Stress is . . . oh, wait, I don’t remember

For years I was caught in the trap of overdoing everything. I took on more and more work because I felt I had to prove myself. I couldn’t let go of my responsibilities because I felt I would no longer be of value. I made myself feel more important than others because I did more than they did. I was not only creating an unhappy life; truth is I was also hurting my brain.

According to recent research based on The Framingham Heart Study, high levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, leads to reductions in brain volume, memory, and visual perception. This agrees with that I have found in my life. When I am too busy, when I am overextending myself, when I have intense stress, I don’t think, remember, or see well.

Photo by Fabrizio Verrecchia on Unsplash

During my recent visit to the States, I had to prepare a property for a new renter. The last renter left a lot of surprises. Almost every day we found something new to repair, a utility bill that was not paid, or some other twist that now needed untwisting. I was stressed. I was under a deadline. Much of what had to be done was outside of my abilities which made me feel powerless. Plus, I was trying to do this while still working and attempting to visit with people I had not seen in a year.  Every day I was at the rental house, I felt distracted. I was unclear as to what to do or what I intended to do next. I didn’t see things the first time I looked at them. Basically, I was not working on all cylinders.

Stuff happens and we need to deal with it. This is part of life. But there are a few ways we can minimize the effects of stress on our lives and our brains.

Stick to Your Routine

This is my current challenge. I know, believe, and see proof that when we keep healthy daily practices, we are better able to deal with the challenges of life. However when life becomes too stressful or busy, I find myself more times than not saying I don’t have time for all of my practices or I am not doing them thoroughly. Our daily practices are our foundation of our sanity and serenity. Hold true to your practices as much as possible even when things go sideways.

Phone a Friend

Whether you ask a friend for help or just have a kind, compassionate ear to share with, making connections with others can lower our cortisol level. We go from stress and victimhood, to feeling heard and supported. This can make a difference in our physiological response, our ability to handle situations, and our experience of the challenges. Remember to reach out to the right person for the support you need. Brené Brown has some good advice about this; she talks about sharing shame but it applies to sharing our challenges as well.

Don’t Make More

Life is terrific at taking a left turn. Part of life is dealing with challenges. And there can be a lot of them. That is why it is important to not create more. Are you making mountains out of molehills? Are you currently in a good spot and therefore feel a need to create an issue to deal with? Do you feel naked and exposed without something to complain about? Life is better the less we have to be stressed about. Be aware of when you are adding on instead of removing stress from your life.

Be kind to your brain. Reduce your stress.

stop complaining

Quit Yer Bitchin’

I loved talking to Dr. Rick Hanson a few years ago about neuroplasticity. The basic concept is that our brain likes to be efficient, so the brain focuses on what we tell it is important and wires together circuits to help us more effectively focus on what we choose to focus on. This science makes sense to me and I love how we have the power to change our thinking by consciously creating new pathways in our minds.

The challenge is, we are often unconsciously focused on negativity. Travis Bradberry posits that we “complain once a minute during a typical conversation.” This does not take into account how often we replay the negativity and fears in our own mental monkey chatter throughout the day. If what we focus on becomes hard-wired, how much negativity are we programming into our brains – and into our lives?  Additionally, in the article Travis Bradberry shows how focusing on this negativity does not only affect our quality of life but it affects how our brain functions – or doesn’t function – overall.

What is to be done?

stop complaining
Photo by Omar Prestwich on Unsplash

First, quit your bitching. Complaining to complain does not solve anything. As a society, we have made a ritual of sharing our negativity to bond, but it is not helping us as a society. Complaining makes us focus on lack, focusing on lack makes us feel hopeless, feeling hopeless makes us act as if we are powerless. Not a good downward cycle to be in. Instead, throughout your day, see if you can limit the time you spend talking about your woes or feeding the woes of others.

Second, choose who and how you share. Brené Brown discussed with Oprah who to share your shame story with and I think provides great guidelines about with whom we share our complaints. The six people she describes are those we should avoid since they dig us deeper into our bitch session. The description Brené provides of who is worthy of our shame, is also great advice for who to surround ourselves with and how to be when others share their complaints with us.

Third, fix it. The only time to get into your issues with another or to replay them in your mind, is when you are ready to look at them so you can resolve them. It is not to just bitch, wallow in the complaints, and hang on to the wrongs that have happened to you. Instead use the replay of your challenges to find a solution to make it right. Hopefully in replaying the issue with a trusted friend, you can sort through the pain and anger to the real issue and find a real resolution. Sometimes we find that the only solution available to us is to accept the situation as fact and move on.

