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

Published: Pathways Magazine, Summer 2013

We all try managing stress in different ways, whether it be as muscle tension, anxiety, digestive problems, or issues with our emotions. The way each of us experiences stress is extremely individual, and some of us may feel relieved when we meet others whose stress manifests in a similar manner. 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 tools, methods, activities, and coping skills that work for you as a unique human being.

What is Stress?

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 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. Some of the most common conditions seen by healers are physical pain, varying levels of acute or chronic disease, anxiety, depression, and a number of other physical, mental or emotional symptoms. When these patients enter treatment with holistic practitioners, a healer’s job becomes helping them to reduce their stress to manageable levels or adapt to an increased level of stress.

The second definition presents stress as a result of certain environmental factors upsetting a comfortable balance. This definition can also be true from certain points of view because of the opportunity to attain 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. 

Guidelines for Building Resilience Against Stress

The goal of this article is not to highlight the coping skills of specific individuals but rather to provide a few guidelines for developing your own set of stress-building or stress-reducing activities. The guidelines are as follows:

  1. Refrain from making life-altering or irreversible decisions during times of increased stress
  2. Practice self-care and do things that make you feel warm and fuzzy
  3. Consult peers for support
  4. Work with mentors and teachers for perspective

1. Refrain From Making Life Altering or Irreversible Decisions During Times of Increased Stress

When we’re faced with increased stress or our emotions are heightened, we’re unable to see the world clearly. Because of this unbalanced perspective, we’re actually viewing the world through our stress rather than our strengths. When we react to our stress in a rash or spontaneous manner, we’re acting out of fear and irrationality. 

Acting Consciously and With Intention

The key with making life-altering decisions is to act consciously and with intention, and these two rationales rarely happen when our stress levels are up and our emotions are unbalanced. Therefore, making decisions that are not well thought out during times of stress or emotional turmoil could lead to regret.

An Example of Rash Decision-Making

Let us evaluate how this might unfold in an example. Suppose every time either you or the universe turns up the volume on your life, you react by deleting items off your “to-do” list or quit committees, groups, or jobs to reduce or release the pressure you are feeling. 

Balancing Life’s Demands

Let us hypothesize that you are working full-time, maintaining a household, working toward a graduate degree, and are an active member in your religious community. Each of these items feeds and nourishes you in different ways, and each of these areas also challenges your ability to maintain balance.

The Ripple Effect of High Stress

Your high-stress job now begins to demand more of our already limited time. The increased demand may begin to take away time from family, friends, school, and other areas of your life that are important or nourishing. The added stress of an already full schedule being taxed by your stressful job may create an imbalance in your mental and emotional capacity. If you continue to follow your current pattern of deleting, removing, or quitting something in your life, you may be making a regretful decision.

Consequences of Rash Decisions

Let’s say you quit your job because it creates the most stress in your life. Now, you’re no longer feeling the pressures of your job, but how will you pay your bills while you’re looking for work. Basically, you have now traded one type of stress, whether significant or not, for another type of stress that may cause further harm. You are unable to approach your boss and “unquit.” Because you reacted in the heat of the moment, you have to live with the consequences of your actions. 

Drastic and Irrational Decisions

On the other hand, suppose you decide to pack a suitcase and leave your household and the attached responsibilities behind. You would be leaving the stress of running a house, caring for your children, interacting with your spouse, and your day-to-day financial responsibilities. Ultimately, you would be leaving for a carefree life of minimal family responsibility. This kind of decision seems drastic and irrational, but it makes a valid point.

Acting With Intention Versus Reacting

When we spontaneously make decisions based on increased pressure or heightened emotions, we are reacting to a situation rather than acting with intention and consciousness. We lose sight of the larger picture of our lives when we are reacting rather than acting. The biggest point is that we have to live with the consequences of our snap decisions, and we may later regret the decisions we made without forethought or consciousness.

Reflecting on Impulsive Decisions

Have you ever made a decision that you later regretted? Do you have a tendency to make snap decisions or “fly off the handle?” Do you lose track of the present moment? Are you able to step back from a situation and gain perspective? Do you lose sight of the “big picture?”

2. Practice Self-Care and Do Things That Make You 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 each of us is unique, these activities will vary from person to person. Our individual activities to alleviate stress might even be different from that of our mentors and teachers. However, our mentors and teachers are the ones who guide us toward finding activities that feed and nourish our mind, body, and spirit.

The Impact of Stress on Breathing

When people are under a great deal of stress, their breathing patterns change. A person might breathe utilizing only the top of their lungs, or they may breathe quicker taking shorter breaths. Others may notice their breath only on the beginning of inhale or an exhale, but their breath “sticks” somewhere in between inhalation and exhalation. Some people may even feel as if they are taking deep breaths but do not feel as if they are getting enough oxygen. 

The bottom line is that our level of stress or emotions is linked to our breathing pattern. When we are in the midst of chaos, sometimes the most important thing we can do for ourselves is to notice our breath and consciously breathe.

The Relationship Between Self-Care and Breathing

What is the relationship between self-care and breathing? Breathing is an unconscious action, and we sometimes forget to notice our breath or the intricacies with our breathing. 

Conscious breathing has the ability to relax the parasympathetic nervous system which supports the “rest and recover” functions of our body. This is where self-care begins. 

Self-care is the art and practice of participating in activities that care for, feed, and nourish our mind, body, and spirit. These activities help us to regulate our breathing through awareness.

