So, I have some time to catch up on some reading, and I just came across a stress management consultant with many years’ experience coaching and counseling, who says “the source of all stress is the subjective meaning we attach to events”. I won’t say who it is, to protect the not-so-innocent.
Okay, that’s fine. I get that to a certain extent. Stress can be a killer — and it is, for many, many people. And the subjective meanings we attach to events can indeed add to the stress of our lives.
Here’s the thing, though — when you look at stress from a broader point of view that includes the physical part of life as an integral part, things start to be a whole lot less clear-cut. Or maybe they become even more clear. Because over time, you can build up a lot of physiological stressors which contribute to your overall stress levels… to the point where it doesn’t really matter how bright and shiny and positive your psychological outlook is — you feel like crap, and that stresses your system… and it also impacts your frame of mind (which is now inclined to look on the dark side, for reasons it cannot cognitively identify).
Even if you can get your mental, spiritual, and emotional stresses down, if you don’t have a handle on your physical stresses, there’s only such much progress you can expect to make.
Take for example, this scenario, which shows the relative stress levels of the four different areas over a time span that has a lot of the usual stresses we experience on a daily basis: trouble with the boss, re-org at work, $$$ worries, health problems, marriage troubles, promotions, raises, recovery, family problems.
Even if you do manage to cut down on the mental and emotional and spiritual stresses of your eventful life, you can still have a buildup of stress in your body that, if not dissipated or reduced in some way, will still keep your overall stress levels high.
Even when everything is going great.
Now, with a situation like TBI, where all of a sudden, sh*t is all effed up for no reason that you can explain, something as simple as making breakfast or getting ready for work can be a huge physiological stressor, because things that used to be so simple for you — like buttoning your shirt or combing your hair or getting milk and cereal to end up in the bowl instead of on the counter — aren’t going so well, and it’s just one surprise after another… one little “micro-trauma” after another, getting those fight-flight juices flowing like never before.
On a daily basis — and this is what a lot of folks fail to understand about TBI — you can experience hundreds of these little surprises, which pump up your adrenaline and alternately make you high as a kite and downright depressed. It makes you seem/feel bipolar to those who are fond of that label, and it keeps you on high alert, just trying to make it through the day trying to do all the things that used to come so easily to you, but now require a different sort of attention.
And those stresses add up. The biochemicals keep collecting in your system, by default. Because you have to stay ON, to keep from falling off. And you end up on constant alert, a perpetual first responder to your own personal mini-disasters… which may not be that big, objectively, but seem bigger and bigger and bigger because, well, you’re really pretty tired from all the adjusting, and that adrenaline and ephinephrine and norepinephrine is actually making it harder for your brain to learn the new things it needs to learn.
Which is yet another source of stress… which has next to nothing to do with how you look at things.
Now, I’ve talked with neuro-rehab folks who were of that same philosophy — that the thing that gets us into trouble with our stress levels is the way we interpret what’s happening to us. And I agree, to some extent, that interpreting everything along catastrophic lines raises our stress levels and is a big culprit in frying our systems. At the same time, people seem to be overlooking or discounting the role that the body plays in all this — in the role that physiological stressors play in our lives. It’s NOT all about how we look at things and the meaning we ascribe to what happens. It can be just as much — sometimes even moreso — about the physiological burdens that we have to deal with.
Does our mindset affect our physiological stress levels? Absolutely? We can flood our systems in an instant with a reaction of our choosing. Can our mind reverse physiological stressors on its own? I’m not so sure. I think the body needs to be directly involved to do that to the fullest.
All this being said (and I wish I could say everything that’s in my head, but I’m still a bit foggy from the past week), I think that any stress management program needs to incorporate the body. Actively. On purpose. As a full partner in the whole process. We need to use our bodies to move all that biochemical sludge along. Can you say lymph?
And I also want to say that I don’t think that stress is necessarily a bad thing. It’s the long-term effects of stress that do the job on us. I personally believe that when we develop ways to discharge the effects of stress and use the energy for good instead of evil, we can build up a sort of immunity to the downsides, and stress can actually become a vital and productive part of our lives. Rather than being something to dread and try to control and “overcome”, stress can be our friend. One of our best friends, in fact.
I have friends who would cringe to hear me say how much I love stress. But I can’t help it – I do. I really thrive on it. The thing that gets me in trouble is when I don’t allow myself enough recovery time from tough stints. I also work in a stupid job that is constantly stressful and doesn’t let you stop moving for a minute, so that’s another effing culprit. I work at a very high, fast pace, and I can get pretty intense. I get a ton of stuff done on a regular basis, and I enjoy it. I’ve figured out how to be ultra-productive after years of experimentation and trial-and-error, and it works for me. I just know how to get sh*t done. And Stress (capital “S”) is a big part of that. So removing stress from my life — rising above it, overcoming it, keeping it within “liveable levels” — is the kiss of death for the parts of my life that I love the most. Hey, I’m a jock, okay. I want to run faster and lift more and be stronger… It’s in my nature, so if you take that away or diminish it or talk it down, then you’re hacking away at my innermost core and you’re pulling the rug right out from underneath me.
The thing is, I know what a toll all this can take on me. It gets me hurt. It ruins my life. I burn out in a very big way. So, I need to find a middle ground that lets me keep going, without heading right off the cliff.
Nowadays, what I’m working with — especially with my 90-second clearing — is letting my energy spike, then bringing it back down, consciously, to restful levels. I push myself hard for a period of time, then I stop, slow it down, get myself out of that frantic mindset that drives me forward, and put myself in a calm, relaxed state that actually feels really good. For me, it’s not the pushing hard that does the number on me — it’s not having a rest/recovery period to let it all sink in and integrate. I’ve been recovery-deprived for a long, long time. Only in the past few years have I actually learned how to relax and feel good. And only since I learned how to feel good while relaxing, has it truly become clear to me that my continued growth and improvement depends on recovery as much as it does on testing my limits.
It might even depend more on it.
For my money, one of the most important things anyone recovering from TBI can do, is figure out how to get to that sweet spot of emotional/spiritual/mental balance, where it’s possible to feel physically good. If you don’t know how to get there, and you don’t get there on a semi-regular basis, your recovery is going to be hampered. You’re going to stay amped up on fight-flight biochemicals, and you’re not going to learn as well as you can, when you’re able to relax and just enjoy yourself. Feeling good doesn’t have to even be a huge deal — if you can just manage it for a few minutes a day, and remember what it feels like to take the edge off, that can help. Absolutely positively. But if you never figure out how to get there, and you find yourself unable to relax and settle into a sense of being OKAY, I predict you’re going to have a tough row to hoe.
And we don’t want that.
Anyway, it seems I found the words I was looking for.
Bottom line is, as much as some folks would have us think that it’s our interpretation of events that does a number on us, rather than the events themselves, I have to respectfully disagree. The stresses and physical reality of dealing with one surprise after another, having to pump yourself up to keep going, and having to constantly be aware of ways you need to shift and change, can be physiologically stressing in ways no change of mindset will reverse.
We need to recognize the role the body plays in stress, and find ways to address our physiological stressors, so that our minds can relax and we can learn the lessons we need to learn.
It’s all a process, of course, and an imperfect one at that. But if we pay attention and keep an open mind and realize that 9 times out of 10 we are unconsciously deluding ourselves — and then take corrective action, we just might get somewhere.