What is stress? I know that I think of myself as stressed when I have too much to do. When I am spreading myself thin and as a result I am tired and irritable. I say that I am stressed when I am worrying about things; money, the children, work. Usually I’m worrying that there is isn’t going to be enough of the first, money that is, that I’m not being a good enough parent – which oscillates between telling myself that I’m doing too much or not enough for the children, and fretting that there will never be enough hours in the day to complete all the tasks on my Beyond Chocolate TO DO list.
So what if I were to tell you that I don’t believe in stress? You may well think that was contradictory, since I’ve just told you about how I experience it in my life. But here’s the thing. I think calling what I’ve described above stress means I miss out on valuable information about what’s really going on and as a result I stay stuck, passive and powerless.
In our society it sometimes seems to me as if stress is viewed like an illness or a disease that just happens to us. “I’m suffering from stress” I hear people say. “Really” I think, ” where did you catch it?”
I’ve come to realise that, In my life, stress is something that I create. I create it by worrying about things that I cannot control, I create it by focusing on what I don’t have time to do, I create it by having a list of shouldn’t and oughts by which I judge myself and my actions. I create stress by being unwilling to say NO because then I would not be the admirable superwoman, capable of juggling not just 3 but 6 balls. And only ever dropping one the them, the ‘taking care of myself ball’ but that’s ok because no one notices, no one suffers (I tell myself) except me.
I create stress by insisting on not asking for help and on striving every day to do better than my best and beating myself up for never quite making it and for not trying are enough when I fail.
I create stress in my life by listening to my Doom Monger gremlin who catastrophises about every situation and can always be trusted to see the problems rather than the solutions. “You’re never going to get it all done, there will never be enough time, what if you don’t have enough in the account to pay the bills, you’ve got to keep going or you’ll never get it done, but you probably won’t get it done anyway…. Why did that have to happen, why did she have to say that, what did she mean…” you probably know the sort of thinking I mean.
I used to create stress about the way I ate and the way I looked. Constantly comparing myself to other women, berating myself for my food choices, vowing to lose weight every day and then breaking my vow just hours later. I created so much stress about my relationship with food and my body. And the more stressed I felt the more I overate. The more I failed to live up to my ridiculous expectations of having the perfect diet, of sticking to x number of calories to points, of avoiding entire food groups (you know the drill, cutting out carbs or sugar or dairy – or god forbid even all 3) the more rubbish I felt about myself.., and the more I ate.
So, if you you overeat when you feel stressed what can you do about it?
The first thing is to work out how you create the stress. While it may feel like its imposed on you in some way, so maybe there are many demands on you at work or you juggle a myriad of tasks between family and work. Whether you have financial worries or health concerns (for yourself or anyone you care about) the first step is to recognise that how you respond to all these situations is the key. That ultimately, whatever is going on in your life, however difficult or challenging, peace of mind and ease are down to our state of mind not to a set of circumstances. It’s how we form ourslves to manage those situations that creates stress, or not.
And the thing is that can be a bummer of a realisation. It’s so much easier in some ways to abdicate responsibly and convince ourslves that really, if we didn’t have this situation or that problem do deal with, then we wouldn’t be stressed. What I’m challenging you to do here is take charge of your experience and choose how to respond.
So, just for a change, I’m going to invite you to tune in. Tune in to your thinking first of all. What do you tell yourself abou the situations you stress about? How do you do the stressing bit? Do you worry? Do you fuel your frustration or anxiety by turning thoughts of the situation in your mind over and over again? Do you blame others for your stress and imagine that if only they were different, if only they were more reasonable or helpful or understanding, things would be better? How does your thinking contribute to your stress levels? I know that when I become aware of how my thinking contributes to my stress levels and I am willing to take responsibility for it – I can change how I feel. When I catch myself driving to a meeting, going over and over all the things I have to do before I go away and convincing myself I won’t have time, there is no chance I will feel anything but stressed. When I am busy telling myself:
” Oh god, I’ve got to finish the website and do the monthly podcasts and sort the filing and file my accounts and book a tutor for Evie and make sure the ironing and washing are done and, shit, what are we eating tonight and Jasper needs euros for his trip and I’ve got to sort out my inbox and return those items to figleaves, and I haven’t even found a swimming costume yet and I’ll never get it all done. I’ll never do it. I’ll never do all that before I go, this is hopeless….” and on and on….
