Let’s take a moment to understand the purpose of stress. Stress is our bodies call to action. We’ve identified a risk or danger and our body responds with a chemical release of hormones that prime our body for a flight, fight or freeze reaction.
This is brilliant if we’re in the proverbial forest and a bear jumps out to attack us but what happens if we’re not in the forest and there’s no bear? Well, we find ourselves suspended in this defensive mode constantly primed and on edge. This reactive response gradually exhausts our minds and bodies, depletes our adrenal resources and initiates the long-term mental, physical & emotional health implications associated with chronic stress.
But let’s be clear, stress itself is not a bad thing. It’s a survival instinct that is designed to protect and save us. What we’re lacking is the ability to use this instinct when risk or danger actually exists not simply to survive the challenges of our everyday. By adopting a conscious mindset to our triggers we have the ability to replace primal reaction with preventative actions.
Control the controllable & let go of what’s not
Let’s go back to the bear and the forest. You can’t control the bear and its actions towards you but what you can control is:
- going into the forest at all,
- what you’re equipped with when you’re in there,
- an escape plan to use in the event a bear attacks.
There are always actions that are in YOUR control that can reduce or eliminate a stressful situation from occurring. You could not go into the forest in the first place or you could enter with a gun so you’re in a better position to defend yourself. Or you could anticipate the attack and devise a Macgyver-style-super-amazing-flawless escape plan that’d have you totally confident in saving your skin from a hairy-beary situation.
What can you control?
You can control your response.
You can accept accountability & responsibility.
You can prepare, analyse & strategize.
You can understand yourself, your influence, motivations and limitations.
You can be aware of your influence and its impact on a situation.
You cannot control others, their reactions and sometimes even the situation. Realise you cannot control EVERYTHING! Actually, you can’t control anything much at all except yourself. But knowing where your limits are can remove the helplessness that arises when you feel like a victim to circumstance. It also reduces the pressure (and stress!) of trying to do it all.
If it’s not in your sphere of responsibility and control then let it go. Don’t beat yourself up for this as ‘letting go’ is not the same as giving up! Letting go is understanding what doesn’t serve or belong to you and being at peace with that.
By letting go of what isn’t yours to control you’ll free up your mental load and stop wasting resources on trying to fix or plan for things that you cannot change.
Plan your strategy
Once you’re clear with what’s left on your plate you can perform risk assessments and identify actions to reduce or eliminate your potential exposure to risk or danger. Reducing this exposure reduces our stress response. We don’t need to be constantly primed for action because we’ve prepared a contingency plan for action – when it’s required.
The bear analogy is great for explaining stress but isn’t reflective of the sources of everyday stresses. So let’s consider a realistic stress trigger. What happens when you’ve lost your keys and you’re late for work? How does it feel when you look at the overwhelming amount of to-dos on your list? Now, ask yourself what can YOU do about them? Would setting your alarm earlier and having a single location for your keys to live- in prevent that scenario from occurring? Would prioritising, setting realistic deadlines, delegating or negotiating items on your to-do list make it more manageable?
It’s all about planning your responses and actions so can act instead of react.
Understand your ‘needs’ and schedule them in
What’s important to you…like REALLY important? If you’ve done some values exercises you’ll be quite clear on this but if you haven’t then ask yourself what gives you joy, purpose & satisfaction? What makes you get up in the morning? What can you not live without? These are your ‘needs’ which drive all that you do. Unfortunately, in our crazy busy world, we are so busy doing all we ‘should’ do that we forget to make time for what we ‘need’ to do.
When we aren’t addressing our ‘needs’ we recognise they’re at risk and we may lose them, and stress calls out to us “Danger, danger, we need to protect this important thing!” It’s not always an in your face, fully-amped stress response it can appear as a nagging discontent.
You do have control over these ‘needs’ and you can create an action plan to eliminate the risk and it’s in the form of your schedule. Appreciate these are your priorities and schedule your time around them. You will never find the time you need for them so you MUST create the time. Put them on the calendar, consider them non-negotiable and work around them. Again, you’ve circumvented the stress response by recognising the cause and putting a preventative measure in place.
Remove yourself from the stress source
Get out of the forest. Unplug the phone. Cancel that event. Go on holiday. Physically or virtually removing yourself from a stressful situation is a necessity. This is about creating an opportunity to reset which we can’t do when we’re still eyeballing the bear.
This tip is often met with an eye-roll, chuckle and “yeah right, if only it was that easy!”. I totally understand that response… I may have actually been the person doing just that not so long ago. It’s not easy to walk away, even for a little bit. It activates all our fears of missing out, failing, being caught unaware and letting people down.
But consider the bigger fear of what can happen if you don’t. Think about the real dangers of chronic stress, anxiety and burnout you’re exposing yourself too. What would be the impact on you and your family? What would happen if you were too sick to work? What happens if you fall asleep behind the wheel?
Now while we’re considering potential scenarios and their impact let’s really delve into what would happen if any of those things did occur. Would things outside of a stress source go on without us? The answer is always yes. Life always moves on if we’re in it or not. Perhaps not as smoothly but everything around us doesn’t stop if we choose too.
So when thinking of all the reasons why you can’t remove yourself from the source of stress. Consider this choice: do you leave and things are imperfect, undone but continue on or do you stay and suffer the longterm ongoing negative impact on yourself and loved ones. Perhaps it is that easy after all.
Finally, it doesn’t have to be forever, just enough time to rejuvenate, rest & break the action/reaction cycle.
Stress, yes it’s part of our lives but it is was designed to help us not hurt us. Most of us are no longer exploring forests anymore but we’re living like bears are hiding behind every corner and our adrenaline-fueled brains are too pumped to recognise the ridiculous of this. We need to step back, regroup and strategise our approach to the world we now live in.
The first step is recalibrating our mindset and I hope you’ve felt this article a good place to start with that. I’d love to hear your feedback!