Stress: Real and Imagined

We tend to think of stress as a modern day malady, but while we may have more of it in forms that really are new (ie internet stress), stress has always been part of living. There is also the idea that having lots of stress and being crazy-busy is somehow a good thing: the person with the most stress wins!  Maybe they win a heart attack or a stroke, but I’m not sure they win anything else! If they want all that stress, they can have it!  My old Boss From Hell was always running around shrieking “I’m overwhelmed!” as if somehow that gave her license to be rude, demanding, and made her important.  I really believe that there are people who believe they can’t be important if they aren’t “overwhelmed.” If your sense of self-worth as a person is tied to the amount of stress in your life, maybe you should speak to a professional about it.

When it comes down to it, it’s impossible to avoid stress in our lives.  Like I said above, it comes with living. Driving in traffic is stressful; our jobs are stressful; our families are stressful; even our pets can be stressful. Our challenges are two-fold: 1) how to minimize the stress in our lives; and 2) how to handle the stress that remains. The irony is that these usually get shoved to the bottom of our to-do list because of the stress we are dealing with at the moment.  They should be at the top of our list, because the less stress we have and the better we handle it, the more time we have for the things we actually enjoy in life!

So what does stress have to do with weight loss? Way more than most people think it does! Stress of any kind triggers a hormone reaction in the body: ‘save your reserves! We may need them!’ Simply put, when our body releases the stress hormone cortisol, we are not able to burn our fat stores. The more stress we feel, the more cortisol is released, the less we lose weight. I have seen in this in my own body: when I am in a prolonged period of stress, even though I may be eating to lose weight, my weight loss is slowed down (or stopped) pretty much until I can get out from under the stress.  It’s not what I’m eating that’s the problem; it is literally how I am feeling- stressed!

Minimizing Stress: This can be a little tricky because most of us don’t like thinking about the things in life that stress us and then having to focus on dealing with them- ugh! It’s stressful! It takes a little practice (doesn’t everything?!) but the key for me at least is thinking about the situation objectively. Most of us are pretty aware of the ‘big stressors’ in our lives: mostly bills/ money issues and relationships. Thankfully, most banks now have an automatic bill-paying service.  If yours has one, it might be a good idea to use it.  It really depends on how much you trust your bank.  Many of the people and services you will be paying also have an auto-pay feature in which your account is debited automatically, sometimes at a discounted rate too.  Again, this depends on how much you trust the company.  Of course, this only solves the “paying on time” problem; the “funds in the account” problem is another issue!  If this is a chronic issue, you may have to sit down with a budget how-to book, and if you have a significant other, have him/ her join you.

Which brings us to the other big stressor: relationships.  I’m going to be honest: I spent my childhood watching one relationship disaster after another, and as a result, I elected to avoid that fight by not participating.  My ‘long-term relationships’ generally last about the entirety of the pet’s lifetime: I win most arguments and if they’re really a headache, I leave the house! So, all I am going to say is if you can’t talk to your spouse/ partner about money/ finances, then you really need to work on your relationship (a professional might be in order). If you are afraid of your spouse/ partner, this definitely needs professional and possibly legal help.  Being afraid of the one who is supposed to love you can be dangerous and life-threatening. Get to someplace safe and get help immediately. That’s pretty much all I’m qualified to say about relationships.

Then there are the ‘little stressors.’  These are the little annoyances that rob us of our time, energy, and our peace of mind.  These are things like: traffic congestion; tasks that take longer than you think they will (ie the dry cleaner can’t find your blouse) or something unforeseen (you lost your keys/ phone/ whatever).  Some of these can be avoided by a little planning on your part and some of them (like traffic) you just have to learn to live with. As a kid, I used to (and still do) observe my mom’s never-ending searches for her keys/ wallet/ phone.  I grew up watching her frantically race around the house looking for the lost item (which somehow was always our fault rather than hers.)  As a result, my wallet stays in my purse, which stays in its regular spot along with my keys (on a neon green lanyard) and my phone, if not in my purse, is at its charging station.  It’s that old truth: we either become our parents or we become their opposites, and when it comes to losing daily necessities, I’m the opposite of my mom.

Other little stressors, like traffic, I try to plan for.  Example: on Tuesdays, traffic is much worse than any other day of the week, so my alarm is set fifteen minutes earlier on Tuesdays. That’s about enough time to make up for the traffic delay.  Before I go to bed, I make sure that the things I need for the next day: lunch, gym bag, mail going out, etc.  I put these things next to my purse, and I usually lay out the clothes I plan on wearing.  These are some of my biggest ‘little stressors’ because I know I am not a morning person and I am neither patient nor at my best in the morning.  If I can make plan for it, I do and if I can’t (traffic delay) then I am a lot more sanguine about missing an appointment or being late.  (This comes under the next heading of dealing with the stress that remains.) I try to choose my battles. Why make things more stressful than they need to be?

