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Stress relief - where are you?

I'm on a daily treasure hunt for techniques to manage stress and achieve peace of mind. I'm all too familiar with stress and its friend, anxiety, and I don't like either one of them! If you're anything like I am, you've spent a lot of time despising those dreaded "stressed out" feelings. You know the ones: Swimming thoughts that can do laps around any Olympian, the butterfly collection in your stomach, tidal waves of heart palpitations, Niagara Sweat Falls, etc. The list goes on and on.

I've also spent a lot of time trying to make these feelings go away. I've done a lot of wishing and hoping to no longer be stressed and to be self-assured and at ease with whatever comes my way. Oh, to be as cool as a cucumber! Thus far, no one has figured out how to make stress vanish.

So, let's stop wasting any more time on trying to banish stress. Unless you live in a bubble somewhere - and even bubbles burst - there will always be stress. Instead, decide to take on a new approach to stress. Rather than trying to make stress go away, try to understand it - kind of like keeping your friends close and your enemies closer. Okay, maybe "enemy" is too strong a word to describe stress. Maybe "frienemy" is more accurate. At any rate, dealing with stress is like hitting a patch of ice on the road. Your knee-jerk reaction may be to swerve to avoid the ice only to spin out of control. A better approach is to take your foot off the gas pedal. Take your foot off the brake, too.  Face the ice with fortitude and glide over it.

There's no such "thing" as stress

This sounds strange, doesn't it? But, if I handed you a basket and asked you to go out into the world and fill it with stress, what would you put in it? If you think about it, stress really isn't a "thing." Stress is made up of thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations stemming from our perceptions. Sometimes, it's a good thing to perceive stress. You want to feel a bit stressed when someone cuts you off in traffic or when your alarm clock goes off. Stress can keep us safe and can motivate us. Stress is essential for survival. We get into trouble, however, when our perceptions of stress take over and do not serve any good purpose. So, being able to change our perceptions and thinking patterns is a phenomenal tool. Anyone who's willing can change their interpretations of events, people and life. Not that this is easy, but it is possible.

Think about where the perception of stress comes from. Think about some of the people, places and things that stress you out. The common theme is always that you're perceiving things as being out of your control. If we felt in control all the time, we'd never feel stress. So, the major key to stress management is taking back control. The first step is to believe you can manage stress - you're not just some empty shell bobbing along in an ocean of stress. It can be really difficult to believe we have control over our thoughts. Life seems to have a knack for dishing out challenges. You never know when health issues, car accidents, job loss, and all kinds of other depressing situations may happen. It can feel, at times, that we've lost all control over what happens to us.

When the poop is hitting the fan, it's certainly hard to believe that stress is all "perception." That's why it's so important to get to know stress. When you really know and understand stress, you start to take back control. This may be really hard to believe, but sometimes stress is actually acting as our friend trying to tell us something is wrong and needs help. Actually, it's not stress telling you something's wrong - it's YOU. Since stress arises from your perception, you're the one who knows something needs to heal. So often, we want a quick fix to feel better right now, but the stress keeps coming back. It can be helpful to learn what stress (or more correctly you) is trying to tell you. Chronic headaches at work may be trying to tell you to make adjustments at work or change jobs altogether. No amount of pills will make the headaches quiet forever.  

Stress affects so much

If you turn on your TV right now, I can guarantee you'll see commercials for medications within 5 minutes. You're bound to see the moderate to severe plaque psoriasis lady, the overactive bladder people, the can't-get-it up erectile dysfunction couples, and the depressed people who no longer have an interest in walking their dogs - just to name a few.  This is interesting to me. If you think back 15 to 20 years ago, did we ever see ads on TV telling us we should talk to our doctor about prescribing us particular medications? Never. So, why now? I have to believe it's because we're at a point in history where stress is at an all-time high. The Centers for Disease Control estimate that 95% of all illnesses are either caused by stress or made worse by stress. Take a moment to think about some of your own ailments. I know I get headaches when I'm stressed and that they keep getting worse the more stressed out I become. Aspirin can help, but the real resolution of my headache always comes when I finally relax.

