Stress is irrational for the most part. We are the ones who create our fear and resistance around what doesn’t have to be good or bad. We are always able to choose how we want to think about the situation, but at any moment it’s easy to forget that – because we are just being triggered and therefore, reacting. That’s why I want to empower you to have access to your conscious, higher thinking before you’re in a really stressed out state.
I want to give you a few tools to dismantle the feeling from all sides, but I want to clarify something, first. Some believe that stressing out is helpful to them because it makes them more alert. That’s a false belief. While facing challenges does grow you, a really toxic reaction to stress does not. It all comes down to your innate response to the stress. If you are experiencing anxiety and fear, you are not better able to handle the situation. You are actually hyper focusing and therefore blinded to a more intelligent part of your brain. If anything, you’re HURTING the outcome. If you are having a severe reaction to the stress –physically or you are using unhealthy methods to soothe it, then you must take steps to get a handle on it. You’ve got to do right by your body while you still have your health. Otherwise, you’re going to harm your longevity. Only you can answer to your personal stress response. I know I thrive under ordinary stressful circumstances – it’s almost like a high for me and I go into a flow state. I also know when I hit the threat stress state because it feels very different: things haunt me and I can’t sleep. I can recognize it because I obsess. Like part of me fights it and dreads it. That’s how it feels for me, and that’s when I have to work on soothing and taking a step back. That’s what I want you to get to know, in yourself. As a first step, I want you to reflect on your stress-type in your journal.
JOURNAL EXERCISE: What kind of stressor are you?
I want you to become aware of your reactions so you can recognize them, next time. If you expect them, the moment they come up you can start to separate from them in your mind by calling them out. This is how you can choose a new, healthier action and avoid the helpless reaction. Take notes on your schedule: notate the kinds of stress you inevitably will have to cope with – whether related to future work or personal life.
If you know you are a stress-eater, that is because you have a higher sensitivity to stress. If you’re not a stress-eater, I want you to reflect on the last really stressful time of your life and circle with a highlighter any moments you feared what was to come. Take apart the narrative that was going through your mind and ask yourself whether or not the thoughts were rational. Were you fixated on worry or were you able to focus on actions? Were you obsessed and losing sleep over what people might think of you? Were you anxious and feeling overcome by the factors or were you able to let go of the future?
Note your inner monolog, what is the feeling the most stressful times gives you? Break down the ingredients of those sentiments: how you interpret the meaning of the stress, on a personal and emotional level.
How do you feel about the actual item that is causing you to stress? Is it out of scale in relationship to the thing you’re stressing about? What irrational feelings go through you – are they old? Are they tied to self-worth? Or feeling you are not good enough or a fraud? Are you afraid of looking bad? Or of being out of your league? What goes on in your mind? Is it a feeling of powerlessness? Like a dread of the future?
Get a sense for when you are conscious and unconsciously dealing with stress. What happens when your soothing habits take over? Where are you when that happens? Take notes on the circumstances that set up those moments.
In order to change a habit of stress-eating, your solution needs to come with a complete view of the challenge: how it’s set up, what inspires it. Once you’re aware of all the factors, you need better tools for talking to yourself and soothing. BEFORE the balance has been tipped, gather as many tools as you can to self-medicate and use them all before the trigger state has come about. The number one reason things like this have power is that you learn helplessness. When you perceive yourself to be powerless, you rationalize that it’s because of something about you that’s lazy or broken. That is not true, but it can feel like you’re out of control – which can make you feel hopeless and like attempts to change are futile.
What this means is your solutions will come in the form of planning and holistic change in favor of calming and soothing. The change will all be inconvenient and feel like they are too hard or you don’t have enough time. But there’s always time if you make it. You can affect the before and the after – so that’s what I want to tackle with you. Being more diligent about practical non-triggered steps and planning. I also want to tell you to take these seriously and don’t just say they’re impossible. It’s easy to say I don’t have the time or to think you’ll maybe implement one or two things, once. Commit to going all in, and the change you need to make will eventually become “your style.” Neurosis is self-perpetuating and needs to be recognized and then released.
