Stress, or being on "high alert" isn't necessarily bad-- it is our body's stress response to help protect us from perceived threat. This is an excellent system that has contributed to humans' ability to survive through millenia--yet on overdrive it can cause anxiety.
What is worry? How is it connected to anxiety?
Worry is our brain's attempt to manage this high alert system. It is the mental process of attempting to plan ahead or control our actions projecting into the future. We worry because we have higher level brain processes that can plan and keep images in our brains over extended time. This is a wonderful trait--it contributes to our ability to problem solve complex issues and be able to recount stories and memories. Yet the flip side is that we can retain images--painful past memories--in addition to projecting "what ifs" into the future in an attempt to stave off potential pain, discomfort, or threat to our connection or safety.
What does this look like? It looks like worrying excessively, it looks like turning ideas over and over in your thoughts, it looks like being "on edge", it looks like tension residing in your neck and shoulders or jaw. When we know we are safe and secure, when we know we aren't actually under threat, yet we still have these stress responses, it is time to intervene, lest we get sick or our stress becomes chronic.
How can we start to stave off these stress responses? Here are 5 ways we can start.
1: Become Conscious
When we become conscious of our stress--this is always step one. What does stress look like for you? Perhaps it shows up in your relationships, having difficulty communicating your needs, or obsessing over someone's recent comment that probably was meant to be helpful but you question it over and over. Perhaps it shows up in your body--with physical symptoms of gastrointestinal distress, or grinding your teeth at night. Perhaps it shows up with insomnia, or feeling irritable, or even having some anger outbursts that aren't like you.
When we begin to notice our stress signals, we start with the body.
Start with the body.
2: Mindfulness 101
Our bodies are the first line of defense against stress, and the first line of offense against it. So take a deep inhale...3...4...5.. and have a nice, long out breath....5...6..7..8... When we have extended out breaths, it tells our bodies that our stress response is not needed and helps put online our parasympathetic nervous system--or relaxation response.
3: Thought Connections
Awareness of how our bodies are acting in stress is just the beginning--next, it is helpful to start to understand how our thoughts are connected to our bodies. Notice what is happening in your thoughts when you stop and become an observer. Is there worry? Is there fear? What perhaps are you concerned about? Become an observer that is non-judgmental and compassionate--pretend you're your best friend, right there inside your head: "Oh, you're worried about your speech at your meeting tomorrow. Let's take a nice long bath after you go over it just one more time."
4: Initiate Balanced Thoughts
Notice when worry crops up when you are in a relaxed state. Perhaps your worries become loud when it is quiet as you lay down to sleep. Try this interveniton--before heading to bed, write down your worries, and all the (often irrational) thought associate with it.
For instance, if you're worried about the speech at work, write down what you're worried about "the boss hating it, they don't like the material, I totally choke, etc etc." When you're done, write more rational responses that are balanced thoughts. (This balanced thought handout can be helpful for this activity.) Some balanced thoughts could be "if I stumble in my speech, I'll recover fine because I know the material well" or "I trust my preparation and will do my best." If it is helpful get your "inner best friend" involved when writing these thoughts, do so!
5: Put a Lid on It
When you are done with your journaling, close the journal and put it away on a shelf, ideally out of the bedroom. Tell yourself that your thoughts and worries remain in that journal and will not be welcome as you move towards bedtime. If they show up as you lay down to sleep, imagine your thoughts leaving your brain and moving back into the journal--or a box or chest that has a heavy lid or lock on it, and "leave" it there. Imagine physically "clearing" your mind this way.
Bonus: Start with Self Compassion
When we are grateful and in a state of self-compassion, we leave little room for anxiety and worry to take over. Our brains are not wired to hold both love and fear in the same moment. When we are in fear, we lose grip on the bigger picture. Yet when we are grateful and nurture self-love, we are able to release outcome in a compassionate way, and release irrational control over the future. Try the RAIN technique in this video below.
When we are in chronic stress, we live lives with blinders on. We can't see the "first for the trees" and instead have an increased stress response that is physical in nature that not only can make us ill but eliminates ability to be creative, make genuine connections, and have access to joy and love. When we become aware of our stress reactions, we can reclaim our bodies, as well as feel confident to move forward, more resilient than ever.
PS. Free consults--reach out if you need further guidance to get your stress in check!