If we clearly know the difference between our stressed selves and our relaxed/ happy selves then at least we can identify warning signs that indicate a need for ‘time out’ time.
The human body is designed to cope with crises – short term stress – that’s the old fight or flight response most of us have heard of. If a physical stressor (thing that causes stress) , like a sabre tooth tiger jumping at us in the jungle or a car doing the same thing on a road occurs, our body- minds release adrenalin and other stress chemicals that prepare our minds, muscles and joints to catapult us to safety. This is great as long as we can react in some way physically so we can burn off the massive physiological (chemical) response to the actual physical event.
These days we are not going to encounter a saber tooth tiger but life is still full of non physical stressors – (internal sabre tooth tigers)- like worries about safety, money, job security, parents, children, relationships etc. And it would be fine if the body understood the difference between a real and a vividly imagined or perceived experience. But it can’t.
So, every time we are anxious or worried we release the same chemicals as we would if we were being ‘real tiger’ attacked , although we can’t react in the same physical way. It’s not appropriate to go for a run or shout or scream!
It becomes internalized – literally stored in our bodies. Where it ‘festers’.
And now folks, for the bad news! New research is suggesting we become sensitized to stress. We might respond to stress as ‘we do to an allergy’ according to a report in Psychology Today. So that a stressful event from the past can magnify your reaction to a relatively minor stressful event in the future.
But wait – there’s more! While we are full of these stress chemicals and our whole physiology is altered, our perception of stress is the same. So we know that what we are encountering may be a normal, everyday episode of stress, but the brain is signalling the body to respond inappropriately” according to Michael Meaney a Ph D psychologist from McGill University.
What does this mean? It means we really have to pay attention to our stress levels BEFORE they become a stress level! If we wait until we feel stressed, it’s too late. So we need an army of quick stress busters that will keep our stress chemicals at bay. And we need to know when to do them.
Unfortunately, we haven’t evolved enough yet to handle long term insidious stress without burning out. We are often unaware that our base chemical stress level has reached an all time high. And has been there for five months. We are so used to it that we feel ‘normal’. We have forgotten how creative, relaxed , friendly, patient and loving we used to be.
Our friends and family remember! And remind us on a regular basis! (Which makes us even more irritable because they keep making unreasonable demands! )
They can act as stress barometers – and if we give them a code that they can use – a word, sign, symbol, song, note – something that lets us know they are noticing we are stressed, we can ask them what they see or hear - that indicates to them we are under pressure. Give them permission to gently hint (or possibly scream) to you that you need time out.
But the best method is to be self aware. To know our own body and behavioral reactions to stress. What do we notice when we are a) mildly stressed, b) unhappy, c) bordering on burn out?
Firstly the physical indicators. Find a piece of paper and draw an outline of your body. Mark on this body what you notice – and where you notice it - when you are mildly uptight, tense, stressed. It may be neck or back or joint pain – or burning, tingling, tightness, stiffness, heaviness, dragging, discomfort or pulling. Your hair may fall out. Your digestion may be impaired or appetite affected. Your vision may change. Your posture may slump. Headaches, heart palpitations or racing, sweaty palms, skin problems, nail biting, asthma, low grade sickness (flu, sinus, colds etc) , eye twitches, blank minds, a ‘knot’ in your stomach , constant fatigue, waking up tired after a good sleep, not sleeping well, crying for no reason are all potentially stress related signs.
Now, draw similar diagram for your body’s sensations when you are under a lot of pressure. What appears on the first diagram are what you believe to be the first warning signs your body gives you that you are stressed. They are in fact, usually warning signs number 973! By the time you notice any one of these there will have been 973 previous , milder versions! These are the ones to keep an eye , ear and nose out for!
This time, make a list of the thinking and behavioral things that will tell you that you are stressed. At a time like this, do you have a ‘short fuse’; or mood swings ; do you feel unhappy; angry; irrational; depressed; anxious; nervous; negative; are you lacking in confidence; have low self esteem? Are you irritable; procrastinating; snapping at people; losing your temper; uncreative; impatient; easily frustrated; taking longer to do simple tasks; unable to think clearly and /or completely drained? Has your memory gone? Are you grinding your teeth? Tapping your fingers a lot?
What are you saying to yourself at this time? What are key or trigger words for you to become stressed. Is what you are saying to yourself the truth? In perspective? Appropriate? Are you being kind to yourself with your words?
Become an ‘inner travel agent’ – be familiar with the differences between your mild, moderate and severe stress signs so you can accurately gauge your level. Keep your awareness of one or two indicators from each category high, and pay attention to them immediately you notice them. Develop a routine where you take stock every hour – or every time the phone rings, or you sit in the car. Take the appropriate steps to bring you back to balance.
Identify your non-stressed indicators
How do you know you are balanced? This is probably more important then knowing what happens when you are stressed. This gives you a target, a goal for which to strive. Ask your partner, children and friends to describe your behavior when they thought you were really relaxed and happy. Find photographs of these times.
Then make a list of what you think you behaved like, thought like and felt at times when you can remember feeling relaxed, calm and unstressed. Put the photos and description on a wall (or walls, or mirrors) somewhere to remind you of the base line! The best wall in the house for this may be the toilet! Where you see it every day. I hope.