I'm so excited about today's post because it kicks off something I've been planning for a long time, the My Stress Story Series on this blog. People are funny; we talk a lot about stress but at the same time, we aren't really talking about it. "I'm so stressed out!" is a common refrain, but it's rare for most people to understand how stress works and how it is impacting their lives.
My hope in this series is to start that conversation. Contributors will share their stress stories and how they've learned to manage their stress. Readers will learn that they aren't alone in struggling with stress and that there are ways to manage it.
It is my belief that when people acknowledge their stress, learn about how it works, and take practical measures to manage it, that the world will be a happier, healthier, and safer place.
To kick off the series, read about My Stress Story below. If you're interested in contributing, please head here for details.
My Introduction to Stress
I never remember an adult or teacher in my younger years saying to me, "This is what stress is and this is how you can handle it." I think I'm like a lot of people in that I heard the word used in casual conversation (e.g. I'm so stressed you guys!) but never in any sort of formal way.
I first practiced yoga and meditation at age eight with my competitive swim team. Our coach thought it would make us swim faster. We didn't use those tools as a way to relieve stress. In hindsight, because of the way they were introduced, they might have even inadvertently increased my stress level, although the power of yoga seeped through that competitive message and I did find it somewhat relaxing at the time.
My first formal introduction to stress was likely at a doctor's appointment. I can remember having a lot of stomach issues as a child and doctors would ask if I was under a lot of stress in my appointments. The answer was always, "Nope," although in hindsight I tend to disagree. I think a lot of times when that conversation happens with doctors that people say they aren't under stress because they don't really know what stress is or they have normalized it in their lives.
Overall, until my yoga teacher training two years ago, I can't say that anyone sat me down and educated me about what stress is and how it operates in our bodies. My yoga studies in my mid-thirties were also the first time that I learned tools to manage stress and how to consistently apply them.
How Stress Has Impacted My Life
How much time do you guys have? Seriously, stress has been a major issue in my life. I would really love to meet someone that hasn't been profoundly impacted by stress. I would just want to stare at them and ask them a million questions. But I don't really believe that those people exist. In our modern world, stress is an epidemic.
Some of the ways that stress has impacted me include: anxiety, insomnia, body image and eating issues, poor/dysfunctional relationships, using alcohol to self-medicate, and chronic back pain. I also feel that while stress has had some really specific impacts on my life, that when it was out of control it was also impacted my ability to live to my full potential. There was definitely a combination of obvious and less obvious stress symptoms.
Since I always like to put a positive spin on things, I'll also add that stress has motivated me to change my life. When I reached a point where stress was consuming my life, I took drastic steps to change things by leaving a job that was no longer serving me, changing my diet, and embarking on my yoga, meditation, and wellness journey.
How I Manage My Stress
I have my eye on stress, all the time.
There was a moment in my life, one of THE moments, when I had a "Come to Jesus" epiphany. I was sitting at my desk, completely consumed by stress, and I had a vision of myself leaving work one day, stepping off the curb, and getting hit by a bus. In that vision, I knew with complete certainty that I was dying angry. I don't want to die angry. I won't die angry. That was where I started to dig myself out. I didn't know what my next step would be or how I would change things, but I knew that dying angry was not an option. Everything else was negotiable.
Today, I manage stress by getting eight hours of sleep or more every night. If I don't sleep well, nothing works right in my life. I have to get my sleep. I never stay up past ten p.m. There was a time when I thought that nothing fun happened before ten p.m. Now I feel like all the fun stuff like yoga, coffee, snuggling, and reading happens before seven a.m. Who knew?
I eat really well. I don't eat crap. I eat to fuel my body and health.
I manage relationships and I don't try to fix or save other people anymore. I am the only person that I can control. I aim to surround myself with positive people who accept me for who I am, people who share common interests, and people who inspire me. I like being with people are dealing with their stuff and who are honest with themselves and others.
I am a yoga teacher but I don't practice asana (mat-based postures) every day. My definition of yoga honors the eight limbs so some days I practice yoga through meditating or praying (Ishvara Pranidhana). Other days I practice by reading a spiritual book (Svadhyaha). That being said, I try to move my body every day, whether it's by taking a walk, doing a plank, or getting on my mat for some asana. This morning, for example, I spent about twenty minutes on my mat doing some gentle yoga. I also walked about a mile on the treadmill. I'll read a spiritual book later and say my prayers at bedtime. I'll do my best to be kind, even when it's hard. To me, all of that is the practice of yoga and it all protects my body, mind, and spirit from stress.
Speaking of prayer, I pray every night. Mostly, these days, I just say, "God help us. God help me." But yeah, I think that turning my will over to something greater than myself, call it God or Higher Power or energy, is critical to my stress management.
I laugh. I play card games. I read novels. I walk through my local library and take my time finding new books. I use essential oils. I take epsom salt baths. I go to therapy. I go to 12-step meetings. I journal. I watch positive movies.
I throw everything and the kitchen sink at stress. Because I'm alive, I will always experience stress. It is part of the human condition. But to compare my stress level today to what I felt like six years ago is apples and oranges. Today, I am happy, healthy, and calm. Life throws me curveballs all of the time but when it does, I keep it simple and continue to use all of my stress strategies to stay the course.
My Stress Advice
I have a lot to say on this and I encourage you to follow this blog and my social media accounts for regular posts on this topic, but in this space I want to keep it simple.
1. Educate yourself on stress. The book Self-Reg by Dr. Stuart Shanker is a great place to start.
2. Sleep. Get at least eight hours per night. Be relentless about protecting that time.
3. Develop a spiritual practice. Whatever that might look like for you, I think that learning to surrender and to ask for help keeps us sane.
Thanks for reading everyone. I'd love to read your comments or questions on stress or please consider contributing. Namaste friends, Karen