Real change won’t happen all at once. It will happen a little bit at a time, almost imperceptibly. Don’t fixate on the outcome, fixate on the actions you take, today. Right now. For healthy habits to take hold, you must enact them from a place of safety, control and conscious awareness. They must become natural habits. That’s why I want you to take steps now, or when the stress is not a massive problem. As a first step, I want you to begin a regular practice of soothing in the form of exercise and empty-mindedness. Empty-mindedness means a meditative state where you are not able to hear your brain chattering, allowing you to control your brain via your physical body. That means when your brain is going crazy with thoughts, you can turn them off by utilizing a physical practice, SOLELY for the sake of staying out of this mental state – so you can damper the soothing chemical loop a tad. At this point, stress-eating is happening almost unconsciously, so your job is to self-medicate and set the stage for the best outcome possible – beforehand. In the areas, you have some control. Like planning for an attack. That means scheduling time for yourself to get on the treadmill – making it a priority, equal to work stuff. It also means having consistent habits during times you know stress will chemically tax you. So start a daily first-thing-in-the-morning meditation practice. Don’t make excuses! There’s always time to take care of yourself if you MAKE it a priority.
Something’s got to give.
Because stress is something that triggers your chemical centers, I want you to take on a habit of doing things that replicate the chemical release process of stress-eating, so it is less likely to happen in the first place. If you are stressed out even the tiniest bit, it’s imperative that you begin to replace the source of opioids before that soothing loop starts – and that must come in the form of releasing endorphins like running around the block or dancing with headphones on. What I mean by this is you need another drug source. You need it before your addiction takes hold of the wheel. Start “dosing” yourself on a regular basis – just to temper even the smallest bit of stress-hormone. It won’t feel like it works until you keep doing this as long as you can – for me it was a month of consistent use. And then it will become automatic. And eventually, it will feel AWESOME!
In addition to a soothing practice, limit the caffeine and alcohol. Additionally, take probiotics and omega-3 fatty acids. Eat as many plants and whole grains nuts seeds and beans as possible. Past that, here are some specific tools for you to apply at various stages.
Tool 1: Surfer Self-talk
I want you to start to talk to yourself aloud in moments of stress and intensity. Sometimes if you just say the right things to yourself, you can calm yourself down – even when your body’s not convinced yet. It will have an effect that’s similar to hearing the words of another person who comforts you. Basically, play the role of a surfer with your words: the chill, cool friend who smiles and gives you a nice neck rub and who’s never in a rush when they’re late, the one who looks upon this project as an entirely doable thing. Phrases like, “Chill.” Or “Dude you got this,” or, “Let’s get you to the sauna, buddy.” You could also picture Brad Pitt from True Romance.
Tool 2: Make a Pacifier
Stress-eating could just as easily be drugs, so a pacifier in this tool means a replacement soothing mechanism. Something in your biology makes you more susceptible to food – so to support yourself I want you to create a new and healthy addiction. By that, I mean to take up something that scratches a compulsion – no, not smoking or drug use. Something like blasting music while jumping up and down or filling your shopping cart without clicking “purchase” or even yogic breathing while fake-smiling, with your hand you’re your heart. But something else that creates a similar chemical release to fatty foods.
Your first step is to figure out a replacement in a more casual circumstance, like in a controllable and mildly stressful time, and using it. For example, after spending an hour in traffic. And yes, all of them will feel ridiculous and inconvenient and will take consistent use to feel natural – just don’t stop until it sticks in your memory.
Tool 3: Zag the Stress Ritual
With soothing mechanisms – especially addictive ones, it’s all about slowing down the time between the trigger and the reaction – so that you can choose anything new to replace it. The more you can delay yourself, the better your chances will be of avoiding the soothing mechanism (stress-eating). It has nothing to do with food – everything to do with a machine-mode-like shutting off of anxiety. So in short, this tool is basically to do ANYTHING to “zag” your reaction: whatever it is, head in an entirely novel direction. Generally, you may go by the drive-thru by your freeway exit and eat on your way home. To ZAG in this ritual, you might turn around and go to a mini-golf course and play a round or two. Or something like make a wish in the park fountain. ANYTHING NEW.
