“Help! I’m stressed and not coping”.
The myth that stress is bad for us still abounds. I personally think toxic shame is much worse. But stress in its various forms, such as fear, worry, discomfort and anxiety, is part of life. So long as we are not swamped with chronic stress that we are unaware of, stress is important and helpful. At any rate, stress is inevitable. So, it helps to adopt a friendly attitude towards stress. This improves our capacity to handle it.
How can I improve my capacity to handle stress?
The starting point is to develop the compassionate observing mind. Most children and young people are not taught how to observe their minds and feelings, which is a shame because it’s crucial for stress tolerance. The observing mind is about paying attention to our feelings and thoughts without getting too caught in them. This is the opposite of letting thoughts and feelings snowball until we are panicked, depressed, or exhausted.
As therapists, we use many tools to help clients boost their powers of observation. As they talk about a stressful situation in their life, we might ask them to slow their breathing and then to scale their feeling from 1 to 10 (from calm to worst in memory). You can scale feelings such as stress, anger, fear, sadness, or even confidence in yourself. Scaling your feelings forces you to observe them dispassionately. You are also reminded that feelings change; they come and go. Journal writing is another method. I sometimes use a guided meditation, such as the famous “Leaves on a Stream” exercise.
By becoming the observer of your thoughts, feelings and sensations, you break the trance of emotional reactivity and suffering. From a more detached vantage point, you can make the most of other coping strategies such as relaxation techniques, changing your thoughts, or drawing on social-emotional support from friends, family, or support groups.
Stress can grow us: The lobster analogy
Stress is our body trying to give us something. Maybe it is helping us to rise to a challenge. Maybe is it telling us to ask for help. Maybe it is telling us to slow dow and take stock.
My favourite analogy is about how lobsters grow. As a lobster grows, its shell becomes confining and the lobster feels uncomfortable and under pressure. It goes under a rocky shelf to protect itself, casts off its shell and produces a new one. As it grows, that shell becomes uncomfortable, and so it goes back under the rocks. It repeats this several times. The stimulus for the lobster to grow is that it feels uncomfortable. Times of stress are signals for growth. The old way of being, thinking or acting is not working any more and we need to change something. But if we are not willing to feel uncomfortable, we will not change, and we will suffer from chronic stress and be thwarted in our growth.
Moreover, for the lobster to grow it must make itself vulnerable. When it first emerges from the old shell, its new shell is soft and offers little protection. It takes many hours for its new shell to harden. Just like the lobster, both stress and vulnerability are key ingredients for our growth.
I sometimes say to clients: therapy is about growing your capacity for healthy vulnerability. A willingness to embrace the vulnerability of stress and discomfort makes us grow. Just as our muscles need physical stress to grow, our minds need a certain amount of mental stress to grow.
Reinterpret stress to embrace it
We have all become comfort addicts. Life has become too comfortable and too easy in the 21st century compared to humans elsewhere and throughout history. But comfort is not always good, just as stress is not always bad.
Our culture encourages us to pursue good feelings and avoid difficult ones. So we learn that feeling bad must be bad. I’ve said to clients: “Feeling bad does not = ‘It is bad’ or ‘I am bad’. It only feels that way”. But how can we experience the truth of this if we are not even willing to feel uncomfortable? Pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones reminds us that no feeling is final and that we do indeed have a natural ability to cope with stress. We remember that we can actually tolerate bad feelings, scary feelings, and stressful feelings. They are only feelings, no matter how big.
I still love the saying: “Do one thing every day that scares you”. Even if it is just taking a cold shower (which is good for your mental health).
Use stress to wake up and slow down
When I get stressed, I get an opportunity to deal with myself. If I can slow down and calm myself (pause-observe-breathe-pull back), I increase my ability to respond rather than react. We all know that effective communication has a slower pace than aggressive communication. Good decision-making has a slower pace than reactive decision-making. Clear thinking has a slower pace than anxious thinking.
When I can recognise I feel stressed and slow everything down, I can cope with anything, within myself or my life. Everything gets better: relationships, parenting, work and my own mental health.
I have supported clients who were scared to leave jobs or marriages because they were scared of the pain and the stress. But when they embraced (or at least tolerated) the stress of it, drew deep on their courage, and connected to their core values and needs, they found their true power and a potential to flourish. Stress is normal; it’s human.
So, make a decision that you are willing to have stress, fear and discomfort in the service of becoming a wiser, stronger and more resilient person.