A few weeks back, I shared with you that many people will receive the advice from their health care practitioners at some point in their health journey to “reduce stress”. But what does that actually mean, to “reduce stress”? Is it just saying sayonara to our lives as we know them, moving to an island, and never looking back?
For some of us, maybe! But for many of us, it will look more like changing the WAY in which we RELATE to the life we are living, right here, right now. Thankfully, there are many tools that can help us do just that!
As we discussed last week our bodies fight or flight response is a complex cascade of events that involves many of our organs, glands, and hormones! It begins in the brain; more specifically, processing the perception of threat begins in the “limbic” region of the brain, which is heavily involved in emotional processing and memory formation. This is important, because we are habitual creatures, so if we remember something to be stressful, we continue to create that pattern and relate to it in that way.
CHANGING STRESS PATTERNS
The good news is that our neuropathways, the pathways in our brains that translate into our thoughts, behaviors, and experiences, are actually quite PLASTIC- meaning they are malleable. What this means is that, when we begin to intervene via becoming aware of and changing the way we think about something, the way we act about something, or set an intention to experience something from a new perspective, our neural pathways respond. It can take some time (CONSISTENCY IS ESSENTIAL) to build and strengthen these new pathways. One way that I’ve heard it explained is like sledding in fresh snow. The first time you go down the hill, there’s no pathway, so whatever is beneath the surface: rocks, uneven ground, and ice, may make for a bumpy ride. As you look back after that first ride, though, you can see a slight pathway forming. And if you trudge up to the top of the hill, and go down that same pathway again, a groove begins to form, its a bit smoother, and you slide down with greater speed and ease. This is actually a pretty good analogy for shifting the patterning in our brain, and how we experience both the pull of old habits and the clunkiness of new habits as a result.
But if you’ve ever made a dedicated change, whether that be getting up at a certain time every morning, drinking a certain amount of water, making dietary, exercise, or self-care changes, you’ve likely already played this out. At first, you may ride the waves of newness and motivation, so it feels really good. Then, as the newness wears off, it may begin to feel hard, heavy, or more effortful (as the neural pathway to the old habit is still stronger than the new). Yet, if you stay the course, and stay consistent, the activity likely becomes less effortful, physically, emotionally, and mentally, and you may (or may not) look back a few months later to realize that it has now just become a part of your routine. If you’ve never done so, PAUSE READING THIS AND SAVOR A MOMENT OF RECOGNIZING THAT YOU TOTALLY CHANGED THAT HABIT AND THE NEURAL PATHWAY IN YOUR BRAIN! HOW COOL!
DEFINING "STRESS" & CHANGING BEHAVIOR
Ok, now how does this relate to reducing stress? Well, first, let’s take a look at a definition of “stress”; for our purposes, let’s define it as anything that is currently triggering your sympathetic nervous system to stay on, chronically, or with a consistent frequency. This could include physical stressors: foods that are inflammatory to your system, or create drastic shifts in your blood sugar (see last week’s episode for more on this), over or under-exercising, exposure to toxins in your home/work/commute environment, lack of time spent in nature, or lack of quality sleep. This could also include emotional stressors: finances, relationships, major life transitions, illnesses in you or those you care about, caring/providing for others. Then there are mental stressors: the way we think about and relate to the other stressors, for example, feeling stuck, like a victim, helpless to changing our circumstances. My own definition of stress also includes spiritual stressors, such as misalignment of daily life with core values, beliefs, and worldviews, as well as the meaning we ascribe to the events of our lives.
So our first step then, is to set aside some time and space for ourselves to become aware of the stressors we might be experiencing currently in each of these areas. YOU’RE ALREADY HERE, SO WHY NOT DO IT NOW:
That’s it, really. That is the process for shifting our experience. That is the process for getting the body out of sympathetic dominance and into parasympathetic dominance. That is the process for creating new neural pathways in our brain that make our desired way of responding our DEFAULT! And I can tell you from research, from my own practice, and from working with clients, the scale of the behavior is not the key. It doesn’t have to be a big, grand, sweeping behavior change, and at first, it’s likely best if it’s not. If it makes sense, you may even opt to break down your top stressor into smaller chunks, and address one chunk at a time in the way described above.
EXAMINING WHAT'S GETTING IN THE WAY
Living in the “pill for every ill” society that we have created, this may not resonate for you. You may even notice resistance coming up: “I’m really sick! I have a real disease/illness. This won’t work for me. I’ve tried this already and it doesn’t work!”. If you are feeling this, I completely understand. Feeling unwell gets old fast; it’s painful and scary and brings up a whole lot of uncertainty and change. It takes mega bravery and self-compassion to stay open, to FEEL what you are feeling, and to try something new without knowing what sort of impact it will have. We can be such habitual beings as humans that sometimes, it feels easier to opt for the painful but familiar way of being, rather than risking change that may translate into even bigger change and letting go and stepping into. Trying something new also often brings up perfectionistic tendencies and along with it, our desire to be in control; we risk being seen as “not having it all together” or “being at our best” and that is uncomfortable for many of us (I know it is for me!). Finally, staying stuck in “sick mode” may be affording us certain niceties (e.g., love, care, and affection from others) that we may fear we will lose if/when we get better. When we can’t hide behind our illness anymore, it’s just us. And we have to take full responsibility for it. And that can feel really, really scary. When it’s no longer the scapegoat, we actually have to ask for what we need, set boundaries, and say “no” because it simply doesn’t work for us.
So believe me when I say, I KNOW THAT BEHAVIOR CHANGE IS BIG WORK. It’s the biggest work. It has the potential to impact everything about us and the way we experience our lives. The good news is that YOU ARE IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT. You call the shots. You decide the pace and intensity. IT’S YOUR LIFE VISION, and you can create and re-create what you want it to look and feel like. The perhaps less comfortable news is that you can’t stay standing right where you are to get to where you want to be.
And if you’d like to receive SUPPORT on that journey, if you’d like some help sifting through your stressors, the way you relate to them, and creating a vision and action plan for the life vision you hold, PLEASE REACH OUT! I currently have one open spot in my private coaching program, and I would love for it to be you! You can schedule a FREE 30 minute discovery call with me here: to see if we are a good fit for beginning this work together. Either way, I so honor you for showing up and doing the work rather than remaining on autopilot. Thank you!