Stress has been on my mind. Clients come in and sigh as they tell me how much stress they are dealing with. And they are – it’s not an exaggeration. Daily life is full of hassles: a car that needs repair when you can’t take the time for it, a boss who wants what she wants now, lines at the grocery, decisions that can’t wait, friends and family who want attention and care when the emotional well is dry. Add the weight of chronic illness and the stress can be overwhelming.
But what exactly is stress? More importantly, if it is so much a part of life, how do we deal with it?
Kelly McGonigal is a psychologist who teaches at Stanford University. She has studied stress, and come up with an unusual hypothesis. She makes the counter-intuitive claim that stress is can work to our benefit, and provides some needed gifts in life.
In her book, The Upside of Stress, she begins by reminding her readers that “stress” is a word we use so often, and for so many things that it becomes almost meaningless. We use it to describe being overwhelmed, being fatigued, being sad, frustrated or ill. What she discovered though is that is part of the gift of stress. In her definition, “stress arises when something you care about is at stake.” She makes a good case that stress is only experienced in relationship to something that is meaningful to us.
Think about your life – when do you feel or describe being stressed? When you feel late – because an appointment is important? When you feel unable to do something you promised because you are in pain? When are the places of most stress?
Now what she invites us to do is to embrace the stress. By accepting it, we begin to change the way we think about it – which in turn changes the way we experience it.
I worked on McGonigal’s three- part process with my client Ruth. Ruth is the mother of three, and lives with RA that is partly under control. She works part time as a librarian, which doesn’t sound stressful until I realized how much public relations work she was doing with dissatisfied patrons, the effort of her demanding boss, and the frustrations of new technology.
When I suggested that thinking differently about her stress could help, Ruth was skeptical. “Just changing my way of talking about being stressed will make it better?” she questioned. “How can that be?”
Together we reviewed the first step – Notice your own stress mindset. This meant reflecting on how you think and talk about being stressed. One of Ruth’s favorite phrases to herself was: “I can’t handle another minute of this.” She said it so often it was her mantra when anything happened. She also had a way of sighing whenever anything was asked of her and responding with “Really? Again?” Sometimes she even said this out loud.
These were the first two habitual responses she recognized, and over the next three weeks she found more. All of this created Ruth’s “stress mindset.” The result of her beliefs and reactions was that she consistently gave herself the message that she couldn’t cope, and didn’t have the resources she needed. We explored what happened in her body when she told herself she couldn’t cope with one more thing. It wasn’t good – she could feel the tension: her shoulders tightened, her jaw clenched, and her energy plummeted.
This was the first step of how to be curious and mindful about her thinking about her stress.
I encourage you to do the same – begin to notice how you think and talk to others about stress. Remember your body hears everything you think and say!
In my next column I’ll look at the next steps to create a mindset that can serve you.