Don't misunderstand what I'm saying. I'm not anti-medication. But, it would be helpful to know when plaque psoriasis flares up. Is it every time she walks into work?

Why do the good looking men, who are only in their early 50s, have erectile dysfunction? Are they worried about all the business calls they need to make?

What kind of thoughts are depressed people having? Are they worried they'll never find another job?

It's a shame that people are mislead into believing there's a magic pill, some great panacea, that will make the hurt and all the symptoms go away. This simply isn't true. Just ask any person who's been taking anti-depressants for years but still feels depressed. There's got to be more to the solution than medications. Medications can only do so much. The rest of the solution depends on our willingness to change our thoughts and behavior so they help us rather than hurt us. 

Most stressed out people just want to make the stress go away, often with medication. Stop trying so hard to make stress stop. As the saying goes, "To resist is to persist." The more we focus on making stress magically go away, the more stressed out we become. I've found it more helpful to listen to stress and try to figure out where it's coming from. It's not always easy, but it's better to change or fix what can be fixed than to try to mask stress with medications.

A great quote by Swami Sivananda says, "Crave for a thing; you will get it. Renounce the craving; the object will follow you by itself."

Nature vs Nurture and Conscious vs Subconscious

If stress comes from our perceptions, why does it feel so out of our control? Unfortunately, most of us tend to believe that how we are is dictated either by genes or by upbringing or a combination of both and that we have no choice in how things turn out. I often hear comments such as, "That's just how I'm wired." "I'm like this because it's how I was raised." I often hear excuses for poor behavior such as, "That's just how he is." Or, "He's always been that way."

Yes, nature and nurture play important roles in our lives and how we are shaped, but are they everything? I also hear and read a lot these days about the conscious versus the unconscious mind.  The majority of what I read hinges on the assumption that most of our actions are guided by subconscious thoughts - ideas we're not even aware of.  An article I read recently said something like 90% of our thoughts are subconscious. Unfortunately, a lot of people may read that and think, "Why bother trying? If I have no awareness of my thoughts anyway, I must not have any control over them." That kind of thinking lends itself to creating excuses for staying stuck in patterns that aren't working.

Rather than think of the mind as containing conscious and unconscious thoughts, I prefer to think of thoughts as either aware or habitual. The brain has similarities to a smart phone. Memory loops or "apps" are little pathways the brain creates for thoughts, emotions and actions we have on a regular basis. This can be a good thing! For example, the first time you got into a car to learn how to drive was not easy. But, after a few trials, your brain clued in and thought, "Oh, you're going to do this driving thing. Okay, I'll create a shortcut so that you don't have to relearn how to drive every time you get in a car." Think of the billions of things we do every day because of the "apps" in our brains. We walk, talk, clothe ourselves, go to work…the list goes on and on. I can't even imagine having to relearn all the things I do on a daily basis. I'm glad the brain is set up for automation.

But, you can understand how this "habitual mind" can work against us, at times. I know we can all think of someone in our lives who is negative. You know that person you talk to, and the conversation goes something like this:

Me: "Aren't you glad we have our jobs?"
Negative Person: "No, this job sucks!"
Me: "Do you want to get something to eat?"
Negative Person: "There's nothing good around here."

The conversation goes on and on. Before you've even finished your sentence, the answer from the negative person is "No!" "I don't like it." "I don't want it." "It'll never work." This may sound simplistic, but that negative person's brain has also clued into patterns and thought, "Oh, you want to be negative all the time. Okay, I'll create an "app" so you won't even have to think about it. You'll just react negatively all the time." The "app" also updates itself!

This is how a stressful reaction to life events can become habitual. The anxious person has essentially trained their brain to automatically react in a stressed out way. For example, I lost my footing and fell over the edge of a sidewalk and sprained my ankle. After that incident, I was wary of sidewalks and would only walk along the side of the road. One day, I was in a nature preserve with a walking trail. I didn't want to walk along the trail for fear that something bad might happen there, too. As I walked along the edge of the path, I saw a bicyclist hit a rock and fall off her bike. See, these foot paths really are dangerous. So, not only does the brain create these little memory loops or "apps," but it looks for other instances to reinforce the loop and keep it going.

