The “S” Word: Part 1

Jennifer Graf, LCSW

Stress seems to have a sneaky way of wiggling in to our minds and our bodies. Stress isn’t all bad, it reminds us we are alive and kicking. But when we are over-stressed we make poor decisions, get sick more easily, and stress others out too.

And because stress is no stranger to me, I have become a stress expert. As a psychotherapist I work to help clients manage stress on a daily basis. Fortunately, there are a multitude of ways to balance our stress response with our relaxation response. First and foremost, how we wake up every morning sets the tone for the day. Issues can and will arise to elicit stress, but it helps to begin each day with intentionality.

Before we open our eyes in the morning, we thank the universe or our higher power for the miracle of waking up — to breathe, to experience, to love for another day. We breathe in blissful intentions and images for the day. We breathe out worry, fear and tension. Five to six deep yet easy breaths will do the trick to properly get us out of bed.

With regular practice we will enjoy the benefits of a clearer, more relaxed state of mind. And with that comes a stronger immune system, a better mood, and a body we can feel more at home in.

1. SLOW down.

Ironically, if we want to propel forward, we must sloooow down. Sounds counterintuitive, I know. But to be our most productive we need to do less. We need to disconnect from excessive technology, connect with friends face to face, eat mindfully instead of automatically, and pay attention to our breath throughout the day.

When we find our mind is going a mile a minute at work, or we get annoyed because something or someone has distracted us, *pause* and take one of those deep belly breaths. Take another, just for good measure. Feel life force coming into the body on the inhale, feel stress going bye-bye on the exhale. We can even say to ourselves the words “breathe” on the inhale, and “peace” on the exhale. By fully focusing on each breath, we bring ourselves back to the present moment, which is all we have, it’s where happiness lives, and it’s how we slow ourselves down.

“There is more to life than increasing its speed.”

– Mahatma Gandhi

2. LIGHTEN the load.

Stress doesn’t always come from having too much to do, it sometimes comes from not finishing what we’ve started. Have we taken on projects that don’t interest or inspire us? Have we bogged our schedules down to the point where important commitments go to the back burner? Let’s step back and unload what’s not essential. I feel lighter just thinking about it.

We make a list of all the things we need to do and list them in order of priority. What tasks do we need to do personally and what can be delegated to others? Which tasks need to be done immediately, next week, next month? Breaking tasks down into manageable bites makes it less daunting, and to-do’s more doable!

Many of us find it hard to say “no” because we want to help, or if we dare to admit it, we want to be liked. (A dear friend of mine reminds me that “No” is a complete sentence.) Or, perhaps we don’t say no because we don’t want to miss out. We must remember, however, that our lives are our own responsibility and we can create healthy boundaries to secure our sanity and reduce stress.

“It’s not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.”

– Hans Selye

3. LEAN on family, friends and your therapist.

Let’s let go and release the heaviness from our hearts. Learn to lean on family members and friends who “get us,” aren’t quick to judge, and who make us feel safe. Share insecurities and offer to listen to theirs. Expressing with words can lessen the severity of fearful, hopeless feelings. It’s when we don’t express ourselves that feelings of anger turn into rage, feelings of sadness turn into depression. Talking things through can help us find solutions to stressful situations and put things in perspective.

Talking to a trusted, licensed therapist can be like working with a trainer at the gym. Just like working out our bodies, we get good at working out our thoughts. Life isn’t meant to be tackled alone. But, when we are alone, journaling thoughts and feelings works wonders, too. Studies have shown that putting pen to paper reduces stress in our bodies, lowers cortisol levels and increases serotonin. And that not only makes us feel better, but do better in life.

With the latest election, we as a country are feeling divided. Some of us are also experiencing seasonal depression. And with technology tirelessly dinging in our denim, we may like to put on our calendar a reminder: to slow down, lighten up and speak up with honesty and compassion. Stress takes shape in different ways. Different modalities work for different people at different times. Be willing to experiment, and see what works for you in the moment.

Breathe peace,

Jen