Managing Stress in the Midst of Chaos, Change, and Growth

We all experience stress in different ways, whether it be as muscle tension, digestive problems, or issues with our emotions. The way we experience stress is extremely individual, and I am thrilled when I meet others whose stress manifests the same as my own. Just as each of us is unique, the way in which we cope with and manage stress will be just as individual. Ultimately, the goal is to find the tools, methods, activities, and coping skills that work for you.

Before we discuss methods of managing stress, let's discuss what stress is and how it can either benefit or harm us. Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/stress) defines stress as "a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a cause in disease causation" and "one of bodily or mental tension resulting from factors that tend to alter an existing equilibrium."

In evaluating the first definition, we see unmanaged stress may lead to various forms of disease. The most common conditions I see in my acupuncture and Reiki practice are bodily and emotional pain, varying levels of acute or chronic disease, and unmanaged stress. When these patients and clients enter my clinic, my job becomes helping them to reduce their stress to manageable levels or adapt to an increase level of stress.

The second definition presents stress as a result of certain environmental factors upsetting a comfortable balance. In my experience, this definition is also true. This point of view affords us the wonderful opportunity to attaining a new, greater level of balance. Ultimately, this definition is more about the change and growth we experience as a result of appropriately managed stress.

The goal of this article is not to highlight the ways in which I cope with stress because my set of skills, tools, and activities are as individual as I am. However, I have realized these break down into four simple and basic rules:

  • Do not make changes I cannot undo while emotionally charged
    or stressed out.

This is a strategy I learned from my friend and peer, Maria Aquila. With her help, I was able to bring this concept into consciousness within the past year. Although the initial statement makes sense and seems pretty straightforward, there is a complexity in it that cannot be seen in its simplicity.

Each time either I or the universe turns up the volume on my life, I want to do something drastic in an effort to release the stress or pressure I am feeling. This has become even more apparent as I entered the final year of my graduate program in acupuncture. I will provide an example from my own life in an effort to elaborate.

I experience a number of signs when the pressure or stress in my life feels out of control. However, there is one signal that is my danger or warning sign - I want to quit and walk away - from work, from school, from my house, from my spiritual family, and just about everything and anything.

Here is the thing.

I could quit my job and alleviate the stress it may be causing. Now, I'm no longer feeling that stress, but how will I pay my bills while I'm looking for work. Basically, I have now traded one stress, whether significant or not, for another type of stress that may cause me further harm. I can't goto my boss and "unquit." Because I acted or reacted in the heat of the moment, I have to live with the consequences of my actions. Believe it or not, I found myself in a more catastrophic situation because I have actually quit jobs in this manner in the past.

Looking at my life more recently, I have walked into the registrar's office at my school and attempted to withdraw. I say "attempted" because I would have been successful had my Gods, Goddesses, allies, and spiritual family not been looking after my best interest. Amazingly enough, the person I needed to speak with in order to withdraw or take a leave of absence was not in the office on that particular day. Within 24 hours, my anger and frustration had dissipated. Within three days, I was truly glad I was not able to withdraw - especially since I have invested thousands of dollars and almost three years of my life.

The point I am trying to make is that when we act in the moment, we may lose sight of the larger picture. Once we act on our emotions, we have to live with the consequences of our actions. Depending on the person, quitting a course of study or a job may or may not seem like a reversible decision. However, everyone has decisions they consider irreversible or have later regretted.

Have you ever made a decision in the moment you later regretted? Do you have a tendency to make snap decisions or "fly off the handle?" Do you loose track of the moment? Are you able to step back from a situation? Do you lose sight of the "big picture?"

  • Take care of myself and do things that make me feel warm and fuzzy.

The most important aspect of managing stress is doing activities that help to alleviate the pressure and regain balance. Since we are human and very unique, these activities will vary from person to person. Some of the activities I do to alleviate stress are very different from that of my mentors and teachers. However, they are the ones who guided me toward finding these activities.

In recent weeks, I have been feeling the stress of preparation for a national certification exam. The pressure to do well has been so great that I noticed my breath would become very shallow after several hours of study. One day, I decided to put up a hammock near some running water. This particular hammock envelopes me as I lay in it. As I laid there doing absolutely nothing except listening to the rumbling of the water, I really noticed the shallowness of my breath. I followed that feeling, and began to take deeper breaths. Eventually, I found my breath getting "stuck" in a particular spot. I stayed with breathing and noticing - my breath, the water, the wind, my muscles. Eventually, my breath finally returned to a slow, deep, and gradual pace. As I emerged from the hammock, I felt as if I was emerging from a cocoon - calm, refreshed, able to see clearly, and with much more space in not only my life - but in my breath.

Laying in my hammock is only one of the things I do that bring me joy, make me feel warm and fuzzy, and help me to create space in my life. Some of my other stress relieving activities include writing poetry, painting with water colors, swimming, dining at a nice restaurant, and Qi Gong. I have a list of others, but it is important to keep in mind that my self-care regimen may not work for everyone. Humans are not one activity fits all species - we are unique.