Just think of all the "bad" habits we engage in on autopilot. These habitual thoughts can become deeply ingrained in the brain. That's why it's never as simple as "Don't worry. Be happy." That's like telling a smoker, "You want to quit smoking? That's easy. Just don't buy cigarettes anymore, and don't bring them to your lips and light them." Physically, it may be possible for the person to quit smoking this way, provided they're tied to a chair somewhere. Realistically, it's not going to work out. The same applies to stress reduction. Telling yourself to just stop worrying will never be enough.

The good news is that we can install new "apps" in our brains. We can reprogram our brains to be more responsive to stress and less reactive to it. The reticular activating system or RAS is the portal through which nearly all information enters the brain. The RAS filters incoming information and affects what you pay attention to. Your RAS responds to your name, anything that threatens your survival, and any information that you need immediately. The RAS also responds to novelty and is a great radar detector alerting you to anything new or different. Why not use this radar detector to our advantage? We can introduce new activities and thoughts to the RAS, such as relaxation techniques and mindfulness exercises. After a while, these useful habits will form their own "apps."

To manage stress requires bringing our typical reactions to stressful events into our awareness and consciously changing our response to something more productive. After a while, the productive or helpful response will be our habit. It's tempting to want to fight fire with fire. So many people get angry at their stress response or feel as if they'll never feel any better. Unfortunately, it's these types of thoughts that just keep stress going. In a way, we have to become observers of our own stress patterns rather than followers. We can acknowledge what we feel and choose an alternate response instead of getting caught up in the initial stress response.

So, what about genes? What say do we have over what they produce? Contrary to popular belief, not all genes are created equally. I like to think of genes as lights in a room. Some lights turn on in the room as soon as we're born, and there's no shutting them off. Your height, skin, eye, and hair color are all the result of genes that have turned on, and there's no turning them off. You have no control over how tall you're going to be. You can, however, wear high heels, dye your hair and put in colored contact lenses. So, even with some of these more permanent genes, we still have a say. Other genes are more like lights on dimmer switches. Depending on what they're exposed to in life, the genes may express themselves a lot, a little, or not at all.

There are many genes responsible for a person's predisposition to anxiety, for example. Just because someone has one or two parents with anxiety does not necessarily doom that person to being anxious. Yes, we learn what we live and often imitate the coping skills of those around us. But, that person can still exercise control over his or her anxiety response. I see the feeling of stress kind of like having a headache. If you're prone to headaches and feel one coming on, going to a football stadium or to work for twelve hours will probably make it worse. If, however, you feel a headache coming on and you lie down and shut off all electronics for a while, the headache may not magically disappear, but you stand a better chance of keeping it at bay.

So often, people who are stressed out keep doing and thinking the very things that are stressing them out. It's important to realize the simple truth that nothing changes if nothing changes. Your stressful reaction to life will keep being strong as long as you keep doing the same things.

I'm lazy so I stopped setting the bar so high

I admit I'm a pretty lazy person. I enjoy vegging in front of the TV. I really love lounging around on a lazy Sunday. Knowing that I have to put in effort to get what I really want seems daunting, at times. I think most people can relate to this. Many people fail to achieve their goals, whether it be a weight loss goal or a work goal, because they set the bar too high. But, aren't we taught from childhood to set the bar high for ourselves? Yes, we are. But, setting the bar too high often results in quitting or not even getting started in the first place on achieving our goals. So many of us have the misconception that working on goals needs to be an all or nothing process.

Take dieting for example. Monday comes along, and you're gung ho about your resolution to eat healthy foods. Three o'clock rolls around and someone brings in doughnuts to get through the afternoon slump. You decide to eat a doughnut and think, "Oh, screw it! Might as well have another one. I'll start my diet tomorrow." Tomorrow arrives with a similar experience and you think, "Well, I'll wait until next week to start." But there's a birthday party coming up or a holiday. The point is there will always be some occasion on the horizon  that merits eating a doughnut.

Unfortunately, we tend to think that we have to either be 100% healthy or 100% unhealthy. We think we should either eat only healthy foods or only unhealthy foods. This same thinking creeps in with so many things we do in life. We either exercise for 30 minutes a day or not at all. We either clean the whole house or not at all. We either complete all our errands or none at all. You get the point. It's this "all or nothing" thinking that tends to lead people down the path of procrastination and failure.

