I alert people to what they will experience once they start applying stress reduction techniques to their most stressful situations. Frequently, things feel worse! How could this be? I thought stress reduction techniques work by cooling things down such as stress hormones or our emotional brain systems. Cooling should make us feel less anxious, confused, angry, defensive, etc., right?
As beginners, our anxiety can increase and our bodies can feel pretty bad. I think this happens for a couple of reasons:
- We put some of our focus on how our bodies are feeling in that moment. Frequently when we are reacting to a high-stressor, we go to our well learned responses which can be quite separated from body awareness. We are thinking a mile a minute and our emotions are following familiar paths and forms of expression. Our body does not get its due even though they are very involved in the situation. When our focus returns to our body we can feel our breathing is off, or our bodies are pumped up with stress hormones, or our hands are shaking and more. That doesn’t feel good at all.
- We split our focus from just what’s happening to working our technique. That’s a heck of lot to juggle.
- We probably discover that we have not practiced the technique enough to know it well so we find ourselves trying to remember all of the steps.
- We probably discover that the experience produced by the technique feels too unfamiliar to make us feel comfortable doing it in a high stress situation.
Diminishing the Tornado and Passing Through the Doorway
The increased discomfort caused by the forces above is the tornado. The doorway is where we can pass from high discomfort of a body and mind in stress, to feeling better and having more control over ourselves. There are three things we can work on to make getting through the doorway easier or even possible.
- We can diminish the power of the tornado by getting very familiar and practiced with our stress tools. Daily practice, in the face of lessor stresses, can really sharpen our mastery.
- We can learn to expect the tornado and therefore have a better chance of persisting with our technique. When discomfort rises (hello, tornado) we stick with our stress tool and not back off. Most of the time, eventually it will produce some results (perceivable stress reduction and/or clarity of thought/feeling).
- We can expose ourselves to the stressor or similar stressors and bring the discomfort down. As the level of stress decreases the power of the tornado to rattle us diminishes. When a situation is less stressful, the tornado may not even appear. The balance between the stress and the effectiveness of our stress reduction technique will be such that the technique matches or exceeds the capacity of the situation to produce stress. Piece of cake.
Funnel cloud photo – Public Domain. Credit: OAR/ERL/National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL).