What is stress? Stress is made of stressful thoughts and images in the mind, a rush of adrenaline, and corresponding sensations and tensions in the body. Anxiety and fear are other words for stress. Fear is as natural and healthy a response as is the pain we feel when we put our hand in the fire.
Fear is a helpful message that says, “Danger! Pay attention! Take care!” The question is, is there real danger (immanent), or is it imagined danger, like the thought, “I won’t be able to get it all done”, and the feeling that something awful will happen if I don’t?
Usually, when we talk about stress management, we are talking about ways of getting rid of or reducing the tension or fear. The only way to reduce fear is to feel safe again. Fear/stress activate our fight/flight/freeze response so we can get back to safety.
But what happens when we cannot find our way back to safety, as in our fear of failing to complete our dissertations or getting our degrees; or fear of losing our loved ones; or fear of losing our health, etc.? We remain in the fight/flight response longer than is healthy for our bodies, so they start shutting down to conserve energy. This shows up as tiredness, fatigue, lack of energy, loss of motivation, or depression.
To feel safe again in the face of failure and loss, we can come to accept these as inevitable in life and to realize that, while uncomfortable and painful, they are not dangerous. We have all already survived both. They are like an injury or illness from which we heal.
I am reminded of the quote from At the Will of the Body by Arthur Frank, to paraphrase, “Every time we get ill or become injured at some level we fear our death, yet we recover from every injury or illness until we encounter the one from which we do not recover”.
This brings us squarely to our inevitable existential fear of death, which we all-too-successfully deny (see The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker), yet of which we are inevitably and frequently reminded.
There is a saying that states, “F E A R can mean two things – Forget Everything And Run, or Face Everything And Rise. We can spend the rest of our lives running and distracting and avoiding, or we can find the courage to face our fears and rise above them to do what we love and live our lives fully until we die. We get to choose. Only one of them qualifies as self-care.
Kelly McGonigal found research that shows that stress is not bad for us. What is bad for us is the belief that it is bad for us. The people who died from stress were only those who believed stress was bad for them (see her TED talk https://www.ted.com/talks/kelly_mcgonigal_how_to_make_stress_your_friend )
To summarize, the impulse to manage stress is probably always motivated by our fear and resistance to our stress, which only adds to our stress. It is not stress that needs to be managed, but our response to stress.
When we respond to stress by simply acknowledging, allowing and accepting it, we are switching off the sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight), and switching on our parasympathetic nervous system (that returns us to calm). We could call this “permission to be stressed”.
When I first learned of this, I’d tell myself, “I get to be as stressed as I need to be for as long as I need to be”, to counter the years of messaging that told me that I should not be stressed, I had no reason to be stressed, and to get over it. Meeting stress with acceptance is self-compassion and is the first step back to our longed-for calm. This is self-care in the face of stress.