De-Stress and Turn the Page, Part II

Managing Acute Financial Stress Starts With Becoming Aware of Your Stress Responses

In Part 1 of my approach to identifying stresses in your life, I wrote about how self-awareness is the first step toward managing and diminishing the debilitating impact of stress, especially stress caused by finances. I focused on the effects of Acute Financial Stress, and the more we learn about the negative health effects of stress about money, the more imperative it becomes to learn to manage this stress. Financial stress appears to be as bad for our long-term health as other kinds of trauma, and we want to help you manage it.

It turns out, knowing yourself and your unique triggers can make a real difference on the impact of chronic stress.

Today I’ll talk about a few simple physical, mental and emotional exercises you can do to minimize stress, as well as a process to help you move on from a particularly difficult stress-inducing situation.

Physical Effects

The most fundamental tool we have to relax our body’s stress response is slow, deep breathing. Simply take three to five slow, deep breaths — the kind that make your stomach extend — counting to four with each inhale and exhale.

Practicing this simple exercise sends a coast-is-clear message to your autonomic nervous system (which controls the actions you don’t think about: breathing, heartbeat, etc.), so you can ease back on your stress-induced fight-or-flight response.

Some studies suggest our negative to positive thought ratio can be as high as 10:1.

Progressive muscle relaxation is also a quick and simple technique that can be used anywhere at any time for identifying physical tension. It’s outlined in detail in How to Manage Financial Stress.

Mental Effects

Negative thought replacement is crucial for many people. Some studies suggest our negative to positive thought ratio can be as high as 10:1. That’s a really shocking and downright depressing (in more ways than one) number. Think about how you talk to yourself.

  • Do you tend toward absolute thinking, where everything is “always” bad or “nothing” ever works?
  • Does negativity overwhelm your thoughts?
  • Do you catastrophize, heaping all of your negative thoughts together in a tangled pile?
  • Do you strive for unattainable perfection?
  • Do you tend to think that you have no choice but to act alone?

Regardless of what comes to mind, remember this: you are a work in progress. You’re trying to be your best, and no one is perfect. Try to get in the habit of replacing negative messages with more balanced, realistic statements like “I’m still learning” or “I’m trying my best.”

Or try taking ten deep breaths to lower your stress response and address the problem in a calm way.

Above all, be open to laughing at yourself. Humor — even in the face of struggle and adversity — helps put things in context.

Your Stress Story

How we manage stress has a historical component to it and has a lot to do with how our families managed stressful times.

  • When was the first time you remember feeling stress?
  • What stresses you out today?
  • What does this remind you of?
  • How did your caregivers deal with stress?
  • What did you absorb about your stress responses from them?

Who we are depends greatly on where we come from. A stressed or anxious parent bathes a child in worry, preparing them to approach life with a heightened sense of anxiety. Just being able to distinguish your stressors from your parents’ stressors helps liberate you from unnecessary worry.

Mindfulness

The current popularity of mindfulness exercises is happening for a reason: they provide immediate positive results. Essentially, mindfulness is taking stock of where you are without judgment or any attempt to change it. You can begin a habit of mindfulness by simply taking a moment to check in:

  • In your body: where do you feel tension right now?
  • In your mind: where are your thoughts right now?
  • In your emotions: how do you feel right now?

Often, our language falls short when it comes to articulating our feelings, so don’t put any pressure on yourself to name it. Just feel it. Don’t think in terms of changing or judging these feelings, just notice where they are.

Also, notice two important threads here — all of these stress reduction exercises include two crucial elements: an effort to know yourself better and an attempt to take control of your responses.

Stressed out people feel as though they’re trapped and being acted upon, leading to a constant state of reaction. All our efforts to reduce stress are about knowing ourselves and taking charge. Be proactive because this is one aspect of our lives that no one else can do for us, no matter who we are.

Now, Let’s Turn The Page

Turning the page involves a mindful approach to adversity, so you can have a constructive response. Non-judgmentally observe your thoughts, feelings and impulses as data points. Then, try to have the response that works best for you in the long run. Don’t be hard on yourself if this takes time, it’s not like flipping a switch. Practice makes this easier.

Take a look at this four-part process to turning the page and moving on from a stressful situation:

  1. Identify your feelings
  2. Examine your thoughts
  3. Take stock of your impulses
  4. Make a constructive choice to respond

Many people experience difficulty when they fail to acknowledge one of these steps, and it’s important not to jump ahead and push away some of the discomforts that can come from really knowing how you feel.

For example, when people move on from grief without feeling it, they stifle the pain, which emerges later or elsewhere in our bodies or minds. When people take their thoughts as the only truth, they block the perspective offered by other experiences, isolating themselves. People who are led by impulse alone find conflict wherever they look, as they’re unable to put things in perspective (think about how exhausting road rage is). People who remain in isolation too long often don’t explore other options, leading them to believe that no one would understand what they’re going through.

Discuss

A huge part of stress reduction is talking with others, building a community. Often, we find comfort from sources we wouldn’t expect — a smile from someone on the bus, an act of kindness from a stranger. Even helping others has a proven calming effect on us. There’s a reason golden retrievers are often employed as therapy dogs: think of how calming holding a baby or playing with a puppy can be. Though these little moments don’t address all or even most of our need for social contact, they can go a long way to reminding us that we’re not as alone as we think.

The Road Map

So, look at your initial responses to the questions above, and use them as a roadmap to discovering the hidden alleys of stress in your own life. Like visiting any new place, my hope is that you will quickly become familiar with where you are and be able to find your way back to a place that makes you more comfortable and calm. Knowing yourself is definitely the important first step, but by taking active steps to relax and make positive decisions, you’ll begin to change your life for the better.

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