Nausea. I became accustomed to the sensation as inevitable. As surely as the sun would rise every morning, I could guarantee that I was nauseous. There was hardly a distinction between being sick or not because my stomach was never fully at ease. In elementary school, I once stayed home for an entire week because of my nausea with no obvious physical cause attached to it. Sometimes unsettled, sometimes unbearable, I accepted my upset stomach as a mainstay in my life.
The older I got, the more I started to recognize the patterns of my discomfort. I tended to feel worst in the morning and better as the day went on. Stressful situations would send my stomach into a frenzy, like the first day of school, being trapped in the auditorium for an assembly, and before a test. Sometimes, I actually felt normal when I was distracted by play and activity.
Over time, I began to recognize that stress seemed uncannily linked to my more debilitating episodes of nausea. I came to expect that the first day of new classes or a presentation would be fraught with the persistent urge to vomit. I felt helpless. I resigned myself to the fact that a bad stomach was just a part of me that I would have to live with forever.
Fortunately, I was wrong. Nausea used to be a daily struggle, and now it rarely crosses my mind.
You probably already know that stress management can improve sleep and the reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. For me, there was another life-changing and unexpected benefit that I didn’t foresee. The benefit to my gut.
Maybe you also have an ongoing sickness with no identifiable cause – constant headaches, body pains, insomnia, or fatigue – that’s caused or exacerbated by stress. Maybe your stress is compounding into anxiety and depression. (Note: I am not a doctor. Consult a doctor to consider other valid causes of your symptoms.)
We’re constantly reminded of the negative effects of stress. The solution should be simple enough – get rid of our stress, right? If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you probably know that it’s not that simple.
Stress is a natural and necessary cognitive function that serves an evolutionary purpose. It’s the result of surviving in an immediate-return environment; you get hungry and you eat, you get tired and you sleep, you get scared and you run away. We largely evolved to respond to immediate threats/opportunities in this environment (which explains our penchant for instant gratification). Stress is our instinctive response to perceived threat, designed to serve our need to survive in the moment. The sensation is a function of the “fight or flight response” in the face of danger.
So why is stress, something designed to keep humans alive, now killing us? The answer is that this evolutionary trait is a mismatch to our current environment and lifestyles. We have potential sources of stress coming at us all the time: aggressive, honking drivers in a traffic jam or a deadline at work, to name a few.
As part of my path to being happy, managing stress was, and still is, a huge factor in my success. The goal is not to eliminate stress, but to work with it. It’s impossible to get rid of stress because as long as we are modern humans, we’re going to face situations that provoke it. Learning to cooperate with my response to stress is how I’ve taken control of my emotional well being.
Recognize Your Stress
The first step, as with most problems in life, is to acknowledge and understand. Where and when does your stress tend to occur? Take stock of the moments that stress you out.
Maybe you’re sitting in traffic in the morning on your way to work. Some asshole is stopping inches away from your bumper and honking. A stream of cars cuts dangerously in front of you whenever there is even the smallest amount of space. You become acutely aware of your frustration. Acknowledge the situations that stress you out and how you’re affected by them. Did your body tense up? Maybe you developed a headache. Do you feel a building anger – like you could snap at any minute? Are your thoughts racing? Can you feel your pulse accelerate?
This step might seem simple and unnecessary, but it’s important to acutely understand the situations that cause you stress and how you instinctively react to them. You can’t treat what you can’t properly diagnose. Only after you’ve examined your stress triggers and reactions can you start to manage the causes and effects.
Alter your physical state
Stress can have many debilitating physical side effects.
I’ve previously talked about the mind-body connection and how our thoughts affect us physically and vice versa. If our body can alter our state of mind, then we can fake ourselves into feeling relaxed.
Breathe. A telltale sign of distress is shallow breathing and a sign of relaxation is deep breathing. There is a reason why meditation makes use of the breath and why we tell people who are freaking out to take deep breaths. Deep breathing affects more than your air flow – it’s an instant remedy for the exaggerated physiological response to stress. When you control your breath, it signals to your body that you’re not running away from a predator or struggling to keep yourself afloat in rough waters. It tells your brain, “We aren’t in danger,” and your body responds accordingly. The really great thing about controlling your breath is that you can do it anytime, anywhere. It’s natural and extremely effective.
If you come home after a long day of work with painful muscle tension, it could be from the stress you experienced throughout the day. You’re probably tensing up unconsciously, and now you feel physically uncomfortable, which stresses you out even more. You can proactively ease the stress on your body by being mindful of how you feel and responding. Make a habit of doing check-ins during the day to assess how you feel physically.
To ease tension, close your eyes and focus on a specific part of the body – the forehead, for example. In your mind, instruct yourself to relax your forehead and you will actually feel a release of tension. This is also a technique I use from head to toe before falling asleep. Add some stretching, use a foam roller, or ask a willing participant to give you a massage.
Be mindful of your stance. Are you slouching or are your fists clenched? Relaxing your muscles and using positive body language will activate the mind-body connection and make you feel better. Meditation is a great way to relax physically and mentally, which leads us to the next strategy which is based in the concept of mindfulness.