I've fallen into this "all or nothing" thinking many times. I call it the "Perfection Myth." We believe that we have to complete things in a "perfect" way or not at all. I've had many gym memberships that have gone to waste because of the perfection myth. Just think of the all the home gym equipment collecting dust right now - or, better yet, being used to hang clothes on.  Why does this happen? People are usually excited when they first get their new gym equipment. "This is going to be the beginning of a new healthy lifestyle." A couple of weeks into the new treadmill routine, and reality starts to set in. "I don't have time to exercise today. I'll do it tomorrow." But, you know how the story goes. Tomorrow never comes. Before you know it, that piece of gym equipment is looking like the vestige of a sunken ship sprouting barnacles.

Can the perfection myth be tamed? I think so. As I've mentioned, I'm lazy.  This is what works for me. I've given up on setting the bar so high for myself. So, I've decided to set the bar low. - so low that I'm successful. To give you some examples, if someone were to tell me I needed to exercise 30 minutes today, my knee-jerk reaction would be, "I don't have 30 minutes to spare." But, if someone were to tell me I needed to exercise for one minute today, I'd think, "Okay, I can do one minute of exercise."

As we were talking about earlier, the brain is very adept at picking up on patterns and creating "apps" to help automate our thoughts and actions. By exercising for one minute each day, the brain has the amazing ability to pick up on this new habit and find other one-minute occasions for exercise. You can think of lowering the bar in this way as setting up mini goals for yourself. Mini goals are easily achieved and lend themselves to being done with more consistency than big goals. Exercising for only one minute will not train my body for a marathon, but that's not what I'm looking for. In my case, one minute of exercise is better than no minutes of exercise.

I set mini goals for myself all the time. Another example is cleaning the house. Just thinking about cleaning the house makes me tired. It's something I would put off all the time until the house reached critical mass and really needed attention. So, what I do now is clean the house in parts. I don't have time to clean the entire house today, but I can manage to clean the powder room. Tomorrow, I have time to clean some mirrors. The next day, I may do a little dusting.

Setting up mini goals can really protect you from really stressful situations resulting from procrastination. Think about all the poor souls who put off getting their tax info together until the eleventh hour. No one likes to think about getting tax stuff together. Again, it's mostly because we think we have to either get it all done today or not at all. Guess what happens? Most people go for the "not at all" option but end up doing it all when the pressure's really on. There is another option available, a very simple one. Get some tax info together - not all the required info, but some. I find that setting time limits is extremely helpful. I don't want to work on taxes for hours on end, but I'm willing to give 15 minutes. Setting mini goals with time limits is a surefire way to beat procrastination.

Why am I saying all of this? Because lowering the bar and setting mini goals is a great approach to manage stress. People tend to believe they have to resolve all stressful issues in their lives in order to be happy. I tended to feel this way about my own shyness. I felt for so long that people are either outgoing or they're not. I knew I definitely was not outgoing. I often wondered what it would be like to feel self-confident and speak my own mind without caring. Somehow I believed the notion that self-confidence had to mean self-confidence to the extreme. A self-confident person should feel confident no matter what the situation. That's why I resigned myself to being shy for so long. I had the perfection myth deeply instilled in my brain.

Over time, though, something wonderful happened. I started to give little public speeches on the topic of stress. When I first started doing this, I never gave much thought to how this was helping me. I would give my little talks and really enjoyed them. I got better and better at presenting classes to small groups, and my confidence grew exponentially. It dawned on me one day that I was accomplishing a lot through this mini step. I realized for me this was all I needed. To be confident didn't require me to deliver speeches to crowds of thousands. I wasn't doomed to being shy. I could let my voice be heard. I'm no Tony Robins. But, I realize now that I don't have to be anyone else but myself to be my best. I can optimize who I am and my unique assets. So can you…

What I know is life goes up and down. Sometimes, we have a collection of little stressors that gnaw at us. At other times, we have major crises that bring us down. Then we have the periods of tranquility, during which some of us may actually worry about what's going to stress us out next! At any rate, we will always know stress in one form or another. It's better to do something about stress than to give up.

