Stress is not a problem. In fact, it’s essential for living. When we make it into the enemy, citing the risks of stress, we perpetuate the state of stress. Even the best-intentioned advice to ‘relax’, calm down, don’t stress’ won’t work until you know the purpose of stress in your ability to be healthy and feel and function well every day. When you know the root cause of stress, you can manage it in the way that is most efficient and effective for restoring greater calm, confidence, and energy.
In this guide, I will
- help you rethink stress
- clarify why stress is your built-in guide to being healthy and thriving
- review ten often overlooked facts about stress
- show you the three whole-person resources for shifting out of the stress state by blending mindfulness, self-kindness, and science-based exercise for managing stress for whole person health.
10 key facts about stress
1. There’s a difference between stress and stressors
Stressors are the real or potential threats to your ability to survive and thrive. They are what happens to you; stress is what happens inside you.
Stress is a physiologic state in your whole person. It is when every system in your whole person shifts its energy use from repairing, growing, and learning into fighting, fleeing, or freezing. The whole purpose of this shift is to take care of a threat to your survival so you can get back to the state of thriving.
This is an essential distinction. We can manage stressors and manage stress, but they are two different conversations. When talking about stress, I am talking about the physiologic shift that happens inside you. When your physiology is in a stress state, your energy for taking care of the stressors is very limited. Stress management happens from the inside out. You can manage stressors with greater ease and effectiveness once you have managed the stress.
2. Stress is not a switch, it’s a sliding scale
We tend to think of stress as a switch: you are either stressed or relaxed. It is more like a continuum with varying degrees of stress from mildly annoyed to full-blown freak-out. The severe stress states get your attention. They make you stop in your tracks and do something about them. Its actually the mild to moderate stress responses we need to pay attention to if we are going to keep stress from interfering with being healthy. They are easier to brush off and distract from. That means they hang around in the background, keeping your physiology is a stress state, affecting mood and choices while less energy goes into healing, growth and learning.
3. There are two sides to the stress state
Stress comes in two shades. One is where you feel overwhelmed, tense, and anxious. These are high-energy forms and there is no denying when you are in them.
The other shade of stress is when you feel bored, lonely, or depressed. You might not think of these emotions as stress, but studies show these low-energy emotions trigger a stress response just like the high-energy feelings of stress. These low-level ones can hang out in the background in our daily lives. Because we don’t recognize them as stress, they are less likely to trigger a response that leads to getting out of the stressed state. Many of our responses to these low-level stressors only distract from, rather than resolve, this stressed state.
4. Stress is a short-term motivator
Have you ever noticed that health tips always start with the ‘bad’ things that can happen if you don’t take care of the issue? Fear is a great motivator. It grabs your attention and harnesses that high-energy of the stress state to get you to take action. As a result, we tend to rely on stress as a motivator for making changes. We tend to consider being calm and relaxed as being lazy and unmotivated. However, the stress state is not built for sustainability. Staying in the stress drains our resources both physically and mentally. Relying on fear and anger to get motivated leads you away from the physiologic state of being healthy. The Research shows there is a much better way. Motivation is much more lasting when it is sourced by energy in the thrive state, like self-kindness and calm, right from the start.
5. Acute stress has its purpose
There are times we need stress to be motivated. Without it, you would not jump out of the way when a car was heading for you, look for food when you were starving, or seek a tribe of people you can count on for support. A stress response sets off a cascade of changes in the body and the brain that actually improves immune function, heightens awareness and focus, and increases energy. Acute stress is there to keep you healthy and well; however, it is designed to be a temporary state.
Using stress as a motivator for these situations allows you to survive so you thrive. It’s essential, however, to recognize when you are using that emergency, temporary source of motivation for something you need long-term motivation for, like eating healthier, exercising, or work/life balance habits.
6. Stress tension is the need to move
Nearly all the things that happen in the acute stress response prepare you to move to fight or flee the problem. Notice how you feel them in your body when you feel stressed. When we rethink stress as the body preparing to move, actually making that connection between the feeling and the need to move, we reframe the feeling of stress as a helpful nudge to mindfully move the way you are designed, as an act of kindness. This is how exercise is transformed from a task to a resource for shifting your whole person from the stress state to the well state, so you can manage stressors in a healthy way.
7. The opposite of stress is not relaxation, it’s being well
The opposite of the stress state is not reserved only to the deep state of relaxation on a yoga mat. It’s the physiologic state of being well. Well is the ‘home base’ for the systems in your body. That is when they can put energy into doing their job for you to grow, heal, and learn—in other words, thrive. The whole purpose of everything that happens in the stress state is to get you back to this ‘home base’ state. In that way, stress is not a problem, it’s a reminder to take action to shift back to the well state.
