Five Steps that Walked me out of Overwhelming Stress
This morning I attempted to sit for a few quiet uninterrupted moments simply to drink in some sweet peace — a common morning practice of mine — but sitting felt impossible. I literally popped out of my chair like a jack-in-the-box. I paced like the dogs in the neighbors dog run. Something within me felt jittery — an anxiety that is foreign to me was starting to crawl up my esophagus. Deep breathing, calm affirmations, reading the Word of God aloud, and still my insides danced with what we would label anxiety.
Stress is overtaking me. I know the antidote is stillness, yet everything in me keeps overwhelming the stillness. I’m trained to get present with the emotion. Don’t dodge it, suppress it, ignore it, get very present with it. But I can’t find it for all the movement my body is demanding. Is this why the 17th century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal noted centuries ago, “All happiness of men arises from one simple fact: that they cannot sit quietly in their chamber.” What I’m experiencing right here is not happiness, for sure!
Many people in our modern world regularly deal with anxiety or panic attacks where their bodies literally take over and put them in a full-on response to danger — RUN or FIGHT. Our bodies know how to respond to danger and our subconscious interprets our stress as danger that must be averted.
I definitely felt some desperation, despair, helplessness in the moment my body took on the role of getting me out of danger. All day I worked at deep breathing, frisking my thoughts, identifying my emotions. Twenty-four hours later, when the jittery physical response had subsided, I was still on a quest to uncover the trigger or fulfill the need or discover what was lurking behind the stress curtain.
Here are the deliberate steps I took:
Feel it: I felt desperation, disbelief, despair. Those are big emotions. I drew closer to them. Don’t run, even though I want to. Don’t stuff, even though it feels easier. Don’t ignore, even though that seems smarter. Scoop it up. What is it really? Let me give it attention. What is it exposing for me? When is it triggered? What is it’s purpose? Emotions, like our home security systems, serve a purpose. The alarm goes off for a reason. Investigate.
Uncover it: Find the thought or story that is driving the emotion. What is the underlying fear here? “I’m going to lose everything.” “I’m a failure.” “I made the wrong decision.” “They don’t really care about me.” “They are out to get me.” There is some story or thought that is informing the emotion. Finding it helps us identify our own extreme or faulty thinking. We are in charge of our own thoughts. Shift the story.
Be Resourceful: Now that we’ve uncovered the thought, let’s find three completely new thoughts. If the thought is “I’m going to lose everything.” Some possible new thoughts could be: I am smart, savvy, and resourceful. Everything is figure-out-able. I have several other options for what steps to take next. Pushing ourselves to move outside of the original thought or story unlocks our mind. Free up creativity.
New Feeling: If I don’t want to feel desperation, disbelief and despair, what do I want to feel? Hope, confidence, encouragement. Purposefully find a memory or a thought that involves these emotions — the feelings I want to experience. Stay with it until the feelings are beginning to visit me at the very core. Fuel what you want to feel.
Action: Now that we are here in this new space with a different emotion and we have been resourceful in getting to this place, we are able to think at an increased capacity. This is a space where we can now come up with an action we need to take — make a phone call, listen to music, stretch, create something, go outside. Whatever action we come up with at this point is coming from a stable emotional state.
From this place, I landed on a list of action steps and executed them within the next few days. The alternative, still be overwhelmed with stress and anxiety, is much worse than the hard steps that it took to walk me out of the stress. Make the hard choice, it’s worth it.