When that’s how I’m thinking, how could I feel anything other than stressed?
And all the while I am tensing my shoulders, breathing shallowly, pursing my lips very slightly, picking at my nails (when I’m not holding the steering wheel!). I’m clenching my jaw and if I tune in and pay close attention I become aware of the fact that I’m slightly tensing every single muscle in my body. Not hugely, just a little. And it feels as though my heart is beating just a little fast. Most of these are very subtle so I only notice them when I take a moment to pay attention and tune in.
By this stage I’m most definitely feeling anxious. Not ‘close to panic attack’ anxious, just low level, ‘this is my mods operandi’ type anxious.
So here’s the challenge. Am I willing to take myself gently by the hand and lead myself out of my anxiety. I know I can. And sometimes it almost feels as though I don’t want to. As if stress, this kind of anxiety, is more comfortable that pace and tranquility. Just like overeating used to be more a comfortable way to manage than any other. My oh so unhelpful gremlin takes over with thoughts like ” well if you don’t worry and think about this stuff it definitely won’t get done, so it’s all very well feeling stress free and all that peaceful crap but who’s going to write the newsletters and finish the website?…
Oh he’s a crafty bastard my gremlin!
So here’s the way I manage it. First thing I do is breathe. Really deeply and slowly. At least 3 times. And while I’m doing that I focus on melting the tension in my shoulders and my face, I imagine every muscle in my body becoming soft. Then I whisper to The Doom Monger (my name for my gremlin who worries and frets about all the stuff I have to do) “I know, I know…” in a kind, maybe a little patronising way (don’t mean to be patronising it just comes out that way!).
It’s amazing how that creates a bit of space. Enough for me to think, “ok, I do have a lot to do. I’ll make a list and see if I can work out when I’ll do what before I go away. I’ll do what I can do. I’m human. And at the end of the day anything that doesn’t get done just won’t get done. What’s the worst that will happen? Someone will be angry with me, someone will see that I’m not perfect, maybe they will feel disappointed in me. Maybe they will judge me. Maybe I’ll be disappointed with myself and judge myself. And if I’m not stressed then ill have nothing to moan about and I wont get any sympathy from anyone. If I’m ok how will I relate to others who aren’t? I don’t want to be all superior and arrogant. Well, hey ho, that’s ok. After all I am human and I’m not perfect and I’d rather take the risk of being a bit crap and leaning to manage my relationships differently than live with this stress every moment of every day.
This is a process that I got through, every day, several times a day. Every time I catch the stress levels rising (which in the last couple of days has been on average once an hour!) I tune in and breathe and go through the whole process… It’s doesn’t take long and it works. I still have masses to do and god knows if I’ll get it all done ( really, if he did exist, god that is he’d be the only one who would know – since the only thing I can really know about is the present. However much I worry about the future, the next hour or the next day, I have absolutely zero control over it. What I do have control over is how I am right now. How I think, how I feel and how to hold and shape my body.
It’s so tempting to place the cause of our stress outside ourselves, to make ourselves into the victim. And there’s no shame in that. It’s what we (I) do. And, I’m learning to go beyond that temptation and take back the power to choose how I feel and what I think. And I can’t tell you how good that feels.
So, next time you go towards food to squash the stress, would you be willing to tune in and take the power back into your own hands? Whatever the situation? I hope you do and I’d love to hear at out how it goes, good or bad! Drop me a line at sophie[at]beyondchocolate.co.uk I won’t promise to get back to you in a flash, but I reply.