A Steady Track for Managing Stress and Heightened Emotions
Is stress a big part of your life? Perhaps a better question is, how well do you handle stress? Do you ride a roller coaster of emotions or are you pretty even keeled? When you are under stress do you feel a physical impact, especially if you already live with a health condition?
These questions are important to answer because stress and heightened emotions, both of which feed off each other, can have very damaging effects on our health if not properly managed. I live with a neurological movement disorder called dystonia, as well as chronic pain, and when I don’t manage life events well, it results in stress which increases my symptoms.
When I developed dystonia in 2001, it turned my world upside down where I could barely function because the pain was so severe. It led to intense stress and negative emotions such as anger, shame, fear, frustration, hopelessness, sadness, bitterness, resentment, and jealousy for people who were not limited physically like I was.
Over a period of many years, I have worked very hard to resolve these emotions and shift my thinking to help calm my mind, as well as physical treatments for my symptoms. By practicing various protocols to reduce mental tension, it prepares me to better handle the stressors of life. Mental and emotional calmness also give my body relief to better respond to treatments and feel motivated to involve myself in more self-care activities.
So, what is stress? Stress is the body’s reaction to harmful situations, whether they are real or perceived; perceived meaning that we are fearful of things that are not actually happening, but may happen. This is not uncommon. Many people live with fear, because, let’s face it, life is full of unknowns.
When we feel threatened, a chemical reaction occurs in the body that allows us to act in a way to prevent harm. As most of us know, this stress response is called “fight or flight.” Please see Chapter 8 of my book for more information on the fight or flight response, and stress and stress management. There is another component of stress I discuss in that chapter called the “freeze response,” a very interesting stress response that can potentially have damaging long-term health consequences. On the flipside, by using various tools to break out of the freeze response, it can be very healing.
During the stress response, heart rate increases, breathing quickens, blood pressure rises, and muscles tighten. This is not good for anyone, especially people like me with dystonia because the main feature is involuntary muscle contractions and tightness. Therefore, stress makes these symptoms and my overall health worse, which pretty much goes for anyone in all walks of life.
However, stress means different things to different people and what causes stress in one person may be of little concern to another. Some people are also better able to handle stress than others, and not all stress is bad. In small doses, stress can help us accomplish tasks and prevent us from getting hurt, like slamming on the brakes to avoid hitting the car in front of us…a very good thing!
These short-term stress responses are very helpful in these dangerous situations, but harmful when we are in this state when no danger is present or if stress is prolonged. This is what I am mainly going to focus on in this article, along with a visualization tool.
Going back to a question in the opening paragraph of the article about riding a roller coaster of emotions. I want you to visualize an amusement park that is filled with roller coasters and other rides, people, lights, noises, and other stimuli. It’s fun for a little while but imagine living most of your life in the amusement park. For most of us it would be system overload. The amusement park is the image I want you visualize as stress.
Now I want you to visualize the overhead tram circling the pandemonium of the park below. Better yet, picture a slow moving, open air train that often circles many amusement parks. The slow moving, steady train is where we want to live emotionally for better health. Let’s take this a step further and make it more applicable to real life.
A train typically goes around in an oval, similar to many race tracks and running tracks. The majority of the track is straight and on each end there is a curve. The place we want to emotionally live most of our lives is on the straightaways and then not become too alarmed when we hit that curve and our balance is thrown off. In other words, the more even keeled we are emotionally during ALL life events, the less stressed we will be.
Examine your life to see how much your mind is bouncing around in the raucous amusement park or if it is relaxed on the peaceful train. If you are riding the roller coaster of emotions of the amusement park, it is totally fine. It just means some work needs to be done. The reason why is because a body and mind that has frequent up and down emotions, and is easily triggered by stress, is a body that is not prone to good health. To learn more about this, please see my 2 other articles called, Our Mind: As Powerful as any Drug and The Power of Positive Thoughts on our Health.
Just like the train that hits a curve, the same happens in life. We all hit curves that throw us off course. The key is to get back on the straightaway and keep the curves to a minimum. Every time you hit a curve, lean into it and flow through it smoothly to get yourself back on the straightaway. Repeat those words I just mentioned…lean into, flow through, and smoothly. Close your eyes and let those words marinate for a little while. Allow your mind and body to experience how those words feel.
This is very important because how we respond to the curves, or stress in life, will determine the impact it has on our health. If we fret whenever we hit a curve, rather than flow with it, the stress response kicks in and keeps the body in a state of alarm. It is no different than staying in the metaphoric amusement park where chronic stress exists. It can feel like your head is on the inside of a pinball machine.
Stress can affect all aspects of our life, including behavior, thinking ability, and physical health. No part of the body is immune, so stress is potentially a big problem. One of many things we can do to prevent stress overload and the health consequences that come with it is to know your stress triggers. Then, the most important thing is how we manage those triggers, and you can read about some strategies in my other article simply entitled, Stress Management Tips. I have other articles on stress which you can find by typing the word “stress” in the search bar at the top of my blog page. One of my more recent articles is called, The Impact Stress and Emotions have on our Health.
That being said, for those of you who live with a health problem, you know full well how your symptoms are impacted by stress and heightened emotions. Even if you don’t have a health problem, you have more than likely felt the physical impact of stress on your body. Someone recently told me that whenever she gets a text message from certain people in her life that cause her stress, it immediately triggers a headache. Just seeing their name appear causes a headache, before even reading their message.
More remarkable is how, when faced with certain topics, movements, external stimuli, or other conditions, I have witnessed some people with chronic health conditions go from a 1 on their pain or symptom scale to a 10, and then back to a 1, all within one hour or less! This speaks to the power of the mind and how stress, unresolved trauma, and emotional issues can profoundly impact our health.
To sum up this article, I want to challenge you to take on a perspective that may be new to you or even sound a bit outlandish, given how ingrained the word stress is and how much it is a part of our dialogue. I want you to take on the belief that there is no stress in the world. Set up this thought structure in your mind because when you think about it, how we respond to life events is what really determines stress and the impact it has on us.
Nothing in and of itself is stressful. It is our response to events that causes a stress response. Therefore, if this new thought process becomes your reality, your body can remain calm, even when you hit the curves in life or find yourself bouncing around in the metaphoric amusement park, which we all do from time to time.
Even if this assumption is false, at least we put ourselves in a position to resist the messages we see and hear all the time from television, news, and social media, that most of life is stressful. The phrase “stressed out” has become so overused that we have accepted and embraced stress to our detriment.
To learn more about managing stress, please see the articles mentioned above, Chapter 8 in my book, and another article I wrote called, Fight, Flight, Freeze Response: Health Implications.
Tom Seaman is a Certified Professional Life Coach in the area of health and wellness, and the author of 2 books: Diagnosis Dystonia: Navigating the Journey (2015) and Beyond Pain and Suffering: Adapting to Adversity and Life Challenges (2021). He is also a motivational speaker, chronic pain and dystonia awareness advocate, health blogger, volunteer for the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation (DMRF) as a support group leader, and is a member and writer for Chronic Illness Bloggers Network, The Mighty, Patient Worthy, and The Wellness Universe. To learn more about Tom, get a copy of his books (also on Amazon), or schedule a free life coaching consult, visit www.tomseamancoaching.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dystoniabook1 and Instagram.