Stress is toxic.
Actually, that’s not quite true. Long-term stress is toxic.
In the short term – say, for getting away from a tiger – stress is very useful. It turns you into a temporary superhero. Your senses become sharper to detect danger, your memory is enhanced (so that next time you’ll remember not to blunder into the tiger’s territory), and your blood fills with energy-boosting and protective chemicals and rushes out to your arms and legs so that you can a) hit the tiger hard on the nose and b) run away quickly. So far, so good.
The long-term not-a-tiger problem
The problem is that in 21st-century cities, what we have is not a tiger (which you either escape from quickly, or… not). We have debts and relationship issues and work pressure. You can’t hit them, you can’t run away from them, and instead of being resolved in 20 minutes they can go on for months or years.
That’s when stress becomes toxic. The blood that’s stuck out in your extremities isn’t helping you, for example, to digest your food and otherwise run your internal organs. It’s at high pressure, and it’s thick with all of the chemicals that are there to boost your speed and protect you from infections, allergies and pain. But they never get used, and either you run out of them (and get the infections, allergy and pain), or they lurk around and potentially clog or burst your arteries.
Your memory keeps getting poked: “Remember this. Remember this. Pay attention.” Eventually it can’t cope any more and starts dropping things out.
The 3-step stress detox
So what can you do to get out of this toxic state?
Here are three simple steps.
1. Connect. This seems totally unintuitive at first glance. Our instinct, faced with bad things happening, is to close them out of our awareness – but that’s fighting against the stress reaction, which is saying, “Danger! Warning, Will Robinson! Pay attention, this is important!”
We can end up putting an awful lot of energy into that struggle that we could be using for something more helpful – like resolving the situation.
Most of the techniques that psychologists refer to as “maladaptive coping” are ways of distracting ourselves from unpleasant situations. I’m talking here about everything from cutting yourself to overeating, drinking and smoking (or just working too hard). The stress is too big and scary, so we turn away and hope it won’t eat us.
The problem is, in doing so we’re trying to ignore the alarms that are going off and signalling that something’s wrong. By “connecting” I mean paying attention to the alarms – not to the fire, just yet, only to the alarms. Connecting means becoming consciously aware of what’s happening in your body, where you’re holding tension, how you’re feeling.
When that’s clear, move on to step 2.
2. Welcome. Again, this goes against all our instincts. But we’re not welcoming the bad situation, we’re just welcoming the feelings that tell us about it. And we welcome them by name. “Welcome, anger.” “Welcome, fear.” The feelings are there to help.
Naming feelings is very important. It creates a link between the rational, language-using part of your brain and the irrational part that is experiencing the feeling, and starts to draw off some of its activation.
You’ll feel that start to work, your body starting to calm down – because you’re still in touch with your body from step 1. Those stress chemicals will take a minute or two to be pulled out of your blood, but that’s all right. The process has started.
3. Let go. As the feelings start to fade, let them. Release them in your mind. You might want to say something like “I let go of anger,” or whatever the emotion is. You might even make a releasing gesture with your hands.
You’ve just shifted your body from its activated state back into what should be its normal situation – with the blood flowing smoothly to the internal organs, the muscles relaxed and the mind calm.
The Welcoming Practice
What I’ve just described is the Welcoming Practice (or Welcoming Prayer), created by Mary Mrozowski within the Benedictine Centering Prayer movement. (Yes, it’s not just Buddhists who can do this kind of thing.) I use it to calm myself down whenever anger, fear or stress threaten to hijack my body and brain in one of those not-a-tiger situations.
The consequence is that I can move on quickly to a state of mind where I can start to think about how to resolve the situation – if that even needs doing after I’ve calmed down.
After all, sometimes, my toxic stress reaction was going to be the problem, the whole problem and nothing but a problem.
Are you stressed? Try the three-step detox right now, and tell us about your results in the comments.
Hypnotherapist Mike Reeves-McMillan blogs on health and personal development at Living Skillfully. For even more stress relief, get his free online course, Simple Stress Management Techniques.