Follow Your Stress Back to Basics

by Melissa Karnaze

wooden alphabet blocks stacked into a pyramidYou know what stress is. You may be feeling it right now.

And if you spend more than five minutes reading global news headlines each day — you know that plugging into what the rest of the world is up to will only amp up that stress.

And it’s not because you are just that more aware of the current problems in the world.

It’s because when you have that information — you react to it negatively.

Stress comes from you

Stress is not something that happens to you.

It’s your reaction to the potentially stressful events in your life.

There’s a difference.

Learn to follow your stress

The next time you start to feel stressed out, take a moment to step back.

Take a deep breath.

And say to yourself: “I’m feeling this stress right now because of how I am reacting to my life.”

Then take another breath if you want to. And get right back to feeling the stress, whatever it was.

The point is to be mindful of your stress, not to have to change or control it. Because it’s in surrendering to it that you have any chance to transcend it without sabotaging your emotional health in some indirect way.

Your stress leads somewhere

When you really do this right, your subconscious mind will pick up on the cue and run with it. It will start to take inventory of all the events that could be leading to your stress complex. It will replay all the nasty things that might have been said to you, or all the mean-spirited self-talk that’s occupied your thoughts. It will recount all the obstacles that you encountered in the past hour, and the severity of each.

And if you’re on good terms with your emotional self — which is just one part of your multidimensional self by the way — your subconscious might even be confident enough in you to throw up some uncomfortable feelings for you to deal with (which are most likely the root cause of your reaction to the stressors).

But that’s okay, because if you’ve been reading here, you know it’s safe to go there.

And you know it’s actually intelligent and healthy to do so.

Why mindfulness is a must

When you can become mindful of your stress, and successfully follow your subconscious mind’s journey through time, memory, and emotion — suddenly the story behind your stress will come into view, which then makes it more manageable.

You’ll start to see how your thoughts and emotional reactions play a direct role in your experience of feeling stressed. In other words — you’ll see how they co-create it.

And you’ll start to notice that when you can lay out all the potential stressors that have agitated you so — that they really aren’t so bad. And that you have so many choices before you right now to change things for the better.

Because after you externalize your stressors into a written journal entry, a verbal declaration, or through some other concrete expression, you can tone them down from their monster-like personas to very basic ideas.

Get back to basics

In a brilliant foray into how Sesame Street teaches you how to be a better blogger, Sonia Simone at Copyblogger nails the three basic ingredients of the successful children’s show:

“Letters. Numbers. Emotional or confusing situations faced by preschool children. That’s about it.”

Pretty simple, huh?

If only it were that simple for you, right?

If only you were “bogged” down with the stresses that a preschooler faces, and were forced to watch Sesame street reruns to better “cope” and develop successful life skills.

The basics are easier to cope with

Well, guess what? You are bogged down by letters, numbers, and emotional or confusing situations. Those very things will follow you for the rest of your life.

You may not be stuck on the letter N, but you do have to get your communication straight — or serious relationship problems will result.

You may already know how to count to ten, but you still have to attend to your finances and time management — or you’ll throw your sanity out the window.

And just by virtue of being human and living in a human society, emotional or confusing situations make up much if not most of all your social interaction.

So the next time you start to feel the stress coming in, I dare you to follow it. Follow it mindfully, and see if it might take you right back to the beginning. Back to basics. Back to letters or numbers or sticky situations.

Right back to realizing what’s most important in your life, and why. And what’s worth feeling a little stress over every now and then.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Cognizant July 30, 2009 at 9:39 am

I am surrounded by stress. Sometimes I am stressed, but for the last three years I’ve been getting more and more laid back and have coincidentally been using your methods. Because I’m not as smart as you I simply labelled it as ‘Taking A Step Back’. :P

Its something most people cant seem to do, I’ve noticed. To just take a step back from the situation, from that moment, and to look at yourself in third person in an objective manner. Just lay it all out on an imaginary table, or physical if you want.

‘Ok. What is the problem? Hmm, alright, why is this a problem? Ah, ok, now what can we do about this? Lets formulate possible solutions…’

I’ve been laid back most of my life, I seem to be all about appearances, in that I always appear calm and nonplussed on the outside, whereas inside the cogs will be whirring. For instance if there were some cataclysmic situation occuring, with everyone panicking for their lives, I’d have a look of serene boredom on my face while dealing with it. (after some self-reflection I realised my laid back nature actually ties back into my childhood where I was bullied and humiliated a lot, so as a result, I dont want others to see me as anything other than in total control of my feelings or the pain of humiliation will return)

But in the last three years its like I’ve gone into Uber Laidback Mode and as a result I’m seeing the stress around me heighten in a way.