Then there is the stress we make ourselves: the ‘imagined’ stress.  In some ways, it really is imagined, in that we make it ourselves, but the effects we feel are very real. These are things that seem a little silly from an objective point of view: Facebook, tv shows, and other ‘elective’ stressors.  Yes, it’s great keeping up with everyone on Facebook, but if you missed your brother-in-law’s posts, is it really a disaster? Even if you are the only one in the family who didn’t know that he broke his leg water-skiing, it’s not a big deal missing his post about his accident on Facebook. (Giving him a call might be a better use of your time and his.)  As for tv, if you have a DVR or OnDemand or even stream it online, it’s just a tv show and you can catch up with it when you have the time.  If you can’t catch it later for whatever reason, it is still just a television show! I know that TWD fans will heartily object, but it’s not life or death. There are a lot of shows that my friends love to talk about and that I would probably like, but I don’t have time to watch them all so it’s not worth my stressing over cramming them into my schedule. There are a lot of things we stress over getting done, getting done on time and that are piling up on us: we need to choose what is worth the effort.  Bills, relationships/ family, home/ car maintenance- yes, those are legitimate concerns; hobbies, tv/ internet, other elective activities- maybe you can be a little more selective on these.  Recently, I had an opportunity to attend a crafts workshop and I had even bought all the items I would need for the project when my schedule changed.  Suddenly, I had my dog’s grooming appointment and lunch with my dad the same morning as my workshop.  I could have crammed all three of them into that morning: drop the dog off early, go to the workshop and meet up with my dad afterwards and then pick up the dog.  Why create all that stress?  I picked my priorities: I hadn’t seen my dad in a month and the dog needed grooming (Cockapoo), so those were my priorities.  I’ll catch the workshop another time.

Dealing with the stress that remains: even if we are good at planning for potential problems, choosing our battles and reducing our stressors, we still have to deal with the stress we cannot avoid.  Sometimes, changing our perspective can really work wonders, and other times, we have to be a little more Zen about things. This is way easier said than done. Changing your perspective is a matter of learning to look at situations from another vantage point while being a little more ‘Zen and/ or sanguine’ is generally a combination of not worrying about what hasn’t happened and having faith in the higher power of your choosing.

By changing your perspective I don’t mean having a ‘rainbows and happy flowers’ mentality.  It’s a matter of making the best of a situation you can’t change.  Probably the best example of this is the 2+ hour commute I do five days a week mornings and afternoons.  Most people groan when I tell them how long my commute is but actually, I don’t mind the drive.  Since I am stuck in the car anyway, I use the time to listen to podcasts, audio books, call my friends (via Bluetooth) or put on a favorite playlist.  The commute is ‘Me Time’ where I spend time doing something I can enjoy (while driving) and on the drive home, it’s mostly wind-down time.  This was probably the last straw with the Boss From Hell: she started calling me on my drive and the constant stress of dealing with her (when I was off the clock, mind you) was more than I could handle. She was taking away my precious ‘Me Time,’ which was a major source of stress-management for me! That 2 hour commute which most people might hate is something I learned to enjoy.

Being a little more Zen (or sanguine) just comes down to accepting what you cannot change.  It’s a little different than trying to change your perspective, because it is usually either an unpleasant situation or an unpleasant possibility.  If it is just a possibility, then the stress mainly comes from worrying about it.  If it does happen, then you are stuck dealing with it. Dealing with the problem that has arisen is going to be stressful enough: fretting over it, worrying over it and all of the problems, real or potential, are not going to help.  The best way to deal with stress is to take some kind of action.  Doing something is not only constructive but it makes us feel better, ie something is getting done. I know this sounds simplistic, but it’s true.  Almost two years ago, my father was forced to evacuate because of a forest fire. Literally, he got a call from the neighbor down the hill at midnight letting him know the fire had jumped the canyon and was headed their way.  My dad escaped with his travel bag, his dog and his truck in the middle of the night.  It was two weeks before he knew if he had a place to live or not.  The stress and worry were overwhelming for him: he was in limbo.  There was nothing he could do but wait and worry.  After two weeks, he got the news he was dreading: his entire home was gone.  A lifetime of belongings and irreplaceable mementos were destroyed. He was going to have to start over again: building a house, replacing items, and dealing with the hassles of limitless paperwork.  Ironic as it is, doing something was less stressful than the waiting.  Moving forward, even if it was just making a bunch of calls and filling out paperwork, was less stressful than waiting and worrying. The action alone kept his mind and body occupied so, even while he was still ‘camping out’ at my sister’s, he was moving forward. As enormously stressful as this situation is for my dad (house is almost but not quite done), he made the best of it: since he had to rebuild anyway, he made some improvements to the floorplan and made changes he’d have liked to made to the old house. (He also joked that he’s easier to shop for at Christmas now!)  He still feels like pulling his hair out at times, but doing something about it is still easier for him than stressing over something he can’t control.

Dealing with stress, whether the real life dramas or the stress we make ourselves, is a headache all on its own. Most of us are too busy dealing with what’s on our plate right in front of us to think about ways to handle stress. A little planning can help with some of them: when you notice something stressing you, make a note on your phone and later, when you are relaxed, try to figure a strategy for getting around it. As for perspective, that is going to depend on you.  Some people look for the humor and some of us have to dig a little deeper for meaning and relevance in the situation. If nothing else, finding some time each day to relieve the stress is paramount.  Giving yourself some peace of mind will not only improve your quality of life, it can help you find solutions and perspective on the problems you’re facing!





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