Change your inner monologue
Once you’ve recognized your reactions to stress triggers, change the way you talk to yourself about them. Maybe you started writing an essay for class way too late and now you’re anxious that you won’t be able to complete it before the deadline. You’re stressed and probably beating yourself up about it. “I’m so stupid for procrastinating this long. What was I thinking?” Yes, this is a situation that could have been avoided. Yes, you are the cause of this stressful situation. You may have screwed up, but ask yourself this question in the face of every reaction to stress in your life:
Assess whether or not being stressed out in the moment is actually productive for you. If you’re already starting to write an essay too late for class, stressing out isn’t going to give back any of the time you lost. Being stressed out in traffic or at work isn’t going to make things easier for you. In fact, I’d say that with most of the situations in life, when a form of stress is productive, you probably don’t even have time to really think about it (i.e. eluding a predator or seeking shelter before a storm, as evolution intended it to be used). Our bodies are not meant to endure long-term stress, and it’s important to recognize this when we reason with ourselves.
Another important question to ask yourself in any situation:
“What is the worst outcome?”
If you’re about to give a presentation at work, you are probably feeling stressed and worried that you’re going to screw up. Take a step back and ask yourself what the worst possible outcome of this presentation may be and the reasonable predictability of that outcome. You could absolutely flop and start spouting off expletives while giving your boss this finger (I did say worst-case scenario). The outcome would be losing your reputation and job. But what are the chances of something that disastrous actually happening? Very, very tiny (unless you make a concerted effort). Most likely, your biggest risk is just giving a bad presentation. You may misspeak, fumble, and forget the point you’re trying to convey, but that’s not the life-ending situation that your stress has made it out to be. Even if you vomit mid-slide, will that affect your life a year from now? Even months from now?
Look back on an embarrassing or stressful situation from high school or from a year ago. Think about how much time and energy you spent worrying and beating yourself up over it. In hindsight, was it really that big of a deal? Was it irreversible? Did it have a negative impact on your life for long after? Of course, we all experience trauma in our lives, but the truth is that most of the things that we waste our time stressing about are insignificant in the long run and we don’t benefit from the stress.
Change your situation
I’ve previously discussed how inner pain can be a symptom of a personal problem over which we may or may not have control. If you have gone through the exercise of recognizing your stress and the situations that cause it, you may notice a recurring pattern of stress that you can get rid of or improve. Maybe you are in a toxic relationship or you hate your job and you feel that you’ve exhausted all of your options. Sometimes, you will have to decide whether you can remove yourself from a stress-trigger scenario.
Let’s say you have a friend who is constantly causing drama. Instead of having fun together, you constantly feel negative around her. If you’ve tried talking to your friend about her behavior and nothing seems to change, maybe you can cut the stress of dealing with her out of your life by breaking off the relationship or by resolving to interact with her less.
Be discerning with this tactic, though. You don’t want to cut everything out of your life that causes you discomfort. Weigh the value versus the cost of situations that cause you stress. Maybe the holiday season wears you thin, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should lock all your doors and hibernate through the month of December.
Have an emergency stress plan
This one might seem a little silly in theory, but there’s a reason why we have evacuation plans if there’s a fire in the house. Before we even take off on a plane, airline personnel make sure we know the basics of how to handle a crash landing. In the same way, it pays to be prepared for potentially stressful situations.
I know how important it is for productivity to take breaks throughout the day, so when I’m at the office and my to-do list seems endless, I make sure to get up and walk around, even for five minutes.
Most people have a harder time controlling their emotions when they’re hungry or tired. Make sure you get enough sleep before a client meeting. Carry around a protein bar in case you absolutely can’t get lunch and you’re starting to feel “hangry”. Be overprepared for that essay deadline or presentation.
Even on the simplest level, you can think through how you might handle a stressful situation beforehand. If you have a performance review coming up, consider how you will react if your boss offers criticism or if your bonus is less than you expected. Think of topics to dispel awkwardness at your upcoming family get-together. Start leaving five minutes earlier for work so that the traffic bothers you less.
Sometimes the difference between a stressful situation and a mildly uncomfortable one is a degree of casual preparation.
Bonus: Reframe your stress as excitement
This strategy is not applicable in all situations, which is why I’ll consider it a bonus to this list.
It turns out that excitement and anxiety manifest in nearly identical physical symptoms. The rapid heartbeat, butterflies in the stomach, and excessive perspiration afflict both the excited and anxious, so it makes sense that one could actually be confused for the other without knowing the context. A 2014 study primed participants to sing a song or give a speech by having them recite a statement. Compared to participants who said, “I am anxious,” those who said, “I am excited,” performed better and felt more positive during their experience.
Since I found out about this cognitive trick, I’ve been using it before giving presentations and going into job interviews. Much of my nervousness did seem like excitement, but it was a chicken-and-egg problem… maybe I just enjoy speaking in front of people. So I really put it to the test when I was in Costa Rica a couple weeks ago. My friends and I went on a canopy tour in Monteverde which involved ziplining, repelling, swinging, and climbing a 100+ foot tree in the forest. I don’t particularly enjoy heights and I was getting nervous, so I announced how excited I was and kept telling myself how “exhilarating” the adventure was. I ended up having an amazing time, even somehow bringing myself to climb a sketchy ladder up a huge tree.
Did I persevere because I was lying to myself about being excited? I can’t know for sure, but I do know that I’d climbed higher than I ever have before.
Stress is an unavoidable aspect of human life, but it doesn’t have to be as debilitating as we have allowed it to be. I feel sympathy for all of us – we’re living in an environment completely different from one in which stress evolved as a survival instinct. Now scenarios that have absolutely no life-or-death implications stress us out on a daily basis. Let’s focus not on oppressing our natural reactions but recognizing, understanding, and managing them in healthy ways. You’ll be surprised by just how many facets of your life will improve.
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