“Let’s talk about stress, baby, let’s talk about you and me, let’s talk all the good things and the bad things that may be, let’s talk about stress.” — Salt-N-Pepa
Okay, stress is not the word Salt-N-Pepa use… But you and I are gonna talk about it.
Stress has become the underlying culprit to serious mental and physical health issues in our country. Because of this, the fads of self-care have flourished into a booming industry and stress itself now reigns as a demonized force to be tamed, dealt with, or avoided completely. What sucks the most – to use professional language- is the polarity we have created. Not only are we responsible for contending with lives that are stressful, but now we are accountable to combating the stress by finding more hours in our week for self-care, and if we don’t make strides toward implementing this dire remedy, then we, instead, deal with our stressful lives and feel guilty about doing nothing to change it. So now we have stress, obligation, and guilt. How did we get there so fast? Has self-care become stressful? If it has, it’s only because we don’t understand stress.
Stress is a natural part of life and is not something to be avoided. We can’t avoid it. A potted tree grows taller if it feels a slight stress around its roots in the pot. However, if you don’t pay attention by eventually giving the tree a larger pot when it’s ready, the tree becomes sick and can die. Healthy stress vs. unhealthy stress is all around us. Short bursts of stress release hormones that can help us perform at work, in school, at sports. Some stress experiences can feel enlivening and energizing! Longer episodes, where we experience frequent bursts of stress in a row, can help us focus to complete projects, hit deadlines, and accomplish goals. But extended periods of stress where there is no room for our bodies to rest – when our nervous systems recalibrate and our hormones rebalance – can make us sick both emotionally, mentally and/or physically.
So, what we need to know more than anything is that there are many different kinds of stress. And not all stress is bad.
Stress falls under three major categories: acute stress, episodic acute stress, and chronic stress. The first one is categorized by short bursts of cortisol and adrenalin through our bodies like what happens when we are at a starting line for a race, about to walk onto stage, or conversely when we get into an argument, get a flat tire on the way to an important meeting, or drop something by accident and it breaks. We feel “activated,” but it passes. There is a clear beginning, middle, and end. This kind of stress is normal and okay. It’s part of life and our bodies are built to experience it. After a short burst of acute stress, we may find ourselves gratefully climbing into bed and reflecting on the experience with perspective and thoughtfulness. This is a sign that the nervous system has recalibrated and we are back to neutral. Recovered and good to go.
The ability to recover more quickly and build our capacity for acute stress can be improved through study and training. However, the 3 basics of eating, sleeping, and exercising mindfully can help to naturally improve our ability to recover.
The second stage of stress, episodic acute stress, is when this feeling of being activated starts happening more and more frequently. In this category, there’s a feeling of needing “to come up for air” but not necessarily getting it. We feel this when we have a big push for a deadline, like closing a business deal or studying for end of semester exams. The nervous system is turned on, however, we know there is an end in sight and we will rest soon.
This is a really important moment. The part where we have promised to rest after the episodic acute stress experience. The deal is closed. The emergency has been de-escalated. The family is safe. The semester is complete. The project is finished. In this moment, we have been in “go-mode” for awhile and it’s easy to bypass the conscious effort it takes to switch gears and create the environment our nervous systems and hormones need to rebalance and recover. But we must. This is the time to put our phones down long before bed, to get 8-10 hours of sleep for several nights in a row, to play, to lounge, to laugh, to nap. To work less. We do not take recovery time seriously enough in our society, and I’ll tell you now that every high performer we have on a pedestal in our culture has a recovery routine that would blow your mind. It is taken with as much seriousness as the business launch. But without the seriousness. Learn to let go. It will change your life.
Because if we don’t let go, take it from me, we enter a whole different category of stress. The world of chronic stress. I found myself in this place almost a decade ago and it took a long time to undo. It can happen when things such as family emergencies, a death, company lay-offs, global circumstances, all out of our control, are piled on to the aforementioned stress experiences. In other words, there is no “end” in sight, no rest period waiting, no coming up for air. Physiologically speaking, the nervous system feels stuck in the hyper alert “on” position. Stress hormones keep getting dumped into our blood stream which can create a weakened immune system and mental health issues.
This is the place that bubble baths and massages don’t seem to touch. Why? Because those are fabulous short-term tactics for acute stress experiences. Here, we need a long-term view. Lifestyle changes, mental health support, and even medical support. Chronic stress is a wake-up call to action. It was for me. It was time to break the pot I was feeling constantly ‘root-bound’ inside of and grow into something vaster and wider, filled with more possibility and support; a time to root down while reaching for the sky. When I found myself with a Lyme Disease diagnosis following a major car crash, I knew I had some internal work to do. It was uncomfortable, but I turned inward to face unresolved trauma, mental and emotional patterns that no longer served me, and belief systems that were no longer letting me grow. I trained my mindset, and asked myself some deeply probing questions about what I really wanted for my life and relationships. It was a profoundly transformative time in my life, but now I understand the unquestionable interconnectedness between mind, body, and spirit and how it can all manifest in our one beautiful life.
In essence, my invitation to you is to begin to identify what kind of stress you are experiencing. Begin to try and respond more appropriately to each kind. Let the acute stress rise and pass, ask yourself more deeply challenging questions is you feel you are entering a longer term stress patter, seek support. I would never be who I am today without the support of the mentors and teachers in my life. Asking for support, both familial and professional, is something we should never be ashamed of. Learn to embrace the good stuff and train your mind, body, and spirit into greater capacity so you can enjoy the life you know is yours. In the words of someone who I was not able to identify on Instagram, but give whole hearted credit to for this gem of wisdom:
“Self-care is not a long hot bubble bath, chocolates and good wine – self-care is cultivating the life I do not need to escape from.”
Blessing of Light
Please join me today in this short guided practice, where I offer a gentle blessing of light for you to open to and receive…