Imagine you are walking down the sidewalk and you trip. There would be a mild anxiety reaction and you’d recover quickly.
Now, imagine you were walking two feet from the edge of a cliff and you tripped. You would be terrified, and your body would go into complete panic.
Now, imagine a time when you were feeling pretty good—things were going well—and someone you love left dishes on the table or you were stuck in traffic. These situations were mild irritants.
Now, imagine you had a horrible day at work, you’ve been feeling sick, your back is hurting, you are behind on your bills, and you walk into the bathroom in your socks and step right into the soggy puddle your kid (or spouse) left on the floor—again—after his or her shower. Steam comes out of your ears and you restrain yourself (or don’t) from screaming like a banshee.
The difference in your reaction to each imaginary situation was not because the stressor changed in intensity, it was because you were closer to your cliff, and so the stressor impacted you more.
You see, stress is cumulative, both in your emotions and in your body. Stress from your work, and family, and traffic, and environmental pollutants each add a layer of stress. Feeling uncertain or insecure creates an undercurrent of stress, and then as you face additional stressors throughout your day, you begin to feel weighed down, overwhelmed, frustrated. You become more and more sensitive to each additional stressor. It’s like the piece of straw that was finally too much, and it broke the camel’s back.
You’re on edge, stressed out, anxious. Your body is bombarded by an assault of stress hormones and increased hypertension, putting your body in a less-than-optimal state. This physiological stress response impacts your health, heart, digestion, energy levels and more, depleting your reserves. This physical strain adds to your overall stress, and all of these stress sources accumulate a “stress-effect” in the body, eventually leading to dis-ease.
So, what can you do about it? Back off the cliff! Actively practice techniques for reducing your stress. Some suggestions are below.
Venting to Reduce Stress
One of the best ways to reduce stress is to express your emotions or “vent”. Stress building up happens in the same way a balloon inflates as you continue to blow into it. Each new stressor is like blowing another breath into your stress balloon. If you just keep adding to it, eventually it will pop. In order to reduce the pressure in your balloon, or step away from the cliff, you need to use the release valve. You need to let it out—vent—express what you’re feeling.
Venting is different than talking about it. When you’re feeling stressed or anxious, it can be tempting to talk about it. A majority of people spend most of their social time complaining about what stresses them out. But, the problem with this is that:
- Most people don’t really express what they’re feeling; they complain at a surface level, masking what’s really going on.
- Talking about it makes it worse because it gives the stressors more time and attention. For example, if you had a stressful day at work, complaining about it over cocktails for 2 hours just added 2 hours to your crappy workday.
- Most of the time the people they talk to either feed the fear or take it as an opportunity to vent about their stressors too, often competing to see whose is worse.
In contrast, venting it solely for the purpose of “getting it out.” Rather than holding your stress, anxiety, or fear inside (increasing your pressure or pushing you toward the cliff), venting or expressing how you feel helps reduce your stress. There are 2 ways to vent:
- Express how you feel to yourself. Vent to yourself by stating how you feel, either into the mirror or out loud to yourself. You can also do it silently, if necessary, or even write it down. Then, acknowledge how you feel, just like you would if someone else were venting to you. “I understand. I’m glad you expressed how you feel. Thank you for sharing.”
- Express how you feel to a trusted support person. Before you vent, make sure you tell the person that you are venting for the purpose of getting it out and not because you are asking for advice or trying to solve a problem. Make sure they are okay with that. Pick someone who will be supportive, not critical. Pick someone who won’t be dramatic or try to compete with their own stories. Pick someone who is good at listening more than talking. You can even give them the “acknowledgement” phrase above as an example of what you are looking for in return. If you don’t have a friend or family member who can play this role for you, consider seeking support from a counselor, life coach or even a support group. (Be warned though, most support groups focus more on complaining than venting.)
Additional Stress-Reduction Techniques
- Gratitude: Develop a gratitude practice, such as journaling. Focusing on what you appreciate and what is going right in your world helps put you in a better mental/emotional state and makes you less susceptible to stress.
- Enjoyment: Spend time doing what you love, relaxing, or doing activities that get you into a state of flow.
- Distance: Distance or remove yourself from stressors whenever possible. Are there people, places, or situations in your life causing you stress that you can step away from or minimize?
- Do It: Make the changes you’ve been putting off that are nagging at you and hanging over your head. Then there is one less thing to worry about.
- Level Up: Explore stress reduction programs, such as yoga, massage, and acupuncture.
- Relax: Learn a “skilled relaxation” process, such as meditation, and practice it for 20 minutes (or more) per day.
So, the next time you catch yourself getting into an argument over dishes or screaming like a banshee for no good reason:
- Stop yourself.
- Notice that the reaction you’re having is disproportionate to the actual situation.
- See this as a signal that you are approaching the edge of your stress cliff.
- Reflect on what stressors you have going on in your life right now.
- Remind yourself that it is natural to have a knee-jerk-I’m-too-close-to-my-stress-cliff response.
- Identify what you can do in that moment to STEP AWAY FROM THE CLIFF.
- Identify what else you can do that day to step even further away from your cliff.
- And, lastly, consider what changes you can make in your life to prevent yourself from creeping up to the edge.
Letting It Go
Do you find that any of your stressors are nagging thoughts?
Do you catch yourself ruminating about or complaining about the same thing over and over again? Whether it is something that went wrong, someone who wronged you, a mistake you made, or an unfortunate situation, you need to let it go. You’re stressing yourself out. Plus, obsessing over it, and annoying your friends about it, is not going to change anything. Either do something to remedy the situation, or shush.
Tell yourself, “It’s only a story!”
I heard once of a tribal ceremony that illustrates the importance of releasing the stories we tell about what stresses us out. In this tribe, when a community member is experiencing stress about an undesirable situation, the entire tribe comes together to support this person.
The tribe gathers in a circle and the person with the complaint stands in the center. He or she is asked to express how they feel and to tell their story, 3 times. The first two times, the tribe encircling the individual responds with words and gestures of affirmation and support. They show that they understand how the person feels and that they are justified for feeling that way.
However, after the 3rd telling of the story, the entire tribe remains silent and turns their backs away from the individual at the center. This turning away signifies their acknowledgement that the individual has spoken his or her truth, that they have all affirmed this truth, and that now they are acknowledging that it is only a story. The story has already been told, and now it is time to move on. The individual in the center of the ring is forbidden to speak of it again. Ever.
For the individual who expressed their story, they feel supported and gratified and relieved. They have vented and expressed their emotion, and they have made a public commitment to let them go. They’ve reduced their internal pressure. They’ve backed away from their cliff.
Some people may believe this practice to be extreme, but it perfectly illustrates the point that in order to reduce our stress we need to express it, release it, and move on. You can visualize yourself going through this ceremony as a tool for releasing nagging thoughts you stress yourself out about. And, for those more extreme life events that it is finally time to GET OVER, you can invite your own tribe to support you and cut you off from ever talking about it again.
Regardless of what way you do it, step back from the edge.