One exception to the fixing, is when we need to complain so we can release the emotion and move forward. My husband and I recently had an issue with someone who was renting our house. A few times I complained to my husband about the situation. I didn’t do this to bad mouth the individual or get sympathy or to feed the mental wrongs which were happening. I did it to release the emotional pain I was having so I could move forward. Before I shared with my husband, I prefaced what I said with, “If I don’t share this, it is not going to leave my mind. Please let me release my negative thinking so I can move forward without it.”  And when I was finished, I was finished. I didn’t feed the story anymore.

What have you been complaining about lately? Are you sharing to resolve the issue or to wallow in the injustice? How can you share the issue with a trusted friend so you can explore solutions?


Feeling Creatures Who Think

Another powerful concept Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor provided in her TEDx Talk is the concept that we are feeling creatures who think. We are not thinking people who feel, yet this is what our society believes and values – which is at the heart of many of our issues.

brainHere is the science and biology behind it. Our limbic system is constantly asking, “Am I safe?” If things feel familiar to our limbic system then we feel calm and safe. The system then sends the message “I am safe” to our nervous system including our higher cortex, our thinking brain. When things are not familiar, then our limbic system panics and jumps into self-preservation. As this happens, the hypocampus shuts down our thinking brain. An example of this is test anxiety where the situation is unfamiliar so the limbic system panics and shuts down our ability to think clearly.

What does this mean for you?

Although our biology works unconsciously, we can consciously choose to turn on our higher mind and think past the limbic’s fear. Using mindfulness to calm our minds and knowing that emotions wash over us in 90 seconds, we can stop, breathe, and then choose to think different – ensuring we don’t make poor, muddle choices in our haze of emotions.

Knowing how our brain and emotions work also helps us see our society in a different way. Our society, based on thinking and doing, discounts individuals, their feelings, and their worth. By shifting our focus to our feeling and intrinsic value, we can create a society based on human value. We can learn to:

  • Care about humanity as a whole, not our personal gain.
  • Focus on people instead of profits.
  • Increase equality, not reinforce stifling authority and us versus them.
  • Use our similarities to find understanding, versus attacking others for differences.
  • Become compassionate instead of competitive.
  • Forgive, not judge and attack.

The third lesson of this science is the stress relief it provides. When we stop striving, competing, doing, and longing after money, we can then focus more on what brings us joy – connection with others, creating a community, respecting the equal rights of all, finding understanding through acceptance, being compassionate, and using forgiveness to release our self-created prisons of hate. Moving our focus from our left “doing” brain to our left “feeling” brain, we become more peaceful, joyful, and stress free.

Are you ready to embrace being a feeling creature who thinks? How will it change how you approach your day?

De-Stressed Woman

How Self-Esteem May Be Holding You Back

I read an interesting excerpt from the new book NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. The book focuses on teaching and parenting styles, but I think it also provides an interesting glance into the power of self-empowerment over self-esteem. Let me try to explain how I see the difference between self-esteem and self-empowerment.

De-Stressed WomanSelf-esteem comes from the praise of others, therefore it is outside ourselves and something we can not control. Self-esteem is based on the belief in unchanging facts, “you are smart.” Self-esteem is a noun. It is a descriptor.

On the other hand self-empowerment comes from a drive to do better. Self-empowerment is based on continual growing in ability, knowledge, and skill. Self-empowerment is an active verb. It is a state of being.

When we wear a label of self-esteem and then the label is jeopardized, we lose belief in ourselves, we feel judged, and we feel like giving up. For instance, if I said I was good at chess and then played against the current world chess champion, I would feel like a failure. More importantly, this would not only affect how I felt about my chess ability but it would also affect how I see my self-worth. If I no longer believed I was good at chess it would also affect my drive, e.g., I am no good, why should I even try.

When we view life as an experience, as a constant quest for improvement, we activate self-empowerment. We accept that sometimes we lose, fail, or are not as good as the guy next to us. But the focus is not on the outcome. The focus in on how we are playing the game and how we are learning from the game. In the chess example above, someone working from self-empowerment would see the experience as an opportunity to learn from a master and therefore improve their game. The loss would not affect their self-worth. Plus an added bonus is that your brain grows as you tackle new challenges. The more we try, even if we fail, we are improving our mental capacity.

Where are you acting from self-esteem? Where do you wear the label given to you by someone else or by yourself?

Where do you operate from a state of self-empowerment? Where do you release the role or title and simply learn and grow in the experience?

How do you experience these two differently?

Looking for ways to self-empower? Check out my new book From Type-A to Type-ME: A Framework for Stress Reduction