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Ambient and Invisible Stress

Are you engulfed by ambient stress? Not sure? Think of ambient light — a kind of light that suffuses everything in its glow.

Ambient stress, of course, is much less pleasant. It is stress that is so omnipresent we don’t even notice it, until we do.

You’ve experienced ambient stress if you’ve ever:

  • Stopped for a moment and realized you’ve been holding your breath
  • Sighed for no reason
  • Had tight or clenched muscles and didn’t know why

That’s a good description of our outer weather: full of almost invisible ambient stress.

How to Deal with Ambient, Invisible Stress

It’s more than enough to deal daily with pain, medication side effects, fatigue, and all the other cascade of issues that go along with having a chronic illness.

Now we have to add another invisible factor of this constant stress.

It doesn’t matter what its roots are — the election, the pandemic, racial tension and injustice, economic and financial worries, or cultural and political fears. They all contribute to the mix.

The only real question is: How can we help ourselves during this time so we don’t absorb the stress and make our bodies take another hit?

Here are a few reminders of what you already know.

1. Stop and name it

There is power in naming the reality of what you feel. Making the invisible visible reminds you that this is a hard time, an unprecedented hard time. Feeling it and saying it out loud to yourself or a trusted other, or writing it in your journal, or drawing a picture of your feelings are all ways to express the stress, instead of absorbing it.

Say what is happening to you. Don’t judge or evaluate. Don’t compare with someone else’s stress. Your reality is true.

2. Let yourself rest

There is a curious quality that most of my patients have of doing all their daily tasks as if this were just another normal month. They work, clean their homes, pay their bills, do outside chores, exercise, and in general act “as if.” As if there isn’t a huge load of uncertainty and worry surrounding them.

This is, in a way, protective. We can’t take in the magnitude of what all this means, and we don’t even really know yet. But it also takes a toll to act “as if.”

It requires mental, physical, and emotional energy, most of which are already in short supply.

So, rest. Take an afternoon off. Go to bed way early. Sleep later. Nap when you can. Rest.

3. Remind yourself that we are in an evolving disaster — expect less of yourself

 This is a disaster that has no end in sight, and so much else has been folded into it. We can’t even count the toll yet because it is still happening. Things are Not Normal.

Remind yourself that it’s okay if you don’t know how you’re coping, or you’re not sure what’s next. You’re exhausted and frustrated. It is what is happening so let yourself off the hook.

You are doing your best, as are most people. Expect less perfection, less energy, less ease. Give yourself some room.

4. Continue to strengthen relationships

Relationships — of all kinds — are your biggest buffer against ambient stress. Relationships with people you love and enjoy. Relationships with your pets. Relationships with nature and your environment. Relationships with a neighbor or someone you see running errands — that maybe only include a socially distanced wave or nod of recognition — that forge a momentary connection.

Being in a web of belonging helps diffuse ambient stress because it reminds you that you are not in this by yourself. Write a note, make a call, offer your attention or help to someone you know. All of this deepens your bonds with others, and that nurtures hope and love.

Those are potent antidotes to ambient stress right now. I am sure you also have found ways to help yourself in these strange days. I’d love to hear your thoughts below.

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