I am basically surrounded by people who blow up into a rage over the most trivial things, arguing back and forth over things that, if they simply took a step back from the situation, are absolutely not worth the time, effort and trouble.

My sister gets into shouting matches with my mum over silly things, its just depressing to watch. Nothing I say would fix it, if I showed her your website, about how she should just think before she speaks, she’d then twist it into an epic saga of sibling rivalry or something. She doesnt hate my mum or anything, but all of the constant shouting and arguing could lead to unnecessary emotions later down the line, and thats the tragedy of not managing stress properly. You could let something that is trivial snowball into something very serious, and all because you couldnt take a step back and just see the bigger picture.

I even feel like this problem is endemic to the lower-class area I’m living in (well, to humanity in general) where the downtrodden people get caught up in mini-sagas revolving around who said what or who went where, and if I’m on public transport I cant avoid it because they’re screaming at each other or at their mobile phones, pulling strangers like me into their personal problems whether we like it or not. They dress it up in ‘gossip’ at times, but really its just an outpouring of stress.

Where I live has gotten more and more violent, which is a common complaint for urban dwellers, but its the worst kind of violence: it has no purpose or reason, no meaning behind it. I lived in Japan for seven months, and before I went my sister showed me a news story about a kid who beheaded his parent and how Japan was crazy. My response was that at least that kid had a reason for why he killed his parent, maybe he was abused. In Japan people generally have a reason for what they do, but where I live (I returned from Japan), people are killing each other because someone looked at someone else for a second, on the other side of the street. People are dying because someone threw a potato chip at their car. Most of the people doing the killing and dying are actually the youth of this city.

Lots of pent up stress here.

Now, for sure the people of this city are incapable of approaching stress the way you’ve outlined, but I think they subconsciously feel they need to blow up trivial things to enormous levels and get flustered about them, because otherwise they have no option but to confront what is causing them stress in the first place, and it will probably lead to the realisation that their lower-class lifestyle is making them feel helpless.

I’ve been more or less poor most of my life, so I can understand how and why people could get into a depression about their lot in life and how they might want to simply choose to be distracted from their lives, or to cause distraction themselves, or even more importantly to be distracted by their choice to not actively do anything about their lives, whether it be due to sheer laziness or fear of failure.

Man, I’ve gone on a tangent, I dont even know what the point of this post was!

Anyway, I totally agree with your post on stress and I’ve been more or less following that method for years, before I even read this, so thats pretty cool. I wish everyone would follow it, there would be less strife in the world and less arguing about who drank the uber special bottle of coke that was in the fridge last night.

Melissa Karnaze July 30, 2009 at 8:14 pm

Hey Cognizant, it’s great to see you here! Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

You could let something that is trivial snowball into something very serious, and all because you couldnt take a step back and just see the bigger picture.

You’ve hit on something that sounds simple, but is also very complex. It’s true that getting distracted with the “trivial” stressors (a behavior which as you mentioned can serve as denial from the real pain in a person’s life) can lead to bigger problems in the future. And at the same time, completely ignoring or suppressing your reactions to the “trivial” stressors isn’t healthy either. But of course dealing with your stress and anger in inappropriate and unsafe ways will only cause harm to yourself and to others.

So in a way you have to sweat the small stuff, be mindful of your emotional reactions, and look for active solutions to the real problems — and not be afraid to feel and process the pain constructively.

I’ve been in Alaska these past two weeks, simply to learn how to fish and take a vacation from email — it’s amazing how every time I open my Google homepage, with news and blog feeds, and occasionally my email, how the stress can flood in within minutes. “Oh, don’t forget to email so and so when you get back. Remember to look up this paper and read that report. Oh no, that’s today’s headline?” And it can go on and on.

What’s happening is that technology is making it increasingly difficult to follow your stress back to basics, because something like an email is ethereal, existing only in the abstract in cyberspace (unless you print it out). It latches onto your memory in a definite way, but you have little recollection for how or why it’s really there if you don’t take a step back and reassess what you aim to accomplish through email correspondence in the first place.

