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Using Your Dark Side to Live Well: Stress
By Al Galves
The next time you feel stressed – in your gut, your head, your chest, your eyes or anywhere else, ask yourself what is threatening you or what is being demanded of you and use the energy in the stress response to deal with the threat or meet the demand.
If you decide not to deal with the threat or meet the demand, find some other ways of using the energy in the stress response so that it doesn’t hurt you.
So how do you identify what it is that is causing the threat or demand? One good way of starting is to ask yourself:
What is getting in the way of my loving and working in the way I want to?
(Here I need to include an aside about the word “work”. When we use the word “work” in the context of stress management, we are talking about how we express ourselves, how we use our minds, bodies, hearts, voices, our creativity and problem-solving ability. Some people are able to do this at their jobs. Those who aren’t have to find ways of expressing themselves outside of their jobs – in the evenings, on weekends, on vacations.).
This is a key question because human beings have an innate drive to love and work as they want to. And anything that gets in the way of that drive will be experienced as threat and will cause a stress response. Since the drive to love and work is innate and is part of our reptilian brains, you don’t have much choice over whether you express it or not. It’s not as if you can easily say, “Oh well, I’ll just have to learn to live without loving and working the way I want to.” Yes, you can override those drives and learn to live without expressing them, but you run a great risk of paying a price in terms of your health and well-being.
So this is a crucial question for you: Are you loving and working in the ways that you want to? If your answer to that crucial question is “No,” then you ask the next question: What is getting in the way of my loving and working in the way I want to?
Your honest answer to that question will help you identify the threat or demand which is causing the stress in your life. Identifying the threat is a crucial first step in managing stress. But now comes the hard part. Because what is getting in the way and causing the threat is probably either another person, some moral principle or rule that you have decided to live by, or some fear, inability, deficit or block inside yourself. Whatever it is, it is not going to be easy to deal with. If it were easy to deal with you would have already dealt with it. It would be a no-brainer. So it takes courage to be willing to know what is causing the threat or demand and what has to be dealt with. And - here’s the rub - dealing with it is going to be difficult, uncomfortable and stressful.
Yes, in order to deal with the threat that is causing the harmful “distress” in your life, you are going to have to use the energy from the stress response. That is why the First Principle of Stress Management is:
Never Seek Comfort or Avoid Discomfort
Because, if you seek comfort, you won’t deal with the threat or demand that is causing the harmful and uncomfortable stress in your life. And you will buy comfort in the short run at the expense of discomfort in the long run.
It is very important that you honor this First Principle of Stress Management. Some of you may have been exposed to stress management techniques that focus on reframing the threat, thinking yourself out of it. This is the “Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff – and It’s All Small Stuff” approach to stress management. For the small number of people who tend to exaggerate threats or see threat where none is there, this may be a good approach. But for most of us it is very dangerous: dangerous because some stuff is not small stuff.
Loving and working the way you want to love and work is not small stuff. If you don’t deal with the small stuff, it will become big stuff and then you’ve got more stress and difficulty to deal with. Not dealing with the small stuff can lead in the long run to a world of hurt. It also won’t work to avoid stress. Because if you try to avoid it, you again won’t be addressing threat or taking the action that is being demanded of you and, in the long run, you’ll be under even worse stress.
This is a dilemma. If you decide not to address the threat you are going to be living with it and, therefore, experiencing high levels of stress. And, if you decide to address it, you’re going to be facing the stress associated with taking uncomfortable and scary action and running into the inevitable, roadblocks, hiatuses and disappointments along the way. It’s time to use the Second Principle of Stress Management.
Find Healthy Ways to use the Energy in the Stress Response.
Following is a list of some ways of doing that:
- Find a creative activity to engage in. This might be some artistic work, building something, creating an organization or contributing to an already existing one or engaging in competitive sports.
- Get some vigorous exercise every day. Spend at least 30 minutes every day in either running, aerobic walking, swimming, bicycle riding, rowing or some other activity that gets your heart beat up to 80 percent of maximum. If you feel too tired to do it, do it anyway. You’ll feel a lot more energetic after you do.
- Engage in some kind of relaxation practice. This can include meditation, yoga or simple relaxation exercises.
- Talk with a friend, confidante, counselor, therapist, clergyman or spouse about the threat with which you are dealing. Find someone who is just willing to listen and encourage you to talk without trying to solve your problem for you.
- Find a place where you can scream bloody murder and/or pound on something. I have used my car after closing the windows and getting on the Interstate or some other safe road on which I don’t have to pay too much attention. The car is good for this. You can also find a secluded spot, park the car and do it or walk deep into the woods or desert beyond the reach of civilization and do it. When you’re doing it, know that it is totally normal, natural and healthy to have that kind of rage in you and to express it in that way.
- Do some kind of volunteer work that involves directly helping people: working at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter, coaching kids, candy-striping at a hospital.
- Spend some time writing about traumatic experiences you have suffered and/or things that are upsetting you, threatening you, embarrassing you. Explore your deepest thoughts and feelings and why you feel the way you do. Write about your “negative” feelings such as sadness, hurt, anger, hate, fear and guilt. Write about the most emotionally painful experiences of your life. Don’t edit or worry about how it sounds or that it might be petty, selfish or stupid.