We are always in a cycle. With every moment during your day, there is a cycle occurring and you are probably unaware of it. It's called the Cycle of Stress.
Stress is not always a negative. Oftentimes, stress is helpful for inspiring action, heeding caution and challenging ourselves. The problem is that stress has become ubiquitous in mundane, everyday circumstances. Have you ever had your heart start pounding or get a pit in your stomach when one of these things happens?
- any message from anyone that says, "we need to talk"
- a traffic jam
- ringing of a phone
- a loud chewer
- a baby crying
- stepping on dog poop
Yes? It's okay, it's normal. But these are every day things that could happen anytime, anywhere. They aren't special. And circumstances that are not special do not deserve a special reaction.
As humans, we are built to respond to stress. Back in the day we were constantly threatened by real, life-threatening things: thirst, hunger, violence, war, wild animals. Evolution unfortunately has not caught up with the times and has simply replaced the serious threats to our survival with just normal, every day stuff.
Now we must acknowledge that there are still many populations who's lives are genuinely threatened every day. Life and death circumstances beyond the nuanced. To which end, their stress responses warrant all of the necessary emotions and actions. Even in middle class America we unfortunately have many, many people whose livelihoods are threatened by racism, bigotry, oppression, discrimination, violence and hate. We must not forget that. But maybe, if everyone learned how to respond to their unique stressors in a more reasonable manner, we'd eliminate some of threats other people in our communities and world face. We're on team hope.
So how do we change the reactions to stress? We reset the cycle.
- Notice your stressors. It is important to first identify what stresses you out. Is it your weight? Your chronic migraines? Your mother, boss or neighbor? Write a list.
- Identify the stories of your stressors. This takes a bit more time to flush out but is pivotal to understanding your own Cycle of Stress. What are the thoughts around your stressors? Does your weight make you think that you're not good enough? Do your headaches say that you are a failure? Do you think you're not smart enough for your mother, successful enough for your boss or nice enough for your neighbor? Most of us actually have one main story line: I am not enough.
- Trace the emotions. Our thoughts create feelings. Link what you feel back to the thoughts that are built by your stressors. We tend to have four key emotions: fear, anger, sadness and joy.
- Link the physical feeling to your emotions. Most emotions carry physical impact. Fear we feel in our stomach. Anger in our extremities. Sadness in our chest. Joy all over. What do you notice feeling physically when an emotion arises?
- Observe your reactions. When a stressor arrives and you are thinking and feeling, then what happens? Do you erupt in a vocal tirade? Do you shut down? Do you binge eat/drink/shop? The stress is creating a flight, fight or freeze response because that is what our bodies are trained to do. What is your typical reaction? Is it helpful to you?
By going through your own Cycle of Stress, what you are doing is creating awareness. We cannot reset the cycle if we are not first aware of our normal reaction. Once you build awareness every time you have a reaction and can trace it back to a stressor, you can start changing the narrative to upgrade your reaction to a mindful response. A mindful response may be to breathe through the stress and let it pass without judgment. Another mindful response may be to simply note and label the emotion without attaching yourself to it. You may decide, rationally, you need to take a break, get outside, pause. You may need to just tell yourself, "this too shall pass" or "everything will be okay".
Developing mindful responses to your Cycle of Stress is a practice. To reset your brain and body is to do so constantly as you observe your stressors and reactions as they arise every moment of every day. And soon, someday not too far off, you'll see that life does not have to feel so difficult all the time, even amidst the challenges.