What does thriving look and feel like for you? Having energy? Confidence to be yourself? Being easily motivated to do what you need to do? Connecting with others? Calmly handling stressors? This is ‘being well’.
8. Feelings let you know what state you are in
Emotions are called feelings because you ‘feel’ them in your body. They are messengers letting you know what state you are in right now. Since emotions are your best guide to knowing when you need to take action to get back to your ‘home base’ well state, I find it helpful to have a simple starting point for naming your emotions.
The feelings wheel is a handy tool because it organizes feelings into categories. The center of the wheel is that simple starting point I find so useful, especially when in that stress state and ready to react.
Basically, the stress state produces three core feelings: sad, mad, and scared. As discussed above, these can be high or low energy emotions, but you know when you are in them because of the ‘dis-ease’ they create in your whole-person.
The well state produces three core feelings: calm, confident, and connected. These create a sense of ‘ease’ in your whole person.
These are your core guides. At any moment you can check in to see what emotions are present. When you feel sad, mad, or scared, the dis-ease is a nudge to take action to get back to feeling calm, confident, and connected.
9. Stress management is about energy management
Your whole person has a fixed energy budget. As when your family budget is disrupted by a large, unexpected bill, your energy budget is disrupted when you have a large stressor come your way. Energy is funneled into surviving, handling this threat to your well-being.
By distinguishing between the stressor and the stress, you know that as soon as you know you are physically safe, it’s time to tend to the inner stress state, shifting energy back into the well state so you have energy to manage the stressor.
This is done by staying in tune with your body, so you are aware of when your emotions are giving you a wakeup call that you have left the well state. Fear, anger, or sadness alert you that you are in the stress state. You can choose a tool we discuss in the next section to shift back to the state of being well. Feeling calm, confident, and connected are indicators that you are back at the ‘home base’ and have the energy for managing stressors.
10. Mindful, kind science-based exercise shifts you from the stress state to the well state
The nine facts above show us that stress is not a brain-based activity, it is in your mind. The word ‘mind’ is often interchangeably with the word ‘brain’, but they are not the same thing. The definition of mind is “the element of a person that enables them to be aware of the world and their experiences, to think, and to feel”. Your mind is the inseparable connection between your brain, body, and spirit. Mindfulness is paying attention to what you are thinking and feeling in your whole person now, in the present moment.
Most of our stressors come from the thoughts we have about how a stressor will or did threaten us in the future or past. The brain automatically looks for real or potential problems with a situation. This negativity bias is there to keep us safe. Without it, we would not survive.
The problem is when we turn it inward and start judging ourselves. This is one of the biggest sources of stress from stressors. That is why self-kindness is a key part of mindfulness and thus stress reduction. It is known to calm the nervous system
Since the mind is your whole-person connection, reducing stress is more than just thinking differently. Brain-based approaches to stress reduction tell you to relax tension, focus on your breath, let thoughts go. These work to a certain extent because they are attempts to shift your thinking back to the present, where you can see which stressors are real, not imagined. But thought-based methods are incomplete because they don’t take into account the whole-person physiology of stress state.
Your body is ready to move to fight, flee or freeze against a threat. Your brain has been flooded with stress chemicals that keep it in a stress state. Your emotions are alerting you that it’s time to take action to shift back to being well. Your body needs to move in a way that releases tension and turns around that brain chemistry so you feel and function better now in your whole person.
But not all movement reduces stress. Daily activities often contribute to the stress state. Your focus is on taking care of something or someone else. Moving more, even if you get to a step goal will not shift your physiology back to the well state. The word exercise means ‘to practice’. Exercise for reducing stress is moving for the sole purpose of shifting your whole person back to the state you feel calm, confident, and connected now. Exercising for health is not a time to distract from your body or push it to burn calories. Exercising for health is moving to take care of your whole person.
Science-based Exercise ensures you are moving the way your body is designed, with ease, not strain. It balances your ‘feel better’ brain chemistry and tells your cells you want to be well now, not just in the future.
Mindfully moving as you are designed with self-kindness is the complete stress solution
This can take a bit of re-wiring, so your brain thinks of exercise as self-care. Let’s look at three ways to do mindful, kind science-based exercise that restores calm, confidence, and connection.
The Complete Stress Solution
As I mentioned above, stress management is about telling your whole person how to use your energy. Emotions are the guide to know if your energy is going into fighting a threat (surviving) or into thriving. Moving mindfully with self-kindness is the way to shift your whole person back to the well state. Here are the three whole-person solutions for shifting from mad to calm, scared to confident, and sad to connected.
1. Mindful stretching to restore calm
Mobility means freedom of movement. Stretching is one of the best ways to improve mobility but stretching has come a long way since your high school gym class! When it is done in the way you are designed, stretching does two things right away that shift your cells from stressed to well.
