We all have stressors in our lives. It is a normal part of life, but what exactly is stress and how does it affect us? Stress is any change in the environment that requires the body to react and adjust in response. The body’s reaction to these changes can cause a number of physical, mental, and emotional responses within an individual. Many events happen in and around you -- and many things that you do to yourself – put stress on your body. You can experience good or bad forms of stress from your environment, your body, and your thoughts. When our stress becomes negative ("distress") we face continuous challenges without relief or relaxation between those challenges. As a result, a person becomes overworked and stress-related tensions build, which can lead to physical symptoms such as a weakened immune system, headaches, upset stomach, elevated blood pressure, problems sleeping, to just name a few. Sometimes we may not even know we are stressed and that certain symptoms being experienced are actually a direct result of it. At times it may cloud our mind, overrun our lives, and cause impairments in our everyday life. What I have learned is that it is imperative to understand how we deal with our stressors and how to identify, control, and manage them in order to live a healthy, happy lifestyle.
Easier said than done, I know. I believed I was pretty successful managing my stress, but it wasn’t until a couple of months ago did I begin to realize that wasn’t so much the case. Last year, I decided to fulfill my dream of becoming a psychologist and entered a Master’s Program in Counseling Psychology. I glorified the idea of being a student again, but I had no idea what I was getting myself into. The last time I was in school, I was in my early 20s, paying $300 a month in rent, with barely any bills. This time around it was quite different. I was 35, living in one of the most expensive cities in the country, with way more bills than I had in my 20s. I was nervous to return back to school, not only for the amount of debt I was about to accrue, but also because I was entering into a Graduate Degree Program. The course workload and its requirements were academically intimidating. In addition, as a counseling program, it also requires a lot of personal and deep emotional work. I have never allowed fear to hold me back from achieving my goals. So, once again I pushed all my concerns and anxieties aside and jumped in, ready to take on the challenge.
I am now a full-time student, working twenty to thirty hours a week, in addition to taking out loans to help with my finances, mainly rent. I spend whatever “free” time I have left, reading and doing homework; at the same time, trying to maintain a relationship with my boyfriend, my friends, and some sort of life outside work and school for my sanity. All of this has all proven to be quite challenging. The demands of school are exhausting. At times I feel so overwhelmed, that my chest tightens, I find it hard to breathe, my anxiety shoots through the roof, and trying to prioritize my time (and sleep) can be slightly difficult. As challenging as it is, I love almost every moment of it. I am beyond excited to be on this journey. I knew I was going to be stressed out at times. It’s grad school. But I didn’t realize how much my general and emotional stressors were starting to be internalized. A couple of weeks after I entered into the program, I began getting headaches. I was exhausted all the time, my productivity was down, my anxiety heightened, and I began to feel isolated trapped between work, school, and homework. Even though while this was happening, I still didn’t feel like I was all THAT stressed. It all felt normal, in the sense that this was what I signed up for.
Two sessions go by and on my break, my amazing and loving boyfriend took me on a trip to Panama. That whole week I felt amazing. There was no anxiety, I was headache free, my energy level was high, and my sleep was deep and restorative. I didn’t think too much of it, it’s vacation! Recharged and ready to get back into school mode, I returned home. The very next day, I woke up with this horrible headache, one that would end up lasting six weeks. I couldn’t figure it out, nothing had happened. Surely, it wasn’t stress? I didn’t feel stressed at all; I just got back from vacation. After a couple of days without any relief, I began doing weekly acupuncture. In addition, I mixed in upper cervical chiropractic, regular chiropractic, exercise when my head would allow, frequented my therapist, and visited my naturopath. Each one of them expressed their thoughts that the root of my headache could quite possibly be stress related. Yet, I wasn’t totally convinced simply because I just didn’t feel all that stressed out (Well, besides the stress of dealing with my headaches and the financial burden that was stacking up due to it). Then, one night as I was struggling to write a paper, I started to feel this numbing sensation going down the side of my face. This went on for a couple of days, coming and going. Sometimes on one side, other times on both sides of my face and going down my neck. Finally, I broke down, terrified that something was wrong with me. I immediately started to think the worst, which didn’t help, and only added to my anxiety. I went to see my doctor because I had exhausted all other resources, which had unfortunately, provided me only “temporary relief,” meaning the severity of them would lesson enough to make them bearable for a couple hours, and if I was lucky sometimes even a whole day. My doctor told me that there were no alarming signs, which would cause him to send me to see a neurologist. He too, thought they were anxiety and stress related. He offered me a prescription for the pain, which I declined, as I wanted to find the root of the problem, not mask it. Even though this news came as a relief, I was still at a loss of what to do next. If this was all stress related, how do I relieve it? How do I fix it? I felt like I had tried everything. I was approaching week six with this headache, not to mention its companions of nausea, neck pain, blurred vision, and light sensitivity. It just wouldn’t let up and it started to break me down. I couldn’t take it anymore; it had taken over my life.