Now, for sure the people of this city are incapable of approaching stress the way you’ve outlined, but I think they subconsciously feel they need to blow up trivial things to enormous levels and get flustered about them, because otherwise they have no option but to confront what is causing them stress in the first place, and it will probably lead to the realisation that their lower-class lifestyle is making them feel helpless.

The sad truth is that this denial is set in place as a defense mechanism. People will find all kinds of ways to delay feeling emotions they aren’t ready to process — consciously or subconsciously, usually with very negative results.

All you can really do is deal with your own stress and set a healthy example for others. :)

Cognizant July 31, 2009 at 4:00 am

I recently came back from a two week holiday too; I stayed at a private villa by a beach. No internet. It was bliss. But then when we visited the nearest town (or ANY town) it was stuffed with annoying tourists who had arrogantly, over a period of years, transformed the area into a mini-version of their own country, and there were street vendors harassing us to visit their stores with very invasive behaviour, it was like being assaulted! Anytime anything annoying happened to us during the two weeks, I’d sigh and just shrug it off, or deal with it however. There’s a reason for everyone’s behaviour, for example these business owners are just trying to make a living, even if they’re trying to attract customers in the most horrible way imaginable, they’re just not well educated, or more to the point: what they’re doing must actually work, or they wouldn’t be doing it.

Anyway, the people I went on holiday with would complain about things constantly throughout the two weeks. Sometimes it would be in a joking manner, like we would laugh about how one restaurant owner would try to persuade us to eat at his place, but often it would be a serious moaning about whatever befell us during the two weeks.

In our last week, one of the guys I went with, was told by a bar man that he looked British. Now, the guy is actually Italian and he was with his girlfriend, and he just felt so insulted, he went into a moody strop right then and there, constantly questioning the bar man as to why he thought he was British, putting the bar man on the spot, who was increasingly feeling awkward about how his innocent comment was being blown out of proportion. I thought a fight would start right then and there over something so stupid. Obviously the Italian has issues regarding nationality and British people, lol.

If someone thought I was Iranian or something, so what? I don’t care. Even if I hated Iranians, I still wouldn’t care if I was thought of as one, I’d just correct the person with an amiable smile (the smile is to let the dude know I’m not bothered by his line of questioning, just in case he thinks I hate Iranians and is trying to rile me up. Smiles are a good way to diffuse many situations, but there’s a trick to it. You cant just smile any way you want, or you might look like a desperate pervert or something and just attract a punch to wipe it off your face)

I think the post-modern world has set more blinders on people, there’s too much pride and ego. Self-reflection has been labelled as ‘touchy-feely’, and problem solving has been outsourced to psyschologists and self-help books. I’m sure the people of history dealt with stress much quicker and easier than the modern human. They obviously didnt have to deal with email troubles though, so I blame post-modernism shenanigans.

Actually, I do remember one incident while on holiday which did stress me out for a bit, and I had to take a few breaths and just shrug it off like a worn out coat. My friend and I got kicked out of a club. It’s the first and hopefully last time that ever happens to me, lol. The thing that caused me such stress is that we were never given a reason. Now I was manhandled personally, so we thought maybe it had to do with me, and I did speak to two women that night, however it was just short small talk about nothing in particular, I swear I didnt actually do anything…with anyone that night, lol. My friend and I were so annoyed because if we had at least done SOMETHING to get kicked out of a club, it would be reasonable to us, but we were never given an explanation. It was annoying because the club really was the pits, full of the sleaziest people you could imagine, and the only people they kick out were the respectable ones, lol. My friend’s sister has worked in the club industry before and her opinion was that a jealous dude had got us kicked out, which didnt occur to me at the time, but I think that just might be ego-massaging and nothing else. Anyway, it pissed me off at the time, but a few days later I just laughed it off. My friend too, he’s real laid back like that.

I really dont like clubs, I end up being dragged to them rather than going out of my own choice.

Want to know a great stress-reliever? Jazz! Piano trios especially chill me out. I love all music in general, and am always discovering new genres and artists, but every year I also focus on one genre in particular, and this year has been jazz. Mostly Japanese, modern and traditional, but I’ve also checked out the American classics too, as well as modern experimental downtempo type stuff. It’s stuff that truly calms the soul.

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