Why We Need More Than Stress Management Right Now

Before I headed into the field of mental health and eventually clinical social work, I was an actuarial analyst.  During that time, my amazing employer had a class on stress management (among other things).  It was my first experience of anything that addressed mental and emotional wellness.  It was great at the time.  I learned some basic tools for handle typical levels of stress.  It would have even worked had I been experiencing typical levels of stress.  But during that time in my working life I was either working or studying for the intense actuarial exams required by my profession.  The level of stress that created for me was anything but typical.  I needed more.

I think it is safe to say that right now life is more intense than usual - we are into year two of the pandemic, still wrestling with social justice issues (which to be fair some have been dealing with their entire life they are just more on the forefront than they used to be for some of us), dealing with a country divided, and all of it is wearing on us.

The thing is, stress management tends to focus on basic self-care.  I am the queen of self-care and yet until I figured out what else I needed, it wasn’t enough.  AND, while we do need self-care, often times it becomes just one more thing we feel like we need to do.

So after reading, writing, listening to podcasts, and listening to others, here is what I’ve come up with.

Yes, we need self-care.  But we also need:

✔️  Community care

✔️  To complete the stress cycle

✔️  Space to grieve

✔️  Emotion regulation

✔️  To feel positive emotions (such as joy, humor, and hope)

✔️  To address the underlying stressors both in and out of our control

✔️  Self-advocacy for the more systemic stressors

✔️  Realistic workloads

✔️  Support, debriefing, and supervision/consultation at work

✔️  Promotion of self-care at work (including allow time and space for it)

… and more.  The challenge is, so many of us feel so tired and burned out we don’t know where to start or have the energy to do it.

I’ve learned and was recently reminded of a couple of things about that:

1.  We have to start small.  Stupid small.  Like so small it almost feels not worth it - except it is because it’s about building the habit or thing that will help you feel better.

2.  We need community support - fellow travelers on the journey if you will but also support from our loved ones in the form of encouragement but also shared duties, and real support at work that allows space for us to be human at this challenge time.

3.  We need to say “no” to make space for this which may mean working through fear of someone being mad at us. 

Each of these topics could be an entire article in and of itself.  So rather than make this one tl;dr*, I’ll start with the first thing I think we need:

Completing the stress cycle.

Picture a tiger spying a gazelle. The gazelle sees the tiger and flees - the gazelle's fight or flight response (ON GUARD) has turned on to help the gazelle survive as the tiger chases it. We know a gazelle can't outrun a tiger (and certainly can't fight one off). So eventually, the gazelle tires and can't keep running (fleeing), so its system shuts down (GIVING UP) and it plays dead. Its heart and breathing rates decrease, pain signals for both physical and emotional pain are dulled, and it lies there appearing dead. In some cases, as the tiger approaches it, believing it is dead or at least maimed, the tiger will run off briefly to get its family to also feed on the tiger. However, when the tiger goes away, the gazelle pops up and runs away to safety, thus completing the fight or flight response instead of being some tiger family's lunch.

But what about with us humans?

Well, even if we aren’t facing mortal danger, we face “invisible tigers**” all the time.  And our nervous system doesn’t know the different between an actual tiger (or life threat) and perceived danger (invisible tiger).  That is, our body doesn’t know the difference between the danger of a murderer chasing us and the nasty comment we just received on social media or from a coworker.  It just responds to danger.

So, when our fight or flight (ON GUARD) response gets triggered by perceived danger (i.e., real tiger or not), we get the same flood of chemicals preparing us to fight or flee.  The problem is, our lives are pretty sedentary and if we don’t do anything to use that energy, those chemicals sent to us it build up over time.  And this is a big problem.  Why?

If we do not complete the fight or flight response all of the energy from it gets stuck in the body and builds up over time.  One way this shows up is anxiety. Another is depression. Another is digestive issues. And still another is illness. Basically, our body can't function the way it was intended with all of that stress so we tend to hang out in our sympathetic nervous systems (ON GUARD), our dorsal vagal shutdown response (GIVING UP), or bouncing between the two.

There is good news though.  We can complete the stress cycle now.

The most efficient way to do this is through regular movement - yes exercise (which can be dancing, hiking in nature, playing Just Dance, kickboxing, Zumba, Barre, cycling, swimming, walking, or really just about any movement you can get yourself to do).  How much?  At least 30 minutes of movement per day helps rid of of the day’s stressors.

What if there is just no way you are going to get yourself to move 30 minutes per day? 

First, I would definitely recommend working on it since movement helps in so many ways.  However, here are three more things you can try (there are others too):

❦  Breathing***

Okay, we’ve all heard this one before, but the reason we have is because it works. Try taking a slow breath in and a long breath out all the way to the end until your abdominals contract. An option I like is to do movement with the breath as in Volcano Breathing (a technique from Yoga Calm); check out my YouTube Channel to try it out with me.

❦  Positive Social Interaction

As humans, we are wired to connect. When we are around other humans, particularly those with whom we feel safe (especially when they are relatively calm), we can co-regulate with them - that is, if they are calm we can feel calm by being around them. So whether it is your kids, your pet, your partner, your parents, coworkers, or your local barista, have a positive social interaction (in person, not just online or texting) to complete the stress cycle and calm your body.

❦  Laughter

Uncontrollable, ridiculous, full-bellied laughter (no fake laughter here) is what we’re going for, or even reminiscing with someone about a time you laughed like that. This is a great and fun way to complete the stress cycle and regulate your body.

Give it go.  See you if you can get in some movement, breathing, positive social interaction, or full on laughter into your days and notice how you feel.

Stay tuned for future posts about the other pieces we need right now for dealing with these challenging times.

Want more?  Here are ways to learn more to help you calm your body, build resilience, and live fully and freely:

SUBSCRIBE:  Subscribe to my YouTube Channel for calming practices as well as a number of 15 minute gentle, seated yoga practices.  No experience required.  https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCJTv1nROlRd2Li7vugYN_GA

LEARN:  For weekly tips delivered straight to your email on topics like calming your body, burnout and resiliency, behavior change that works, boundaries, and more, join me here:  https://www.pathwaysuniversitymn.com/email-optin

READ:  Feeling run down, drained, frustrated with work, and like you are not getting what you want to out of your job anymore?  Maybe you've even noticed that you've stopped caring.   You may be experiencing Burnout. Access the FREE Guide Stop Burnout In Its Tracks.  https://www.pathwaysuniversitymn.com/stop-burnout


* tl;dr means “too long didn’t read”, which I really think speaks to our level of overwhelm and the sense that we are pressed for time

**  Peter Levine uses the term Invisible Tigers to describe things or beings in the human environment that our nervous systems perceive as dangerous thus putting us on guard. 

*** NOTE: If you have a history of complex trauma, sometimes breathing techniques don’t resonate.  If that’s the case, one option is to invite the breath in and notice it.


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