Prolonged exposure to stress can take a toll on your physical health and negatively impact your relationships.
If it’s not addressed, stress can become a chronic condition and lead to obesity, insomnia, high blood pressure, chronic pain, and a weakened immune system. Research also shows stress plays a role in the development of major illnesses like heart disease, stroke, immune disorders, fertility issues, depression and anxiety.
Beyond that, you could develop negative behavioural habits as a response to excessive levels of stress that become more difficult to be aware of and control over time. All of this can result in more anxiety.
Over 70% of Americans report that they regularly experience physical and psychological symptoms of stress.
So with all this knowledge around stress, you’d think we’d be better at managing it. Maybe we aren’t targeting the right problem!
What we’re missing is to look at the feelings and emotions behind stress to understand better why you’re having this reaction. “Stress” is really a series of distressing emotions.
The degree of stress you experience has to do with how you perceive and interpret what’s happening to you.
Here’s an example. Two people are cut off in traffic. One person interprets the gesture as a lack of respect, a threat to their physical safety or even a purposeful hostile act. This situation makes that person feel very angry and stressed behind the wheel.
Another person figures the driver just didn’t see them or might be wrapped up in their own thoughts. This person lets the event roll off their back and stress is not an issue.
In both cases, the stimulus was the same, however, their belief, and responses were different according to their perception or the meaning they chose to give it. They chose to look at the situation in totally different ways: one causing stress, anger and fear, the other maintaining a calm peaceful drive.
"If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” – Marcus Aurelius
Habitual thought patterns contribute to how you perceive events or situations. Once you’re aware of what they are, with practice and intention, you can shift or reframe those thoughts.
Some people tend to interpret things negatively out of habit. They might attribute someone’s error to malicious or unkind motives, for example. They may take one negative event as a sign that more negative events are to come, which can contribute to stress.
Stress fuelled by fear is very different from stress fuelled by anger. However, both can bring on the fight, flight or freeze response.
If you’re mindfully able to slow down and observe your experience from a higher perspective, you’ll find that every emotion goes through very quick phases.
An event, which creates…
Thoughts related to the event, which creates…
A release of chemicals, leading to…
A physical response, leading to…
An urge to act, leading to some sort of…
An action, resulting in…
Consequences (which can actually be a whole new prompting event that starts another emotional cycle, either pleasing you or displeasing you)
“If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place but to be a different person.” ― Lucius Annaeus Seneca
These are some of the off-shoot emotions behind stress:
1. Anger -
Serves as a warning signal to keep you from losing things important to your survival or to keep you from being taken advantage of. If you’re feeling annoyed, frustrated, irritated, insulted or rageful, you’re experiencing the emotion of anger.
2. Fear —
Acts as a signal to keep us away from things that are dangerous. Feeling alarmed, anxious, nervous, shy or worried, you’re experiencing fear and it urges you to avoid or escape what you fear.
3. Sadness —
Helps us appreciate what we have and take better care to guard from losing it. If you’re feeling blue, defeated, discouraged, hopeless, lonely, rejected or miserable this could cause you to want to withdraw or isolate yourself.
4. Shame —
Being accepted in your tribe equals survival, so to hide attempting to avoid rejection accompanies shame. Thoughts like “if they only knew the truth” or “who do I think I am trying this” give you a clue you’re feeling shame, along with feeling embarrassed, humiliated, invalidated, insecure, guilty or mortified.
5. Disgust —
Anything you find to be gross, dangerous and distasteful, whether it’s food or something else will lead you to feeling appalled, offended, repulsed or turned off. This will lead to avoidance.
6. Jealousy —
Triggered when you feel something important is about to be taken away from you or you see someone else has something that you want and think you can’t have. The evolutionary purpose of this emotion is to help us hold onto important resources for life. Feeling competitive, distrustful, envious, petty or resentful, are parts of the emotion of jealousy.
None of these feelings are healthy long term. They’re all emotions that if you’re not aware of them underlying the stress, they can lead to a host of future problems.
It’s important to honour what you’re feeling and learn how to release them before they fester. Rather than focusing on eliminating stress, you could be better served by understanding the factors that caused the stress to arise in you in the first place and techniques for releasing them.
Thing is, there will always be stressful events in life. Learning how to move through them can make the difference between a healthy and unhealthy physical, emotional and mental life.
Stress management techniques:
Knowing and building your relationship with you
Learning communication skills
Engaging in social activities
It’s important to look at how you’re nurturing your body, as well.
These substances often increase stress and anger:
If you’re allowing others to “make” you stressed, you’re allowing them to control you. How empowering could it be to hold your boundaries and make a responsible decision to control your own emotions?
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