Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and writer who specializes in helping clients—as well as their family members and professional caregivers—deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
You’ve heard all the usual advice about “getting rid” of your stress. I sure have. Along with all those “stress-buster” techniques that promise to help us get rid of all that stress.
So, how’s your stress been? Have you busted it yet?
I am all for those techniques that promise to help us cope with day-to-day stress. They can help a lot. But I do have a concern about the idea that stress is an enemy that has to be busted.
After all, stress is a part of life. To assume that we can somehow rid our lives of stress isn't very realistic. There is too much going on in the world—and in our daily lives—not to experience some stress. In other words, maybe we need to learn to stop fighting stress and figure out how to live with it.
So does that mean we're all supposed to walk around feeling stressed out all the time? Definitely not.
Consider this: Feeling stressed about feeling stressed just leads to more stress. Here’s a mindfulness approach to living with stress.
Start by taking a step back. When you feel those feelings that tell you stress is coming at you—sweaty palms, shallow breathing, out-of-control emotions, or whatever your stress symptoms are—imagine yourself observing your stress instead of participating in it. As if you were watching a TV show with you as the star. In other words, pay attention to yourself.
Handling your stress starts with accepting that stress is part of life. If you make stress a battle to be fought, you create a battle inside of yourself. “Go away, stress. I will fight you to the finish!” All that fight leads to more stress.
Invite your stress to come in for a chat. Instead of slamming the door on stress, and either pretending it isn't there or using another stress-busting technique to “battle” it, get to know your stress. You can do this by asking yourself questions such as: What’s going on here? What’s bothering me? Am I not getting what I expected? Trying to change something that I can’t change? Tired of living with something that I don't want to live with (like my chronic condition)? Stress can be a wake-up call to what’s working and not working in your life. Listen and learn.
With acceptance as the starting place, you are in the position of power. Why? Because acceptance opens the door to understanding what you can't control, so that you can focus your attention on what you can control. As the saying goes, it is what it is. Now, what can I do to take better care of myself?
1. Find your own way to live with your stress. Have you latched onto a technique that may not work for you and tried to force it to work? “Breathe! Come on! Breathe!” Yup, more stress. Have a toolbox of techniques for helping yourself get through those times when you need some help in managing stress. Not sure how to do that? Ask yourself: How do I experience stress? Where do I feel it? How does it affect me? With that in mind, consider the stress techniques that are targeted toward your own stress symptoms.
2. Treat the cause and not just the symptoms. Take a look at what you can—and can't—do about what’s stressing you out. Are there some changes you need to make in your life?
3. Be proactive. While we can't always avoid situations that might cause stress, we can make sure that we are as prepared as possible. How are you doing with your self-care regimen? How is the balance in your life? Getting the support you need?
Stress isn’t going anywhere. But it doesn’t have to knock you over when it shows up. Pay attention to yourself. Keep your foundation strong. Take good care of yourself.