The Starfish Story

You've probably heard this story before, but I really enjoy it every time I read it. I hope you will, too.  Here it goes…

~ Once upon a time, there was an old man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach every morning before he began his work. Early one morning, he was walking along the shore after a big storm had passed and found the vast beach littered with starfish as far as the eye could see, stretching in both directions.

Off in the distance, the old man noticed a small boy approaching.  As the boy walked, he paused every so often and as he grew closer, the man could see that he was occasionally bending down to pick up an object and throw it into the sea.  The boy came closer still and the man called out, “Good morning!  May I ask what it is that you are doing?”

The young boy paused, looked up, and replied, “Throwing starfish into the ocean. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can’t return to the sea by themselves,” the youth replied. “When the sun gets high, they will die, unless I throw them back into the water.”

The old man replied, “But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.”

The boy bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. Then he turned, smiled and said, “It made a difference to that one!” ~

 ~Adapted from The Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley (1907 – 1977)~

This simple story serves as a good reminder that:

  • YOU are worth time and effort.
  • Maybe you can't help everyone, but you can help someone.
  • Goals can be achieved one mini step at a time.

I've never known anyone to just wake up one day and magically be stress-free. What I do know is that by committing to practice one simple relaxation technique or tackling one little task on your to-do list adds up day by day. There's a cumulative effect to managing stress. Managing just a part of your stress every day amounts to feeling great. There won't be a designated day when you'll say, "Yes, this was the day when my stress got under control." But, after some practice, there will come a realization that somewhere along the way, things got better.

What kind of stress relief will you find here?

The Know Stress Zone offers a comprehensive guide to help you manage stress. You'll discover many techniques for harnessing the power of your thoughts so you can gain control. Not all stress benefits from a "calm down" approach. Relaxation techniques can be beneficial, but sometimes your stress might require more of an "energy releasing" or active approach. At other moments, we need a really good laugh to diffuse stress.

Not every technique works for everyone and every "body." The work involved in stress management comes in figuring out what helps YOU the most. Whatever works, works. The good news is that this really is a go-to site for finding the right fit for you. There are so many strategies to help manage stress here that you're bound to find the sweet spot.

Here you'll find a curation of the best of the best techniques, insights and products to help you manage stress. You'll  learn effective strategies for relieving stress such as diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, visualization, mindfulness, humor, exercise, healthy eating, aromatherapy, autogenic training, and hypnotherapy - just to name a few! You'll find easy access to all the stress relief products I have found to be great complements to the techniques I use to manage stress.

I like easy and quick methods, so that's what you'll find here.  As with anything else in life, habits get easier with practice. You can retrain your brain.  You can do this!

Please join me in the Know Stress Zone as we explore different ways of breaking down stress and really managing it so it doesn't break you down! As a person who knows stress, I'm always searching for new ways to deal with it, not just put up with it. Please visit often as I frequently add new information as I get hold of it. Let's manage stress today and take back control.

The development of this website has been a labor of love, with the intention of helping anyone struggling with stress and its related issues. I am excited to help as many people as I can in search of stress relief and look forward to being a small part of your journey.

Get Started!!!

Take some time exploring the different tabs in the navigation bar. Pick one topic and delve into it. Try out a relaxation technique or read more about what stress really is. Take a mini step today to manage stress, and you'll start to feel better just knowing you're helping yourself.

Thank you for taking the time to read this page all the way through! I know I can be long-winded, at times. The fact that you've read all this speaks volumes to your commitment to change the way you deal with stress.

Don’t forget to sign up for your Free Stress Management Course and ezine, The De-stress Press,  using the form in the upper right corner or just below. Connect with me on social media, too.

I wish you peace on your journey.

Stay in the (k)now,

Melissa Stefanski, BS, MA, CH

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Recent Articles

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by Max Ehrmann

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.

As far as possible, without surrender,
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even to the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons;
they are vexatious to the spirit.

If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain or bitter,
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs,
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals,
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love,
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment,
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life,
keep peace in your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.