The first in-the-moment benefit of stretching is releasing muscle tension. The key is to do stretches that meet your body where you are, in a position that does not strain the rest of your body. Stretch by moving into the stretch slowly so you can stop where it feels good, not straining. I call these ‘thank you’ positions because it feels like your body is saying thank you. This is when stretching is releasing tension without straining.
The second benefit is moving the fluid called lymph. Lymph is the fluid part of your blood. The lymph vessels clear waste products from the inflammatory process from your blood so it can be transported and metabolized out of your body. This system does not have its own pump so it relies on movement to move the fluids. When you stretch, the muscle contraction helps move the inflammation from the stress response out of your system.
Mindfully stretching the way you are designed, as an act of self-kindness, is a convenient way to shift from stressed to well and feel calm inside even when surrounded by stressors.
2. Mindful strength moves to restore confidence
Strength moves are when you mindfully practice the movements of daily life, like stepping, lifting overhead, pushing forward, or pulling back. This allows your brain and body to create the muscle memory you can use for the movements of daily life.
Weight lifting is typically done by exercising individual muscles. ‘Success’ is defined as being able to lift more weight. With this mindset, weight lifting becomes the practice of teaching muscles to work separately, and not feeling strong until you are able to lift a certain arbitrary weight.
You will get stronger when you lift weights regularly, but muscles do not work independently in daily life. They are a symphony controlled by your nervous system. Strength moves ensure muscles practice working together to perform the specific movements you need in daily life. Your measure of strength is on the inside, not measured by the numbers on the weights.
By practicing regularly, you feel stronger in your body. When your body does not feel strong, you are vulnerable, which is a source of constant stress. This is especially true when aging or after an illness. Practicing strength moves mindfully is a time to remember you are strong, you can move without pain or strain. You start to spiral up in your whole-person confidence, giving you confidence in your inner stress shield.
3. Mindful stamina practice for connection
Stamina is the ability to move for an extended period of time without getting tired and needing to stop.
When you do something you enjoy or for someone you love, there is a natural energy that seems to come out of nowhere, but actually, where it comes from is your spirit element. When your physical stamina is low, your energy to do what you enjoy is limited, disconnecting you from the spirit element of your whole person.
Cardiovascular exercise improves stamina. It does this by tuning up the equipment in your muscles that produce energy aerobically, or the long-lasting energy system. This is the system that uses the food you eat and the air you breathe to create energy that lasts.
Cultural messages about cardio have turned it into pushing your body to get your heart rate up. The uncomfortable feeling of high-intensity cardio can make you feel like you are out of shape, especially at the start. You need to rely on stress energy to fuel that kind of exercise, thus perpetuating the stress response.
This mindset about cardiovascular exercise takes the passion-driven energy right out of it and reduces it to a numbers game. The way to do cardiovascular exercise for maximal energy connection is to
Meet yourself where you are. Start with low intensity and give your whole person time to adapt if you have not done sustained movement in a while.
Be mindful, present to how your body and whole person feels in the present moment.
Connect it to your Core Why, so the energy you are producing is for a purpose.
Shifting your mindset about stress from a problem to a reminder that it’s time to move mindfully as an act of self-kindness is a whole-person health approach to stress management. This allows you to use your energy for stressor management with greater calm, confidence, and connection.
Your Guide to Make Managing Stress a Lasting Habit
- Why: Clarify your Core Why for managing stress
- Take your time to visualize how you want to feel and function. Get really detailed here. The deeper you do, the more guidance you have to make stress management a habit
- Enough: Get really clear about the range of how much is enough.
- Guidelines are rarely rigid. Guidelines for how much is enough to eat healthy, exercise, and manage stress so you manage stress well are presented in ranges because no one knows the exact amount right for you right now. Flexibility in your ideas about how much is enough allows you to keep from adding stress to your efforts to be healthy. Most important is that your plan can fit your life right now. Ranges keep it flexible for the day-to-day changes that are a normal part of life. The more science-based and flexible your mindset about how much is enough, the more likely you are to stick with it when you need it most; when life gets stressful!
- Link: What is happening in your body right now is where you find the most reliable, personalized information about how you can shift from stress to well
- Notice if you are distracted to get through an exercise, a healthy meal, or meditation time. Stay connected with your body to learn from your most reliable guide for making moment-by-moment adjustments as you exercise, eat and use tools to manage stress
- Loop: Connect what you are doing and how you are feeling now back to your Core Why. This is what creates the habit. When what you do makes you feel better now in your body, your brain wants you to repeat it with the greatest ease.
- The more you are aware of what your body is telling your brain, the more you are in charge of your healthy habits.
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