Stress management IS NOT the solution to stress!
I recently completed a road trip to Boise, Idaho. I love driving, and I love road trips.
For some reason, this time was different. In the days leading up to my departure I found myself waking up at night worrying about the drive. During the day I was agitated and had a hard time concentrating.
I was experiencing STRESS! Over a road trip, something I have done countless times in the past, both alone and with company.
I did what I usually do when I am anxious and fearful. I worked out, I stopped periodically during the day and did deep breathing exercises.
My agitation would settle down for a short while but would come back as strong as ever.
I know about stress, and I knew that until I identified and dealt with the cause, no matter what I did to manage the stress, it would keep coming back.
When I took a step back it all started making sense.
Normally I have good maps in the car - I had none for this trip. Furthermore, my Canadian cell plan does not work in the US, so I would have no way of getting help if I got lost or if something went wrong with my car.
I was heading out on a 2000km journey with no plan B.
When I thought about it I realized that with a roaming plan for my cell phone I would feel safe and prepared.
5 minutes at the local office of my service provider is all it took to solve the problem.
Problem solved, stress eliminated.
Stress management and stress elimination are NOT the same thing!
Exercise, yoga, deep breathing - these are all touted as the keys to stress management. “Do this and your stress will disappear” is the message.
If it was that simple, we would all be doing it and stress would be a thing of the past!
The truth is that stress management and stress elimination are two entirely different things
To understand why these commonly referred to stress management strategies are short term solutions that do not work in the long run, you have to understand what stress is.
The stress cycle
The simplest model for the stress cycle I have found is the one described by Emily and Amelia Nagoski in their book “Burnout”. It describes how our ancestors responded to a threat.
Back in our days as hunters/gatherers, our ancestors would be constantly looking out for danger. When a threat was perceived, such as a saber toothed tiger, their bodies would get into “fight or flight” mode. A series of hormones was released into their bodies with the result that only those organs and systems needed to fight effectively or run away were kept active.
Our ancestors would then have to make a choice.
Either they would run as fast as they could to the safety of the village or they would stand their ground and fight the threat and, if they won the fight, go home and celebrate their victory.
Either way, the overall result was that their body physiology would go into an aroused state, they would take some sort of action and eliminate the threat, either by defeating it or getting away from it, and eventually return to the safety of their home.
Their brain would register that the threat was eliminated and that it was safe to return the body physiology to its normal state.
Stress in today’s world.
In today’s world, we no longer face the real threat of the saber tooth tiger as we go about daily living. However, our “fight/flight” system is still active.
While the stress cycle is a valuable survival mechanism, in today’s world most of our threats are not life threatening yet our bodies respond as if they were. We go into "fight or flight" mode unnecessarily.
Sometimes the trigger is work related - perhaps we have deadlines that overwhelm us.
Sometimes the trigger is financial - our bills outweigh our income.
Sometimes the trigger is related to being a caregiver.
The possibilities are endless.
These are real problems, but they are not life-threatening.
When we focus on managing stress by getting physically active or deep breathing, all we are doing is flushing the “fight/flight” hormones out of our bodies. BUT the problem still exists - we still have deadlines at work and we still have bills to pay and we still have someone to care for. So the whole system gets triggered over and over again and we live in a constant cycle of stress-release-stress-release.
Stress management skills give you a short break from the stress cycle - but they do not solve the underlying problem. With the "fight or flight" system getting constantly triggered, your body spends most of the time in alert mode.
The situation is even worse for those who do not have stress management practices. Each time they perceive a threat their stress hormones are triggered and since their bodies never get relief, the results are cumulative.
Focusing only on stress management is simply an attempt to maintain your body in “fight/flight” mode as long as possible.
Your body is not meant to operate in that state for an extended period of time and, eventually, it “breaks down” - i.e. you experience stress related health issues.
Stress elimination starts with a mindset reset.
To eliminate stress from your life you need to start by challenging the thoughts or beliefs that are causing your brain to trigger the release of stress hormones because it perceives a problem to be life-threatening.
In the case of my drive to Boise, the thought that triggered my stress hormones was “It is not safe for me to travel with no way to call for help. What if my car breaks down in the middle of nowhere?” The fact is that my car is older and I was not sure if driving was a good idea.
When I could honestly tell myself “I can call for help”, I was no longer fearful.
By changing the thoughts and beliefs that cause you to feel anxious and afraid when facing real problems in life you can start seeing options instead of feeling stuck in your circumstances.
Stress is real and it can be eliminated.
Stress is a REAL physiological response to problems that your mind perceives to be life threatening.
Stress management is a band-aid solution to a real problem that maintains you in a heightened state and simply puts off dealing with the root problem.
Stress elimination is possible with a mindset reset, a change in the thoughts and beliefs you have about your circumstances and that keep you feeling stuck and without options.
Do you struggle with stress? Do you want to uncover the underlying issues but don't know how? Do you know the underlying issues but don't have the skills to deal with them? If you answer yes to any of these, let's talk.
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