In honor of National Stress Awareness Month, it might be worth looking at what stress is, exactly, and why we need a little of it in our lives. In fact, a healthy amount of stress can be an effective motivator to act and get necessary things done. Many people, when under brief manageable stress, are at their best and most productive. Speaking publicly for example, may cause someone temporary stress, but that stress may motivate them to prepare well, practice and know their stuff, fueling a fantastic demonstration of what they know and are able to do. A healthy response to temporary stress can be our greatest friend in this way. That’s why I encourage people to allow their children to incur some stress in a healthy and supportive environment. We can all learn and grow from stress.

It becomes problematic, however, when stress turns to overwhelm. A chronic sense of worry, difficulty sleeping and not eating or eating too much may all be signs of overwhelm. Overwhelm occurs when we are faced with chronic stress that is not just temporary or situational, and may be coming at us from many different angles. Suddenly, everything feels stressful, even things we would normally enjoy. When people reach this place of stress, they often find themselves numbing out through excessive use of alcohol, drugs, shopping or hours spent paralyzed in front of electronics. At this point, stress is no longer our friend and it can start to make us sick and ineffective at managing life. It can harm relationships, and lead to physical and mental illness. 

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The first step to treating overwhelm is to try and notice it before it takes hold.  Mindful practices such as meditation, prayer, walks in nature, or yoga can help tremendously with this.  They might give us pause to listen to our body’s cues that things are going awry. That tightness in your jaw? Notice that. The stiffness in your shoulders? Notice that too. How’s your breathing? Calm breaths come with a rising and falling of the belly and are long and deep. Stress breath tends to come more with a rising and falling of the chest and is accompanied by incomplete exhales. Notice that too  If your body is telling you that you are too stressed, tune in and take a moment to listen to what you need. Sometimes we don’t want to listen to ourselves, because holding on to what is causing us stress is protecting us in some way. Maybe we believe we must take all those hard classes because if we don’t, we will go unnoticed. Maybe it’s that we must keep a perfectly clean house, because if we don’t people will view us as an imperfect mother or host. If we can notice our bodies’ cues, and then tune into the stories we are telling ourselves, we might find it’s okay to challenge those stories a little bit and let go of the things that aren’t serving us well. This can reduce stress and hopefully help us come out of overwhelm.

Self-care is also important. Getting enough sleep, eating well, taking time for healthy movement and fostering meaningful connections with others are all important stress mitigators. The problem is that by the time we reach overwhelm, if we simply tell ourselves to try these things, it often does not help. Without challenging whatever thoughts are essentially telling us that we are not safe to slow down, and allowing those thoughts to relax a little, the sleep, healthy eating, healthy movement and meaningful connecting moments are not likely to manifest.

In a world where there is plenty to be stressed about, take a little time to tune in to yourself. See what your body is telling you as far as how you are taking care of you. If the answer you get back is a red hot, “Not so well!” then please pay attention to that. If getting back to a place of emotional safety with periods of relaxation and joy is not obtainable to you on your own, then ask for help. A good therapist, mentor, trusted friend or yoga instructor may be the compass you need to rediscover your inner ease. 

Amy Himelright, MA, Ed., LPCC is the director of academic counseling and behavioral health at Las Cruces Public Schools and can be reached at [email protected].

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