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This is Stress Article Part II. See Stress Part I for Information on What is Stress? and How does it affect our bodies?
Coping With Stress
Because we all live in a stressful environment, and undergo periods of high stress whatever our lifestyle, I believe it is a good thing to learn stress management. Learning stress management skills is essential to being able to cope with stress. But, we must first consider whether we need to be “coping” with stress at all on a regular basis.
Managing stress means two things: One, managing the feeling of stress so that it doesn’t hurt so badly, and two, managing the symptoms of stress (adapting) so that we can continue to function. It is a survival strategy and is sometimes necessary. However, our bodies and spirits are ill equipped to undergo long term stress. Eventually our strategies will give way to the pressures of stress and we will collapse.
People who think they can “cope” with stress on a long term basis are essentially numbing or ignoring stress. You can stay on top of too many emails and telephone calls, sleep less, work 60+ hours a week, work while on vacation or don’t take one at all because you can’t afford to be away from work. You can print out your family schedules, organize, & reorganize all the carpools and activities. You can eat standing up. You can take a shovel and relocate all the stressful stimuli from one room to the next. You can try controlling everything and being aggressively diligent so that you don’t get behind. You may even feel like your way too busy life is not hurting you. All this “coping” is a band-aid covering up the real damage stress is doing.
People who live wholeheartedly don’t “cope” or “manage” their stress. They change the behaviors that create stress. This means that they align their lives around their values. They set boundaries. They practice positive ways of thinking and behaving. They practice relaxation. They have faith and choose not to live a life full of fear.
It’s important to keep in mind that stress reduction will probably not just happen all at once like magic. It is not uncommon for people to become overwhelmed with all the stress in their lives. It takes time to put in place effective stress reduction strategies. Sometimes, especially in the case of victimization, it is extremely difficult to part with our current survival strategies. They have kept us alive. It takes significant support and cultivation of replacement strategies in order to let the old ways go. There is hope! You can do it! Find the support you need and have patience. Like any healing, it takes practice, patience, compassion, & intention.
Before you begin to change, consider how you already cope with stress, and how effective those coping mechanisms are.
Do you employ negative coping strategies like addictions: addictions to alcohol, drugs, medicine, shopping, working, eating, exercise, sleep, etc? What about emotional shields like cynicism, inappropriate humor, anger & irritability, withdrawal? What about numbing & escapism- deny the problem and it will go away, distract yourself from feeling pain, numbing so you don’t have to feel anything at all, work harder faster longer? Engage in distorted thinking patterns?
Positive coping strategies tend to be more constructive activities like focusing on things in your control and letting go of what’s not, praying, meditating, seeking out support, slowing down, gratitude, regular exercise, balanced nutrition, vacationing, having hobbies, breathing exercises, practicing body awareness (bio-feedback), and most of all- stress reduction!
The wear and tear on our systems from negative coping strategies increases our stress load over time. We increase our stress when we engage in negative behaviors.
Essential to stress reduction are valuing calm, simplicity, and time. You also need to set and honor boundaries, believe that you are worthy of living free, surrender your own ego, practice gratitude, focus on truth and practice lovely thinking, and practice relaxation.
Not only do I practice calm through many of the relaxation exercises listed on my website, like deep breathing and meditation, I also find it extremely helpful to spend quality time in nature (where calm is abundant), listen to relaxing music, and hang out with people who are calm.
I also try to avoid things that diminish my spirit like violent music, bloody television programs, and aggressive individuals. I think most of us are not even aware of how those things diminish our spirit, but I believe those things cause negative physiological responses even if they don’t cause negative mental responses. Our bodies tense up when we come in contact with negative stimuli. It’s as simple as that.
We live under the misconception that more is better. If living outside in the cold snow, with no cloths, no food, and no shelter is miserable, than having the basic necessities like food, water, shelter, clothes, and safety is "not miserable" therefore "happier". Than it stands to reason that the more I have the happier I will be, right? Can we plot it on a graph?
Most of us say that this is a silly conclusion. We like to think that money can’t buy happiness and rich people are not happier than poor people. In fact, most research shows just that. Rich people rate themselves less happy than poor ones do. However, most of us still live like more is better. We still buy into the idea of materialism. We spend our money, time, & energy on getting more, keeping more, and being more, and primarily running away from the shame of not being enough. This is a misaligned value. Don't let shame rule your life.
Valuing simplicity means we resist the urge to accumulate, and enjoy what we have. It means getting rid of all that useless clutter. Why do we have so much junk? If you haven’t used it, worn it, loved it, watched it, listened to it, enjoyed it within the last year- get rid of it! Living simply without all that junk has been one of the most rewarding things in my life. It makes space for the things that really matter to me.
We all want more “time” to live the life we have, but maybe we just need to stop wasting the time we have. This doesn’t mean becoming more efficient, it means slowing down. Slowing down may be the most important thing you can do to reduce your stress. It doesn’t just mean stopping every once in a while to smell the roses, but it does mean living a life free from the worry of hurry.
Mark Buchanan says, and I concur, “Being in a hurry, getting to the next thing without fully entering the thing in front of me, I can’t think of a single advantage I’ve ever gained from being in a hurry. But a thousand broken and missed things lie in the wake of all the rushing. I thought I was making up time, instead I was throwing it away.”
