Chronic stress can produce a feeling of being overwhelmed. It makes it difficult to shift perspective and see the stressor from a different angle. Rather than seeing stress as a useful signal and address the cause of it, the tendency is to focus on the stress reaction itself as something that can be just pushed away. The results are often the very opposite of what is intended: rather than going away, stress continues as a flashing light on the dashboard that just won’t shut off, while its cause continues to wreak havoc on the mind, the spirit and the body.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Taking responsibility for finding a solution to the stressor is the answer, of course. But how can it be done if all that we can see and feel are the emotional and physical symptoms of the stress reaction? The following are proven ways that can help in shifting perspective from the signal (stress) to its cause, the stressor itself.
Take Charge, List, and Delegate
When I ask general audiences if they can control their stress level to make it work for them, no more than half say they can. If I ask audiences of pilots or neurosurgeons the same question, they all say they can. –Esther M. Sternberg, M.D.
Airline pilots are trained to use the stress response as a useful way to monitor their own behavior. When a pilot flies an airplane through a storm, her heart races, her breath becomes shallow, and her attention is intensely focused on the job at hand. The pilot experiences to the fullest the physiological arousal that defines stress, without necessarily labeling the situation as stressful. Having done this before, the pilot knows what to expect, takes full charge of flying the aircraft and remains in control. On the other hand, the passengers aboard the aircraft may be far more uncomfortable because the plane is bouncing around and there isn’t anything they can do about it. They are stressed, and their racing heart, shallow breath, and intense focus on every bounce and every noise of the plane is coupled with the feeling of being at the mercy of the elements and in the hands of the pilot. Two similar situations, two very different stress reactions. The difference? Being able to take control.
Whenever possible, a shift of perspective can be facilitated by taking charge and exercising a greater control over our choices. When we believe we might be able to control a situation, and step up to try and resolve it, chances are that the very act of acting on it reduces our stress levels. We are finally doing something about it, and it feels good. Have you noticed how the toothache seems to go away, at least to some extent, when we arrive at the dentist’s office? Or our problems take a different, and often less dramatic tinge, when we open up and just talk to someone about them?
Another useful technique for making use of stress signals instead of being overwhelmed by them is to make a list of the stressors that need to be addressed, and front-load it with the ones that can be taken care of quickly. As we check off accomplishments, the feeling of being in control rises and stress begins to ease. It is also useful to take the list a step further and classify each stressor into one of three categories:
- Stressors that can be eliminated by making a choice, e.g. taking time off from work, saying no to another request, getting out of a noisy environment.
- Stressors that can be reduced or modified, e.g. working on a relationship problem, cutting down on caffeine, lightening the work load.
- Stressors that cannot be eliminated or reduced and therefore have to be managed, e.g. working through a loss and the grief caused by it, searching for a job, taking care of our own or a loved one’s illness.
A third technique is delegating, not just to coworkers but also to children, spouse, and friends. This may be difficult, as it appears to contradict the previous suggestion of taking charge of the situation. While taking control is a good stress reliever, it requires moderation and good judgment. One’s anxious need to be in direct personal control of everything at all times, or at least attempting to gain it, can create a stress of its own. Our finite resources of time, energy, and motivation can become exhausted. Anxious control ceases to be a step toward resolving our stressors, and can simply become an attempt to reduce our anxiety about getting everything done. Delegating is the answer.
Accepting That Life Is…Well…Stressful
No one can control everything. A child’s schedule may inevitably conflict with a work deadline. Bad weather may flood the picnic. There are literally thousands of situations when one task interferes with another, is interrupted, must be postponed, or ends up producing unexpected results. Is this because of poor control skills? Sometimes that is the case, but more often than not life is just full of surprising and unexpected turns.
Chronic stress can have a physical impact on the body. Interrupting the sequence of stressful moments with moments of calm and relaxation, i.e. letting go instead of taking control, can lessen that impact. This letting go may at times feel counterintuitive but it produces results. When a series of crushing deadlines looms at work, we can take some time off in between them. A weekend at the beach or the mountains can do wonders for the equilibrium. Distracting oneself with something soothing, such as cooking, knitting, or breaking out the watercolors can bring a smile to our face and a balm to the soul. And if taking off an entire afternoon is just not in the cards, just getting out for a walk can be a powerful stress reliever. Even a short stroll can make a difference.