The goal is to find activities that help to relax our thinking brain. The more we engage our thinking, the more we begin to spin or worry, and the higher our level of stress. Another key is not only remembering to participate in these activities but there must be a willingness to participate. Many times in recent weeks, one of my teachers would ask me if I had been in my hammock, written poetry, painted, or swam. I would find myself responding with a resounding:  "NO! And I don't want to!" When we are in a great deal of pain and stress, sometimes the last thing we want to do are activities that will make us feel better. This ultimately becomes part of a vicious cycle of self-abuse.

Do you ever notice the depth of your own breath? What activities bring you joy or make you feel all warm and fuzzy? What do you do to alleviate stress and pressure in your life? Do you have a self-care regimen? Are you physically active? Are you able to find places in nature that help you find greater space within your life? Are you willing to participate in you own healing? Do you get stuck in a cycle of self-abuse?

  • Consult my peers for support.

My peers, mentors, and teachers are vital to my ability in managing stress. When I am in a whirlwind of chaos and stress, I have several peers and friends who I call upon or spend time with to "air" my emotions. The ability to vent one's emotions in a safe and supportive manner is vital in promoting overall health and wellness. By "stuffing" our emotions or bottling them up, we endanger ourselves with the possibility of becoming sick.

The ways I express my emotions might include talking, screaming, crying, yelling, shouting, cursing, or even just stomping my feet. My peers are the ones who stand by me and just allow me to feel - let me say that again - they ALLOW me to feel - whatever it is I am feeling without judgement and without getting caught up in my emotional chaos. This relieves any emotional pressure I might be bottling up.

My peers vary according to the context. When talking about my graduate program, I look to my fellow classmates and alumni. If I'm struggling with life lessons or spiritual growth, I call upon my fellow students in Reflections Mystery School or other Pagan clergy. A peer is someone who is either on the same level or is slightly more advanced on a particular path. They may or may not be a member of your particular school, community, or spiritual tradition.

Who do you consider your peers? Do you have people in your support system with slightly more experience than yourself? Do your peers feed the emotional fire or stay calm and allow you to express your emotions? Are they able to listen without judgement?

  • Work with my mentors and teachers to gain perspective.

Once the firestorm of emotions have calmed down or sometimes in the midst of the firestorm, I need to be able to make sense of what is happening. This is where my mentors and teachers come into the picture. Mentors are able to provide different points of view we may not even consider or ever see, and most importantly, they do this without feeding into the fire of our emotions. True mentors and teachers are able to see our own blind spots or the places we refuse to look, and they help us to widen our view in order to see more clearly. They are also able to maintain a healing space while you adjust to a new level of pressure in your life. Ultimately, this begins the process of helping us gain perspective.

Mentors provide an important role by presenting an outside, hopefully unbiased perspective. I consider mentors to be people on a particular path with quite a bit more knowledge and experience than myself. At this time, I have what I consider a "team of mentors" or a "team of healers." The people in my life I consider mentors include my acupuncturist, my psycho-therapist, my physical therapist, my spiritual advisor, and my community elders. I meet with or speak with these mentors or teachers on a regular basis. When my stress level reaches catastrophic levels, I find my visits increase in frequency.

Finally, I rely greatly on my teachers for guidance and perspective. A teacher is someone who may or may not be older, but rather they have a set of skills that are being passed onto you. During my meetings with my spiritual teacher, we spend time deciphering and taking apart situations in my life. She helps me look at annoyances without the lens of an injured child, strip away what I may project onto a situation, and to see the situation in its current context. By approaching problems in this manner, the facts are not colored by my past experiences or what I may project for the future.

This is only one example of tools or skills our teachers guide us in mastering. They also help us to navigate the oceans of life. They don't necessarily plan our route or give us a map, but rather they give us the tools and skills in which to to do so. If there is one thing I can count on from my mentors and teachers, it is they will always tell me the truth - whether I want to hear it or not. Growth and healing is rarely pleasant or "love and light." The fact of the matter is . . . The truth hurts.

Do you look to your mentors to help you gain perspective? Do your mentors and teachers provide a space for healing? Who do you consider a teacher? In what areas of your life do you have teachers? Do your teachers provide guidance and perspective or do they feed the emotional fire? Do your mentors and teachers always tell you what you want to hear rather than what you need to hear?

As we have seen, stress in our lives has the possibility of causing pain and disease. However, stress can also be seen as a force in which we can learn to stretch our physical, emotional, and mental bodies empowering us to become much stronger. As my teacher, Katrina Messenger, tells her students: The skill is not in how long we remain balanced and stable, but rather how quickly we are able to regain a new balance.

The tools for my success in managing stress come from the following four rules:

  1. Do not make changes I cannot undo while emotionally charged
    or stressed out.
  2. Take care of myself and do things that make me feel warm and fuzzy.
  3. Consult my peers for support.
  4. Work with my mentors and teachers for perspective.

These rules have served me well by keeping me on track to attain my goals under an immense amount of stress. They have also helped me to gain perspective and see the bigger picture of the fabric of my life. Most importantly, they have helped me to see the patterns within my life in which I have a tendency of becoming stuck.