seen before. Pause and let it in. Now turn your head s-l-o-w-l-y and gently in the other direction and do the same thing – pause and notice. Continue doing this for a couple of minutes.
Try doing this now and notice how your body feels. Does your breathing change? What do you feel in your body? Are you aware now that you have a body?
Connect to Your Physical Body
When stressed, we often disconnect from our physical body and focus on someone else in our environment or obsess about the problem so we can work out how to fix it. Our physical bodies can’t help but be aware and in the present moment. When triggered, a key way to recover is to connect to your body more consciously as a resource.
Grounding – Feel Your Feet and Your Seat
If you are sitting, focus on your feet, maybe wiggle your toes or swipe your feet back and forth. See if you can imagine your feet getting heavier. Then, feel your bottom and your back being supported in your chair. Relax into the support of the chair.
If you are standing, feel your feet on the ground. Shift your weight to the other foot. Feel your connection to the earth.
With practice, people report feeling more settled after doing this. Try it now and see what you notice.
Be Your Best
The tools above can help you settle your nervous system when you’re triggered. Experiment to discover which ones work for you. You can also come up with your own tools. The goal is to be settled and present versus triggered into a fight, flight, or freeze state.
When you’re settled, you’re at your best. You take care of you and more easily address the situation at hand.
Back To the Mall
Let’s go back to the mall. There you are on the floor with all your personal items spewed around you on the floor. Instead of quickly jumping up and chirping, “I’m fine!” you take a minute to feel your body on the ground and notice what hurts. You look down and notice your scraped knees. Maybe you say, “Ouch!” and make some contact with your knees.
Slowly, you bring your feet underneath you and feel their contact with the floor. You then turn your head s-l-o-w-l-y to orient yourself to your environment. You see your friend and say, “Wow, I am so embarrassed.” You take your time notice your breath, and then ask, “Can you please help me?” Right there you’ve done something different and supported your nervous system to discharge some of the stress. And you and your friend have a very different conversation, one that’s more present and more real.
CrisMarie Campbell and Susan Clarke
Coaches, Business Consultants, Speakers and Authors of The Beauty of Conflict
CrisMarie and Susan work leaders and teams, couples in business, and professional women.
They help turnaround dysfunctional teams into high performing, cohesive teams who trust each other, deal with differences directly, and have clarity and alignment on their business strategy so they create great results.
Check out their website: www.thriveinc.com. Connect with CrisMarie and Susan on LinkedIn. Watch their TEDx Talk: Conflict – Use It, Don’t Defuse It! Find your copy of The Beauty of Conflict: Harnessing Your Team's Competitive Advantage here.