Finding Relaxing and Enjoyable Activities

The goal is to seek out activities that will relax our thinking brain, our ability to engage/interact with the modern world, and our ability to categorize and analyze. The more we engage our thinking, the more we begin to spin or worry, and the higher our level of stress. 

Each person is unique and will have different interests and passions in life. It’s important to find activities that both relax us and make us feel warm and fuzzy. Basically, you should feel relaxed, invigorated, and happy upon completion of the activity.

Diverse Coping Activities for Stress Relief

We are not a “one size fits all” species, and coping skills will vary among individuals. Some people choose physical exercises such as hiking, biking, swimming, running, martial arts, or any number of physical activities. 

Others may enjoy painting, collaging, knitting, ceramics, sculpting, crafting, etc. While other activities include cooking, dining out, watching movies, going to museums, writing, computer programming, and just about anything that nourishes your mind, body, or soul. 

The bottom line is that the activity should leave you feeling better than when you began.

Willingness to Participate in Self-Care

Another key is not only remembering to participate in these activities but there must be a willingness to participate. When we’re in a great deal of pain and stress, sometimes the last thing we want to do are activities that will make us feel better. 

A common excuse many of us use is “I don’t have time.” Although this may be true, it is important that self-care is a practice of making time to care for ourselves. When we refuse to make time in our schedules or to discover activities that nourish us on a mind, body, or spirit level, we are creating a cycle of self-abuse.

Reflecting on Your Self-Care Practices

Do you ever notice 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 create greater space within your life? Are you willing to participate in your own healing? Do you get stuck in a cycle of self-abuse?

3. Consult Peers for Support

Peers, mentors, and teachers are vital to our ability to manage stress. When we are in a whirlwind of chaos and stress, calling on peers helps us to “air out” our 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.

Expressing Emotions in Different Ways

Since we are each unique, we probably express our emotions in different ways. These expressions might include talking, screaming, crying, yelling, shouting, cursing, or even just stomping our feet. 

Our peers are the ones who stand by us and allow our emotions to flow. They allow us to feel — whatever we’re feeling without judgment and without getting caught up in our emotional chaos. 

This ability to vent our emotions relieves the pressure we may be feeling in the moment enabling us to regain both balance and perspective.

Different Contexts for Different Peers

Peers vary according to the context. When talking about higher education, fellow classmates and alumni may act as peers. On the other hand, our fellow spiritual seekers or clergy members might be peers when discussing a spiritual tradition. As far as our jobs or professions are concerned, our peers could be coworkers or other professionals in the same field. 

The important fact to note is that a peer may or may not be a member of your particular school, company, community, or spiritual tradition.

Reflecting on Your Support System

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 judgment?

4. Work with Mentors and Teachers to Gain Perspective

Once the firestorm of emotions has calmed down or sometimes in the midst of the firestorm, we may need to be able to make sense of what’s happening. This is where 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 point of view. They are able to maintain a healing presence while we adjust to a new level of stress or pressure in our lives. Ultimately, this begins the process of helping us gain clarity and perspective.

The Role of Mentors in Providing Perspective

Mentors play an important role by presenting an outside, hopefully unbiased perspective. They should be people with quite a bit more knowledge and experience than ourselves. We may even have a “team of mentors” or a “team of healers.” 

Our mentors might include a spiritual advisor, acupuncturist, psychotherapist, school advisor, or any person who is knowledgeable in a particular field of study. In fact, their field of expertise may even be different from our own. 

One key is that they are people with whom we maintain regular appointments (weekly, monthly, or quarterly). When our stress reaches catastrophic levels, we may find that our visits to a particular mentor increase in frequency.

The Role of Teachers in Providing Guidance

Finally, teachers are those whom we rely on 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 us. 

Teachers create a container in which we spend time deciphering and taking apart particular situations in our lives. They provide a fresh set of eyes to events in our lives we may find annoying or frustrating. 

This allows us the opportunity to view the situation through a new lens — one without that of our inner child or our own projections. We are granted the opportunity to see the event in its current context. By approaching problems or challenges in this manner, the facts are not colored by our past experiences or what we may project onto them. 

Skills and Tools Provided by Teachers

This is only one example of tools or skills our teachers provide. 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 training in which to do so. 

If there is one thing we can count on from our mentors and teachers, it’s that they will always tell us the truth — whether we want to hear it or not. Growth and healing is rarely pleasant. The fact of the matter is . . . The truth can hurt.

Reflecting on Your Mentors and Teachers

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?

Harnessing Stress for Growth and Resilience

Stress in our lives has the possibility of causing pain and disease. However, stress can also be seen as a force by which we can learn to stretch our physical, emotional, and mental bodies, empowering us to become much stronger. 

Following these guidelines will help us release the pressure of stress, regain perspective, see the bigger picture, and notice the patterns within our lives where we tend to get stuck. 

The most important thing to remember: It’s not important how long we remain balanced and stable, but rather how quickly we’re able to regain a new balance.

About the Author

Dr. Adam Miramon, DACM, DiplOM, LAc
Chief Clinic Director & President at  
 Learn more about me

As a practitioner and healer in Washington, DC for more than a decade, I take a patient-centered approach to care through acupuncture, cupping, herbal medicines, and mind-body coaching, with a specialty in full-spectrum reproductive health care.

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