By Susie Powell
For The Cordova Times
Spring is coming, and this is a great time to reflect on all the dust and clutter that have accumulated over the winter and do some spring cleaning. When it comes to our mental health, most all of us have some emotional cobwebs or maybe a lot of mental clutter that have been causing stress. Now is a great time to build awareness of our stress — how it manifests in us emotionally, mentally and physically and the situations that tend to cause it — so we learn what the stress is telling us and can respond supportively.
Stress gets a bad rap, but stress itself isn’t necessarily bad. As psychologist Kelly McGonigal puts it, “stress happens when something you care about is at stake. It’s not a sign to run away — it’s a sign to step forward.” You may have experienced stress that actually feels good and motivational, what is referred to as eustress. Eustress occurs when the right amount of stress enhances our performance by making us alert and bringing energy to meet the task at hand.
There is a tipping point, however, when we feel unable to meet the task at hand and feel the things we care about slipping out of reach. Brené Brown, a social worker and researcher, writes, “we feel stressed when we evaluate environmental demand as beyond our ability to cope effectively.” Our nervous systems detect these threats to the things we care about and alert us through physical changes that prepare us to fight or flee, or can even cause our bodies and emotions to shut down if we sense we can’t win or escape. This stress does not feel good. It shows up as distress; exhaustion, anxiety, panic, burn-out.
So, what can we do when distress makes itself known to us? Maybe I’m not sleeping well or I’m getting lots of stomach aches or headaches. Maybe my thoughts are racing with worries about the future. Or maybe I’m unable to shake memories of all my past failures that this current struggle reminds me of.
First, let’s see if we can use McGonigal’s definition of stress to regard our stress manifestations not as something bad, but as important signals: “something I care about is at stake.” Next, let’s add Brené Brown’s take on stress: I don’t think I can handle what is being demanded of me. Our signs of stress are packed with information about what’s important to us and what we might need in order to meet our environmental demands more effectively. In this sense, we can thank our nervous systems for alerting us about what we value and for letting us know the degree to which we feel capable of handling our life’s current demands.
So then why does stress get such a bad rap? It is our reactions to stress that can cause problems with our health, relationships, and functioning. It’s easy to react to our stress signals with quick fixes or ways to “power through” so we can ignore them: drink more coffee, cut out “optional” daily tasks like exercise or self-care, comfort eat, etc. These strategies might help us cope in the short-term, but in the long term it’s essentially saying to our own needs and values, “I don’t care” or “I don’t have time.” Doing so tends to prolong our time in the fight/flight or shut down nervous system states.
What if, instead, we turned towards these stress signals with attention and compassion? One of my favorite ways to do this is through mindful self-compassion practices. If a close friend or loved one was experiencing stress, what might you say to or do for that person? If we name and validate the feelings — “this is stressful” or “this is hard” or “this is overwhelming”— we open the door to our struggles instead of ignoring or invalidating them.
Next, recognize that all people feel stressed sometimes and these feelings are okay, acceptable, maybe even normal. In other words, we’re not alone.
Finally, ask yourself what you might need or how you can care for yourself given the stress. Do I need to connect with others? Take time to myself? Exercise? Rest? Drink water? Breathe? Take a day off work? If we do any or all of these steps, we can follow McGonigal’s advice and use our stress signals as a sign to step forward with compassion and supportive actions. Our nervous system will appreciate it and shift into the third state, a place of feeling safe, connected, and socially engaged.
There are times when our stress signals may indicate a serious physical or mental health problem that needs professional support. Seeking medical and/or behavioral health care can be one of the most self-compassionate steps we can take, and it can send powerful messages to our nervous systems that we see our own struggle, care, and are taking the courageous step to do something about it. Ilanka Community Health Center has trained mental health clinicians here to support people ready to take that step forward.
Susan Powell, LPC, CDC II is the Behavioral Health Clinician at Ilanka Community Health Center.