Managing stress is my number one strategy for being happy, healthy, and creative. It’s my long-term plan for healthy aging and what keeps me sane in a chaotic world.
Let’s start with what I actually mean by “managing” stress. I’m not talking about avoiding it altogether. As if! While I do make targeted efforts to minimize external stressors (by saying no to voluntary tasks that don’t bring me joy and being mindful about the amount of sensory stimulation I expose myself to), it’s not possible to avoid it completely. Certain kinds of stress, such as some challenges and physical exercise are even beneficial.
I’m also not talking about tropical vacations or spa days. These may or may not be helpful in managing stress, but they are too few and far in between to be relied upon. If you experience stress on a daily basis, you need a tool in your back pocket ready to go at all times.
What I am talking about is working with the stress that occurs in your life to prevent the potential damaging effects on your body and psyche. It’s not so much the stress itself that’s the problem, but the way your body instinctively responds to it, specifically via the fight, flight, freeze, or fawn (or the 4 Fs) mechanism. When you get stuck in a perpetual state of hyperawareness and survival, you’ve got all the ingredients necessary for chronic pain, fatigue, tension, anxiety, depression, illness, and burnout.
Why? When your primitive brain perceives a threat, it responds by preparing to run away, attack, hide, or … (insert other survival strategy that would have made sense to a cave dweller, but is not so much helpful to a modern day person) to survive. It deliberately shunts life force energy to the extremities, the heart and lungs, and senses. Digestion, detoxification, cellular repair, elimination, fertility, sexuality, focus, clarity, creativity, and all systems that are not essential in a crisis go offline. It’s not a problem when this happens occasionally, but many of us live in this state of having nearly all our energy usurped for action that never actually occurs.
Learning how to activate your body’s natural antidote to the 4Fs will allow you to experience more ease, vitality, joy, and peace despite outer circumstances. You can learn to become the eye of the hurricane rather than reacting to every dumpster fire that those around you might be starting, fanning, or lamenting. (I’d enjoy having more company here in the eye of the hurricane! There’s plenty of room for you in here.)
Popular culture would have us believe that turning to alcohol, comfort foods or social media is such a remedy. This is a myth. While there’s nothing wrong with mashed potatoes, wine or Instagram, in general, these are tools for distracting ourselves and have absolutely zero impact (make that zero positive impact) on how your body metabolizes stress hormones. They might make you feel better for a quick minute, but the 4Fs remain unchanged.
Instead, I’m inviting you to try something different. Something somewhat radical. Something that will actually help you feel better, not just feel less.
- Notice. The first step is paying attention to your inner landscape, so that you can recognize when one of the 4Fs gets activated. This means slowing down, tuning in, and developing a relationship with yourself so that you can recognize when the survival urges kick in. I’ve yet to meet anyone who learned this growing up, so it will take a bit of practice. Believe me, having access to this early warning system is immensely beneficial.
- Breathe. Breathing into your belly and gently extending your exhales sends a signal to the nervous system that you are safe. Adding an audible sigh is even more potent. Unless you’re in a business meeting, that is! Getting fired is unlikely to help your stress level.
- Shake. This is what animals do in nature, but generally we humans are too self-conscious to allow this impulse to manifest. It might not be appropriate in the situation you find yourself in, but as soon as possible, make your way to a private space, such as the restroom, and shake it out. Start with jazz hands, turn it up, let that movement spread to your arms, into your shoulders, neck and head. Let it flow down into the hips, let your knees jiggle, and and maybe lift and lower your heels, letting them thump on the floor. Keep breathing and keep shaking as long as time allows or until you feel a shift in your body.
Once you’ve turned off the alarm bells, it’s much easier to move to the next stage: prevention. Now that you have a strategy in place for dealing with stress in urgent situations, I’d suggest a follow-up; creating a daily practice to build up your resilience, a preventative strategy to minimize the amount of time you need to recover from an activated 4F situation. There are lots of ways to do this, and the only “right” way is the one that works for you and is enjoyable enough to keep you coming back.
Massage, Reiki, meditation, mantra, yoga and nature are tools that give me tremendous benefit. You might already have some tools ready to go or a list of things in your head that you’ve heard about and would like to try. Once you get out of the chronic survival mode that 21st century living seems to inspire, you’ll have a much better chance of following through and implementing any plan you make.
If your plate is overflowing and you just want to lie back and receive some nourishment and healing, that’s exactly what I do for my clients. Reiki and gentle massage are both incredible remedies for chronic 4F activation. You could schedule a remote Reiki treatment from anywhere in the world or a Reiki-massage or in-person Reiki in Philadelphia if you’d like some support managing stress and moving beyond survival mode. Or get on the mailing list to be informed about upcoming classes and learn how to heal yourself with Reiki.