The end of week six approached, which coincided with my boyfriend’s birthday. I decided to treat him (and myself) to a little R&R getaway for the weekend at Indian Springs in Calistoga. I refused to let my headache ruin the weekend I planned for us. We got massages, ate amazing food and drank delicious wine. We soaked all day and at night, under the moonlight, in their heated mineral pool. I was so relaxed, happy, content, and for the first time in six weeks, I was headache free. It was then that I knew, they truly were stress related. My boyfriend began to joke that all I needed to manage my stress were weekly weekend getaways up in wine country, which indeed sounded like perfection to me. Sadly, weekly weekend getaways don’t fly on a student budget. I knew I had to make a change.
I needed to learn how to reformulate my relationship with that little thing called stress. My first approach was, the more I cared about something; the more I needed to learn how to stress less about it. Next, I began to try and break the patterns of how I normally react to stressful situations. Sometimes I was so caught up in them, I found myself fixated on the risks, or what could possibly go wrong. Those patterns of thinking, of fear, began to feel normal to me and less like stressors. For example, I have a fear of public speaking. I often talk about how nervous I get, or how I tremble and shake like it's a normal thing. Lately, I’ve been taking a different approach; going with an “I don’t give a ____” attitude, which has actually helped alleviate some of the unnecessary stress I was causing. In addition, slowly, I am trying to learn to be mindful enough to shift some of that time I spend being anxious into a more expansive and relaxed, creative mode, thus producing better results. I am learning to practice letting go, relinquishing control where its not needed, and staying present in the moment. As long as I attempt my best each day, that’s all that truly matters.
In regards to my emotional stress or health, I have been spending a lot of time practicing self-care and learning to listen and understand what my body is trying to tell me. I have been practicing mindfulness, recognizing and feeling my emotions. Trying to understand why they are occurring by sorting out the causes of sadness, stress, or anxiety. Also, I am trying to express my feelings in more appropriate ways, making sure their not being kept locked up inside. In addition, I have found it helpful not to obsess about any issues with school or work that lead to negative feelings. Not ignoring them by any means, but focusing on the positive things that are happening in my life too. I am trying to live a more balanced life, making sure I make time for things that are important and bring me joy, like my boyfriend, my dogs, making dinner with friends, drinking champagne on the beach, dance parties, and my passion for traveling the world (Two weeks ago, I decided to throw my worries and concerns out the window and booked a trip to Cuba, because I simply wanted to. It had been a place on my list I had wanted to visit since I was in my early 20s and it was time). It is important to remember to nourish yourself, your passions, and your desires and not get fixated with all the hustle and bustle that happens in our everyday world. Lastly, one thing I wish to focus more attention on is learning how to calm my mind and body through meditation and relaxation techniques, which are helpful ways in bringing ones emotions into balance.
I continually struggle with making it part of my daily routine, as I have attempted so many times; which is why I would like to invite you to join me Friday July, 22nd at the East Bay Meditation Center for an open meditation sitting. I would be so delighted if you came out and joined me in this experience. I will be standing outside at 6:15, wearing a Sol Sisters shirt, so come say hi! Please click on this link for more information!
Lastly, I just want to leave you a couple other helpful strategies I have found helpful for me to deal with stress:
• Take a time-out. Practice yoga, listen to music, meditate, get a massage, or learn relaxation techniques. Stepping back from the problem helps clear your head.
• Eat well-balanced meals. Do not skip any meals. Do keep healthful, energy-boosting snacks on hand.
• Limit alcohol and caffeine, which can aggravate anxiety and trigger panic attacks.
• Get enough sleep. When stressed, your body needs additional sleep and rest.
• Exercise daily to help you feel good and maintain your health.
• Take deep breaths. Inhale and exhale slowly. Count to 10 slowly. Repeat, and count to 20 if necessary.
• Do your best. Instead of aiming for perfection, which isn't possible, be proud of however close you get.
• Accept that you cannot control everything. Put your stress in perspective: Is it really as bad as you think?
• Welcome humor. A good laugh goes a long way.
• Maintain a positive attitude. Make an effort to replace negative thoughts with positive ones.
• Learn what triggers your stress/anxiety. Is it work, family, school, or something else you can identify? Write in a journal when you’re feeling stressed or anxious, and look for a pattern.
• Talk to someone. Tell friends and family you’re feeling overwhelmed, and let them know how they can help you. Talk to a physician or therapist for professional help.