The fear and anxiety that come from stress usually distract you from what you’re doing with your body. You can disempower the physical rituals you enact by interrupting them. Although it never feels like it, everything you do is a choice. Every action you take is a decision. It’s a whole lot easier to change that decision at the start of your stress reaction. Stepping back and recognizing you need to hit the red “zag” button and get off that ride, asap.
Tool 4: Escalator Ride
This is a reference to the movie Soap Dish when Sally Field’s character (a soap actress) would take a ride on the mall escalator to feel more confident and like herself. As soon as people recognized her, they’d flock to ask for autographs – restoring her faith in herself. I want you to do something similar in that it’s a way to grow your self-command abilities. You can enhance your connection to your power by practicing things that you know you are good at. Alternately you can practice something expressive or creative, that is purely for the sake of art – for example, music, dance, drawing, or cooking. Maintaining this practice will enable you to stay more in control of your smartest actions when you’re stressed out. Another way to grow your power is to try new things that are intimidating to you.
Tool 5: Usual Suspect Lineup
This is a tool for dismantling the confusing mess of stress. Whatever your feelings are, name them in physical form. All your rambling fears and irrational worries, write them down on a piece of paper, and they immediately lose part of their ability to control you on a subconscious level. If you’re in the car and can’t write, describe them aloud and call out their place in your physical body. So if you feel tightness in your chest, become aware of that, name it, and start to relax into that part of your body. The point is to expose the thoughts and feelings, externally, and remove them from your subconscious so that you can see them for what they are: thoughts, feelings and nothing more. This is how they lose potency.
Tool 6: Room Hygiene
Similar to the practices of those who have insomnia, I want you to practice room hygiene that keeps very strict rules for where you eat. You’re going to make it difficult for yourself to enact unconscious habits by creating rituals that are very conscious. I also want you to create food hygiene or a set of rules around where and how you will feed yourself. Basically, you are going to set up a routine with very specific rules and rituals – for food and work.
For a start, you are not to have food in your office or car. If you have another place you typically soothe via eating, this too will be a no-food zone from this point forth. All of this is to give you some safety zones: a buffer when you’re in the headspace that could lead to a food soothing loop. Food hygiene will be similar in that I want you to make the meals you consume ritual and special. During stressful times, eat something memorable, exciting, and colorful for meals and only eat at a dinner table with real silverware. Pay attention to your food and chew each bite with clarity and focus. If you’re eating with someone else, describe the flavors of the food to one another in detail. Leave work out of the conversation while food is involved.
You come first. Start acting like it. Even when deadlines are pressing or work is competitive, you need to have a structure to take care of yourself. Health and achievement are not mutually exclusive. You’ve got to be deliberate and intentional about self-care: create a strict routine that keeps your chemicals balanced. First things first: your stability is paramount. Because from a place of health, you can be much more efficient at work. Rational = happy. When you’re balanced physically, you have more energy – you get better sleep which means you’re clearer-headed, which means more effective at work.
I know from where you are now, that sounds easier said than done – but that’s an illusion. You get to decide what to make a priority, and if you begin making this a goal, I believe you will find that things in your life will organize themselves accordingly. It’s pretty amazing how much of the resistance and analysis is unnecessary. We get in our own way and make things seem like they’re so much harder than they are in practice. Just like we create more stress for ourselves as a way to reassure ourselves we’re trying – meanwhile, we’re not helping the output with any of it. Ask yourself first, what do I need to do to take care of myself? How can I support myself – emotionally, right now?
When it comes to things that stress you out – remember to embrace what is up to chance. It’s not all up to you, and that’s a good thing. Often the answers will come from outside your range of focus. You can never predict the future – fear is the worst part of life. All you can do is your best, and you need your reflective brain for that, which cannot be accessed via stress. Try to take breaks from whatever project you are dealing with, because you might find that you have access to better solutions because of it. Kind of like when you try hard to remember something, and it only arrives when you stop forcing it. As a rule, go easy on yourself and remember to let go of what isn’t what you wanted it to be. Every experience is a gift, and whatever happens, you will come out of this a better person. As long as you try your best and you don’t repeat the same mistakes, you’ve won.
Sarah May Bates
Founder of Yay With Me a hub of practical tools to create change in yourself, from Podcaster/Author, Sarah May Bates, @sarahmaybee