For the last few months my stress level has been acceptable. I know this because my usual symptoms of stress have not been present in my life. But recently, over the last couple days, I have started to feel a low hum of stress, due to conflict at work, the New Year approaching, increased fatigue, and a busy schedule. We know that the actual stressors (the elements of someone’s life that stress them out, i.e. conflict, money problems, work issues, traffic) are different for everyone. We also know that the stress symptoms that result are different for everyone (the behavioral, emotional and mental responses to stress i.e. difficulty sleeping, sugar craving, irritability, tearfulness). My personal stress symptoms have always been pretty consistent. When I am stressed out, I do not want to exercise, I want to eat excessively, I wake up too early in the morning and can’t fall back asleep, and I lose focus on my dreams and future and am fixated on the challenges I am experiencing. Those have really always been my responses, but as I said, everyone has different symptoms of stress. I have worked with people who want to pick fights when they experience stress, and others who are consistently tearful. Other clients can’t get out of bed and their sleep increases greatly. Still others start spending excessive time exercising or spending lots and lots of money.
It would be really great if we could avoid stressors so that we could avoid stress symptoms happening at all. There are many things we can do to avoid stressors but it is not always possible. Life is sometimes very hard and other people sometimes want too much from us and we sometimes don’t have everything we need to feel comfortable. Also, things always change and that’s stressful. Just when we have a pattern or routine that works to avoid stress, something changes, (i.e. you get a different boss, you need to pay a large bill you didn’t know about, someone hits your car). When we experience too many of those stressors, we start to have stress symptoms.
I find it helpful to use the metaphor of plate tectonics. (Bear with me for a moment? I am not a scientist but I get the basic idea. For more information there is a lot of discussion of plate tectonics on the internet.) Our Earth’s surface is broken up into 7 or 8 large pieces of crust and lots of smaller pieces. These pieces are always in motion because they sit on a layer of earth that is soft due to heat. The plates move toward one another, away from one another, on top of each other. They create divides, mountains, valleys, huge cracks and volcanos. But, and here is the reason I am discussing this, the kicker is that we don’t always think about the movement until something happens on the surface. Right? We are not going about our days thinking about what the Earth’s plates are doing underneath us until it is brought to our attention by an event on the surface. Within us, the moving plates are our stressors (levels of energy, hormones, life changes, our chemical balance, and levels of nutrients), the results on the Earth’s surface are our stress symptoms. We have moving plates inside us all the time that are causing behaviors, emotions and thoughts. What we recognize is the behaviors, emotions and thoughts and what we are not accustomed to paying attention to is the moving plates.
Although it is hard work, we know that balancing our nutrients by eating healthy foods, achieving high energy by sleeping well, making smart choices in terms of work, family and money can all help to slow down our moving plates. The less the internal stressor plates move, the less disruptive, eruptive, and surprising the stress symptoms become on the outside. So, the question becomes: in recognizing that everything inside of us and outside of us is moving and changing, how can we reduce the movement?
My recommendation is to pay very close attention for that first symptom of stress. Every person has a different line up of symptoms, where each symptom gets worse and worse. We do not want to wait until our internal plates have moved so much that we are spending every night after work sitting at a bar drinking double vodkas. We want to notice the first time we get the desire/urge/craving/impulse to go to a bar the second night in a row to order double vodkas. We do not want to wait until we have gained an extra 150 lbs, but rather we want to be attending to our body and notice gaining an extra 5 lbs. We do not want to wait until we have reached a level of burnout at work where we can no longer go to work, but instead we want to be so tuned in that we can take a day off as soon as we need one.
We want to be so plugged into the workings and movements of our internal process that we can monitor the initial stressors. We must know our patterns. Questions like, what is my first symptom of stress? How does my body feel when I am stressed out? What are the stressors that really get to me? On a scale of one to ten, what is my level of stress right now? I wish I could stop by the store and get a pack of cigarettes, what might be stressing me out? These are hard questions because sometimes it is easier to avoid thinking about our stressors. We don’t want to spend time delving in deeply to the things that bother us; sometimes that can seem like very hard work. But I am encouraging you to do just that. The only way to stop the movement inside of you (that will inevitably end in an eruption) is to face it, analyze it, understand it and take action to deal with it.
We all have our own moving plates (stressors). We all have our own mountains and volcanoes that result from those moving plates (stress symptoms). We also all have the ability and opportunity to slow the moving plate tectonics down and enjoy a smooth, successful, focused and calm surface. In order to do this, we must stay on top of it, literally, by monitoring closely for those first symptoms and then immediately take action to reduce the internal heat when there is too much movement. It will be hard work initially but the payoff I promise you will be cool, still health and wellness.