Your mental and biological reactions to stress are attempts to help you survive and go on to live a rich life. Stress left unchecked can destroy you. On the other hand, experiencing a level of stress from which you can fairly quickly recover can even make you stronger and more resilient.
The often disturbing mental and biological reactions to stress can be hard to take, but they reflect the best solutions you, and even your biological ancestors, have been able to come up with to deal with life’s challenges.
If you cannot imagine that the stress reactions are helpful and adaptive, think of regular exercise. Exercise is good for you, but is also stressful. It is good for you because it is stressful, and you can handle it.
When you exercise, you trigger basic aspects of the classic “fight or flight response”. But if you choose your exercise wisely, you can recover quickly and fully, and your mind and body will eventually change in ways that enable you to take that level of stress in your stride.
If you crank the exercise stress up slowly you are likely to improve your resilience. If you push yourself too much, you can expect to exceed the protective influence of your current resilience skills. If you keep that up, you will eventually experience some kind of breakdown.
On the other hand if you pace yourself carefully, you can improve how quickly and fully you recover from stress. You can become more resilient.
We only mean to use exercise as an example of controlled stress. Though exercise is, indeed, a valuable way to deal with stress, that is not our main message in this post.
Our main point is that, unless stress is extreme and/or perpetuated for a long time, whether you know how to calm down stress reactions, to return to your normal baseline quickly and fully is far more important than the stress itself to determine whether stress leaves you stronger or breaks you.
In the last few posts, we have focused on techniques that have been tested in people’s lives sometimes for centuries, and have also been shown to be effective when tested scientifically. Specifically, we have explained how to do mantra meditation, and how to practice “loving kindness”. Both of these have been shown to make for a better life.
Before you can use these methods, there is a “learning curve” you must go through to use them. We strongly advocate that you learn how to use them. But there are also methods that most people already know how to use, but that are often not given the respect they deserve. We have described some of these methods here. They include things that do not require you to learn new skills. We derived them by keeping track, over more than a decade, of publications that show how ordinary people, without any special training, deal with stress.
Briefly, examples include:
- Contact comfort with pets or with people, e.g. cuddling with a pet or loved one; getting a massage.
- Pleasant, engrossing distraction, e.g. watching comedies, getting out into nature.
- Soothing sensory stimulation, e.g. taking a hot bath or shower, listening to calming music.
- Physical activity, e.g. dancing, taking a walk or exercising until you are tired.
- Contemplative relaxation, e.g. meditation, Yoga.
- Spiritual activities, e.g. praying, attending religious services.
You can add to this whatever you already know works for you. Think over things that have calmed you in the past, and use them when you are distressed.
The trick is to get yourself to actually DO them. For advice on how to do that, click here.
The take-home message is to learn the real value of simple things that calm and sooth you, and to make sure you actually do those things when you need them.