Stress. It’s something that every living being experiences. From animals to plants to humans, stress is a part of life on this planet. A zebra experiences stress when a lion springs from the bushes: that rush of adrenaline and cortisol that fuel the instinct to flee keeps the zebra alive for another day. A plant in the garden experiences stress when the weather is hot and windy or cold and too damp: the resiliency that is built due to these conditions helps the plant to thrive when conditions evolve. Much like in the zebra’s story, a human can experience stress when life is physically threatened whether that threat comes via a gunman, a grizzly bear or an icy road. The heart races, palms get sweaty and all we can think about is the crisis at hand. We react. And that reaction to a life or death threat is necessary for survival in such cases.
However, in our modern societies today, we generally experience significantly less life or death stress than our hunter/gatherer ancestors did. For most of us, stress arises when we perceive a situation to be stressful and when we let our perception hijack our response. There are challenges galore in a human life – that goes without saying. Schedules are tight, communications with loved ones or colleagues or neighbors are strained or non-existent, traffic is bad and there are too many bills to pay. But are they life or death situations? Usually not. Yet they often trigger the same fear or stress response: Our hearts race, palms get sweaty and all we can think about is the crisis at hand. We react. But in this case, our reaction is not helping us to survive: in fact, it might even be causing damage to our health in the form of elevated blood pressure, chronic tension headaches or inability to get quality sleep. In today’s modern culture, particularly in the corporate workforce, values of more, better, faster have invited everything from chronic stress to burnout to a general disliking of Mondays. When we view the world as an emergency room, our stress levels soar. But when we can really see what’s going on, we regain a sense of control and peace.
So, how do we really see what’s going on?
1. We identify our purpose.
In the realm of health and wellness, we talk a lot about what makes well-being important in a human life. We know that figuring out what we value and living in alignment with those things makes a difference in changing our ways for the better. We ask others what makes losing weight something worth pursuing, how striving for better communication will enhance the day and what eating more vegetables might mean for the big picture. We ask what makes living in a way that puts health in a priority spot on the great “to do” list something that matters. We plant the seeds and sometimes even have the privilege of watching them sprout and grow into something beautiful. And if we’re lucky, we are reminded of our own purpose and vision that informs what we do every day.
2. We notice the stories we tell ourselves.
Have you even noticed that you have a running commentary going in your mind pretty much all the time? In mindfulness/meditation, participants are taught to step outside those continuous thoughts and observe them, without judgment. It’s harder than it sounds, as anyone who has tried it knows. But when we can get to a place where we can see the stories we tend to tell ourselves, we can start to take control of the story. We can even start to become the author. We can remember that we have the capacity to choose how we perceive what is happening in our lives, and we can claim the power that resides in that knowing.
3. We let go of anything that isn’t true.
And with all of these stories that we tell ourselves, as we claim ownership, we can let go of the parts are simply aren’t true for us. Maybe they were true once, but we can start to recognize that our stories aren’t set in stone and that we have the capacity to adapt and even start a new chapter if we want to. We can start to let go the fear of whatever illusions are marring our version of truth and revel in the peace that comes from living from the place that truly aligns with who we are.
Moral of the story? Don’t give away your power to stress. Own your story. When we can do that, we can actually be our best selves.