|Posted on 18 May, 2018 at 8:55|
What is stress? One way of looking at it is as the effect produced by any kind of change. But life is always changing, right? What is that saying – “the only constant in life is change”? In fact, we need a certain amount of change to keep us sane, because also, sometimes, “a change is as good as a rest”.
OK, so the right amount of change is important, because it keeps us alive, stimulated and motivated. Too little and we become bored and our lives seem to lack purpose. But every time we encounter change, our mental map of the world gets redrawn. Sometimes it gets redrawn only temporarily, like when a colleague is off sick and we have to cover their workload for a while, but at other times the redrawing can be more permanent, as it is, for example, when we change job, move house, or lose a loved-one. When we are under pressure or life is very busy it can feel like we are having to make too many alterations to our map all at once, and we can end up feeling stressed – tired, angry, anxious, unwell.
So what can we do to take care of ourselves at these times?
First of all we need to feel we have support, someone to turn to who will listen and try to understand and, if necessary, take the reins for a while so that we can rest and recuperate. This may be a professional, such as a counsellor, who can shoulder some of our emotional burden and help us explore any underlying issues, or it might be a friend or family member, who can help in a more practical way by taking over responsibility for something until the pressure we feel under subsides – a grandparent picking up the kids from school, for example, or a partner taking over the housework for a week.
Rest is also vital. When we are stressed we dream more and so get less of the restorative deep sleep we need. We go to bed tired and strung out, and wake up tired and groggy rather than refreshed and ready to face a new day. When we are rushed off our feet or under a lot of pressure, allowing ourselves time to decompress before we go to bed can improve the quality of our sleep. We can do this by going for a walk, sitting quietly, meditating, taking a bath...anything that restores calm and allows the fight/flight response to deactivate. Decompression is best done away from technology, as TV, social media etc will only increase stimulation. Playing or listening to music is good, but “conscious repose” is ideal. Be aware of the desire to comfort eat when stressed, and beware inertia too – I don’t know about you, but I find that the more I do, the more I want to do (just like the less I do, the less I want to do). During a hectic week recently, I found myself adding more pressure by deciding to swap round two of the rooms in my house. I got as far as measuring up to see if the furniture would fit before I realised what was happening. My “distraction” defence mechanism was activated, and my mind had found me a pleasant project with which to avoid the other less appealing jobs on my plate, but if I had gone ahead, all I would have done was pile on more pressure by adding to my To Do list, and increase the likelihood of my not finishing anything. This would undoubtedly have left me feeling more stressed. Definitely one mental map change too far!
When our mental map of the world is changing fast, routine can anchor us in the familiar and help guard against emotional overload; taking meals at regular intervals and finishing work on time, avoiding the temptation to work longer to try and achieve more – literally, enough...is Enough! Busyness is not a virtue. Going to bed and getting up at the same time each day, and allowing ourselves time off all count against the effects of stress too, so have that cheat day, and stick to date night or movie night if that’s what you normally do, even (especially) when it might feel like obligations are getting in the way.
So change can add interest to our lives, but too much can leave us reeling. Change can feel good, and at other times it can feel bad. But difficult changes can be beneficial, because we need a certain level of frustration in life to help us define and maintain our boundaries. In other words, we find out what is important to us and where our limits are – what we will stand for and what we won’t – when we encounter frustration. When we’re born we don’t have any awareness that we are separate, distinct from the rest of the world, and it is only through the natural frustration of our needs (a feed not arriving precisely on cue, for example), that we begin to experience ourselves as separate. So in a very literal way, early-life frustration teaches us where our edges are, first our physical ones, then later our mental and emotional ones. This process continues throughout life, and if we can learn to meet frustration with self-awareness and self-reflection, we can use it to better understand ourselves and live by our values, building an ever stronger and clearer sense of who we are.