The hurry makes us hurt, it empties the soul. The key to having enough time and slowing down is to be present in the moment, to give the present moment the weight of your attention. When you are present time stands still. Presence allows you to experience, to truly engage. To be truly present with another human being, without thinking about the next task you have to accomplish- imagine how that can transform your relationships filling you with intimacy! To be present in the sunset fills your soul with beauty. To be present in your play fills your soul with adventure.
Boundaries are not always about closing off completely. Healthy boundaries are flexible and adaptable. Healthy boundaries are similar to a semi-permeable membrane; we can decide who/what comes in and who/what stays out. Boundaries are as much about saying yes as saying no. They give us opportunities to practice discrimination. Boundaries keep us safe and provide ground for real intimacy and trust to be developed. They allow us space to acknowledge and respect our individual experiences.
Setting boundaries requires you to first know where your boundaries are, to practice having safe boundaries, and to intentionally explore and push your boundaries safely into new dimensions. If you would like to explore and practice, see boundaries exercises.
I honor and respect my own boundaries when I stay true to my values, when I stand up for myself, when I ask for what I need. I do not feel ashamed when I say no. I stay safe. I stay healthy. I practice discrimination. I break a situation down into its most simple terms of wants, needs, and values. Confusion is a good indication that things have become too complex. I practice self compassion.
I honor your boundaries through my compassion towards you. I ask you what you need and listen to you. I acknowledge you and stay present with you without judgment. I stand up for you. I respect our differences. I respect your limitations without shaming you. I honor your vulnerability and encourage and inspire you to risk and grow. I agree to move forward, stop, and away as you ask me to.
See Brene Brown’s book, Daring Greatly. This is about the “not enough” syndrome, and how we can have courage and live free of shame. This is important to stress reduction, because if you feel like you are not worthy, or are driven by your shame into seeking “more” (as all of us are), it will be an insurmountable barrier to achieving a stress-free life. You will pursue having and being more at the cost of your health and sanity.
One of the most important things I have learned in order to live well is the art of surrender. The art of surrender is often practiced through meditation and prayer. Surrender is letting go of our need and attachment for outcomes, control, agendas, assumptions, judgments, to pain, anger, fear, & ego. We surrender our need for something to happen, for an agenda to be accomplished, for others to value and appreciate us. We get ourselves out of the way.
It is spaciousness. It arises out of a state of non-doing or wu-wei. It is abiding. It is stillness and grace. It allows us to touch into something greater than ourselves. In our ability to simply “be” we create the space for whatever wants to surface organically. Hold space, go slowly, see what happens.
Gratitude is the key to a fuller life, the way to find joy. Eucharisteo (thanksgiving) envelopes the word charis (grace), and chara (joy). Augustine said that, without exception, we all try hardest to reach the same goal- joy. We all want a full life. We are desperate for joy and will sacrifice everything for it. What most people don’t understand is that joy is found within gratitude. Gratitude comes first. Gratitude is the planks of the bridge from here to joy. It builds trust in the Creator. When you are grateful for all your blessings you learn that God is good. It allows you to open your hands to freely receive whatever is given. It is seeing the blessing through, and in, the ugliness of this world. It is based on things that we already have, so joy cannot be “taken away” from us.
Practicing eucharisteo is essential to stress reduction because it allows us to encounter everyday epiphanies and fully experience transformation. Joy is, in many ways, the same feeling as freedom & peace. So count your blessings everyday and be grateful. See Ann Voskamp's book, "One Thousand Gifts".
Truth and Lovely Thinking
This is one of the greatest truths I have learned in order to live well. You must practice lovely thinking diligently. Here’s how: Every time negative thoughts enter into your mind, you tell your mind, “No. Stop it”, and force those thoughts to leave your brain. I sometimes imagine a big hand coming down and grabbing that thought and sweeping it away out of my mind. Then, you must fill your brain up again with good things so that the negative ones don’t come back.
What then should we think about? “Think on these things and whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, and whatever is praiseworthy” (Phil 4:8). One of my favorite verses. And here’s another…
“Keep your mind centered on truth so that you are not taken captive by deceptive philosophies that rely on human traditions and principles of this world rather than on Christ” (Col 2:8-10). Truth is that which conforms to reality from God’s perspective. God’s perspective can never be tainted or skewed. It is perfect. Truth is rooted in God’s character. Focus on truth. Set your mind on it. Meditate on it. Let it permeate your soul. This is how we clean out our minds.
Your mind is a battlefield and you must fight. Eventually, with practice, negative thoughts just don’t enter in as easily and are easier to banish. You may never be completely free from them, but it does get easier. Negative thoughts are like a cancer that rot your brain and cause you undue stress. Lovely thoughts are freedom.
Relaxation is not just the absence of stress and activity. It is the feeling and employment of calm, peace and contentment. You have to practice relaxation if you want to reap the benefits of relaxation. It takes intention. You set aside time & space, let go of distractions & duty and ego, and find solace and renewal.
I find relaxation exercises very useful for maintaining a calm and peaceful spirit, regaining a positive perspective over my life, and inspiring me to live with more intention. For these reasons, I encourage others to learn and practice relaxation on a regular basis.
Stress Reduction Exercises and Positive Coping Strategies
In my website section “relaxation exercises” I have written instructions for several different relaxation techniques and positive reduction strategies you can practice, as well as some audio files of my favorite guided meditations.
Begin practicing today, and if you need help with any of the exercises, or have more questions about stress and stress management, please contact me!
Brown, Brene. (2012). Daring Greatly. Voskamp, Ann. (2010). One Thousand Gifts. Zondervan Publishing. Buchanan, Mark. (2007). The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Your Sabbath.