Have you heard the story of the frog in a boiling pot? It’s reported if you take a perfectly good frog and put it in a pot of lukewarm water and put the pot on the heat, an odd thing occurs. The frog can’t sense the water temperature is going up. So it sits in a pot of boiling water, not knowing it is being injured until it’s too late.
Let’s all agree that this is an experiment that should not be done. Animal cruelty has no place in our community. But as an analogy for stress, well, my friends, I think this little parable has some utility.
People seem to be under a lot of stress these days. The stress comes from everywhere: social media, the news, jobs, relationships, needing to be in two places at one time, etc.
I rarely find people who aren’t experiencing chronic stress. Stress can be a lot like that frog in the pot. We have been experiencing it for so long that we start to become numb to it. We don’t consciously recognize the amount of stress we are trying to manage. Like the frog, because we don’t acknowledge the stress, we don’t do anything about it. Just like the frog, not doing anything about it hurts us.
What’s worse, if we aren’t careful how we deal with stress, we may hurt ourselves more. Food is the No. 1 anxiety medication in America. Excess alcohol, drugs and tobacco use are all things people use for short-term stress relief that frequently lead to more problems.
Let’s talk about our body’s response to stress. Our hormone system is designed to help us in times of stress. Let’s say you find yourself being mugged or come face to face with a bear. Immediately, your body dumps a lot of cortisol and epinephrine into your bloodstream. The cortisol will increase insulin resistance, thus keeping extra sugar around in the blood to use for fuel. Epinephrine speeds up your heart rate and tightens up your blood vessels, causing your blood pressure to rise. All of this is designed to maximize your ability to fight or run away. We call this the “fight or flight” phenomena. This stress response, when used occasionally for brief episodes of extreme activity, can save our lives — which is why we all have this hormone response.
But here is the problem. Your brain and hormone system can’t tell the difference between the stress of a bear attack and the stress of too much work, bad relationships or any of the other chronic stressors we may be experiencing.
Chronic stress leaves us always keyed up to fight a bear. That’s the issue: Chronically elevated stress hormones are bad for us. When left unchecked, chronic stress response exhausts our ability to be healthy, to respond to infections or even to rest enough to repair the damage we all accumulate as we go through our day.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could all live stress-free lives? Oddly, it probably wouldn’t. Having no stressors means we would be bored to tears. I, for one, get into trouble if I am bored for too long. We need a little stress to motivate us, challenge us and make us respond to what’s going on around us.
Is it even possible to eliminate all the stress in our lives? Though I would certainly advocate for removing unnecessary stress from your life where you can, there is a limit to how many stressors we can remove from our lives. It’s just not feasible to avoid stress all the time.
This brings us to how to handle our stress in a safe and sustainable manner. I am not a therapist, but I will share with you what I have learned along the way in both my training as a lifestyle physician and person who has learned to cope with multiple stressors.
First, let’s talked about meditation. This one surprised me. I grew up milking cows in rural Missouri, so the concept of meditation was foreign to me. But in the mid-2010s, while dealing with a lot of stress, I tried meditation and was surprised by what I learned. One meditation technique I found helpful is called “naming the emotion.” While sitting quietly, inventory your emotional state and put a name to it. For example: “Angry, I am feeling angry.”
Once you’ve named the emotion, ask yourself, “Is that what I want? To be angry?” If you don’t, choose to let it go. Just tell the emotion “no.” Before using this technique, I didn’t understand I had a choice to accept an emotion or let it go. Until I learned this technique, if I felt angry, I was angry. I didn’t realize I had a choice of accepting or rejecting the feeling. This technique helps you create a little space to take control and make a choice. It may sound odd, but surprisingly, it works pretty well.
Next are breathing techniques. It is fascinating how our breathing is linked to our emotions. Get excited or upset, your breathing rate goes up. This is cool because this link goes both ways. If you modify your breathing, it can affect your emotional state.
Elizabeth taught me this breathing technique: When you need to calm down, take a deep breath in through your nose for four seconds. Hold that breath for seven seconds and then slowly blow it all out for eight seconds. This slows down your heart rate, lowers your blood pressure and blunts that stress response. A couple rounds of that can really bring the stress level down.
Finally, I will share my favorite mood booster. Emotions are tied to our memories. We’ve talked about this before. First, scour your memory and find the happiest memory you can recall. Something that really made you feel great. Now get that thought and that feeling firmly in your mind and then squeeze your middle finger and thumb together like you are about to snap your fingers. Now practice putting those fingers together and recalling that happy thought. As you do it a few times, the act of putting those fingers together will become the trigger to recall that happy emotion.
Now when you are experiencing a bad mood, you can use that technique to boost your mood. I do it pretty frequently, and no one even knows I’m doing it.
There are lots of other ways to deal with stress in a healthy way, of course: exercise, music, art, good company, etc. The trick is to recognize we all experience a lot of stress and to find healthy ways to deal with it.
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