I don’t have to tell you that life is stressful. The requirements of raising a family, work, finances — just thinking about life can make even the hardiest of us feel exasperated.
The truth is that you may not be able to reduce external stress, but you can change how you deal with stress on the inside. You can build your resilience to stress, converting your response to one that nourishes and heals you, rather than piles on more.
First, a word on stress. We tend to think about stress as the external aspects of our modern lives that we feel powerless to change: Money, career, relationships, sex.
Here's the other side of stress: it's the how we deal with that powerlessness.
A week ago, I was in the middle of business negotiations, when my colleague announced going on vacation the next day. I was furious at the abrupt interruption. I huffed and puffed. I ruminated. Feeling powerless in the situation, I didn't like the way this was going (it wasn't on my timeline after all). At my worst, I felt like my head was a war zone.
This is just one example of how we deal against powerlessness. We fight it. Or we run the other way. We resort to ruminating, critical self talk, complaining, and spinning about the externals. We blame others or we blame ourselves. We count all the ways we could have done it differently (a losing battle, since we cannot rewrite history). We take on more to do's to feel in control, only to spin out from overwhelm.
Powerlessness around our lives is scary, which is why we kick and scream against it, only to find ourselves more stressed, sapped of our energy and life force.
When we’re anxious, we literally cannot see straight. A team of psychologists* led by Andy Todd created an experiment where people were asked to recall spacial location of objects from their own perspective and from the perspective of others. When primed to feel anxious, people could not accurately recall where the saw the objects in relationship to others. They could not see things as they are. Our focus narrows when we feel anxious and stressed (we get tunnel vision), limiting our potential for creativity, problem solving and joy.
What's the antidote?
The antidote is self-care. But not the kind you're thinking about. Not the weekly mani/pedi to pamper yourself (although that's important). Or a trip to the golf range with friends (that's important too).
I am talking self-care that gives you connection with your inner self, your needs and desires and puts you in touch with your power. The kind of self-care that helps you find your footing in the whirlpool of uncertainty, risk and stress. The kind of self-care that grounds you into the one thing you have power over: You. The kind of self-care for your tender inner self that gives you a break from the chatter (or the civil war) within.
Amy Cuddy, in her ground-breaking book, Presence, writes: "The opposite of powerlessness is not power, it's presence. Presence stems from believing in and trusting yourself – your real, honest feelings, values and abilities. Whether we are talking in front of two people or 5000, interviewing for a job, negotiating a raise, or pitching a business idea to potential investors, speaking up for ourselves or speaking up for someone else, we all face daunting moments that must be met with poise if we want to feel good about ourselves and make progress in our lives. Presence gives us the power to rise to these moments."
And here's the kicker. Presence is relaxing because you focus your energy in one place, rather than spreading it thin across stressing about what you’re saying, worrying how you look, what others will think of you, and beating yourself up for feeling one way or another.
It gives you resources to deal with what's at hand — it gives you power — so you can find real solutions.
That’s what I call radical self-care.
It’s radical, because in a world of proving our worth through our actions, it takes courage to slow down and pay attention to ourselves and how we feel.
And it’s radical, because we don’t expect to find the results we want in relaxation and pleasure — the exact concepts we think of as flagrant, extravagant, or unworthy.
As a self-care coach for the wired and tired entrepreneurs and executives, I teach my clients practices to help them become present to themselves, develop more resources to tackle the challenges and access more creativity, energy and power.
Here are five essential daily self-care practices that will help you reduce stress and develop more resilience in life:
1. Slow down to feel.
“What you know in your head will not sustain you in moments of crisis … confidence comes from body awareness, knowing what you feel in the moment.” Marion Woodman
I am not going to tell you to meditate for an hour each day or take yoga. I invite you to take a moment each day to feel your feet on the ground and take a deep breath. Feel into the experience, taking in the sensations. Feel the heaviness of your body against the ground. Feel the texture and temperature of the surface below you. Is it smooth or rough? Cold or warm? Notice and describe the experience as if a painter described a scene, in colors, textures, temperatures, shapes. Use your senses to experience this simple experience of having your feet on the ground.
Why is this important? We live in our heads, forgetting our bodies and cutting off access to our own five senses that give us not only information, but also relaxation and relief from the circus (or war zone) in our mind.
Sounds simple? Great! Try it every day for a week and see the results for yourself. (Want more? Email me for a free recording of a 15-minute guided meditation that helps you connect to your body.)
2. Infuse play in your day.
"We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing." - George Bernard Shaw
We think of play as just for the kiddies, but play is an essential human need that helps us relax and recharge. Yet play can be hard — we have to let our guard down and show our vulnerability. We have to put aside the fears of being judged by others — or worse by ourselves — and quiet down that voice that says we're not doing enough. Which is why when we do, it feels really good.
Don't know how to play? Ask your 5-year-old-inner-self what they want. What did you love do you at that age? Go do it. Put your favorite music in the car and sing to it. Shake your bootie in the shower like you mean it. Kick a ball around during your lunch break. Play is about letting go of responsibilities and letting ourselves enjoy ourselves, feel pleasure, lightness. And all it takes is a moment of play a day.
Want to take it further? Enroll into an improv class for some deep belly laughs that also help reduce stress and anxiety.
3. Allow space for your feelings. When we get hurt, we tend to stuff it. When we get angry, we brush it off or hold it in. When we feel happy, we also feel guilt for feeling good and don’t acknowledge it. We battle it out within ourselves, exhausting ourselves silly.
Noticing the experience of these feelings — the pit in your stomach, the burning in your throat, the heaviness in chest — and simply naming it to yourself “I feel scared right now" or “I feel sad” or "I feel powerless" allows us to acknowledge our feelings and move through them. That also goes for feeling joy. Let yourself bask in the happiness and the physical sensation of joy in your body. Holding emotions in takes energy, that extra energy that could be used for making smart work decisions, attacking solutions creatively, and being there fully.
“If you have a comfortable connection with your inner sensations — if you can trust them to give you accurate information — you will feel in charge of your body, your feelings, and your self.” Bessel Van der Kolk
That business situation going awry that I had mentioned earlier? There was a moment when I felt the aching burning in my chest and tightness in my core and I knew I was feeling powerlessness. I called it out to myself, "I feel powerless right now," pausing to give this experience in my body my loving presence. It began to melt away, leaving me softer and calmer. The "problem" of the situation seemed to melt away with it too, leaving me more time to refine the terms of the proposal to my liking.
Like a wise teacher of mine likes to say: "If we allow ourselves 90 seconds of presence to feel our feelings, we won't need to spend 90 years of therapy dealing with the repression of them."
When we attempt to suppress our difficult feelings, we lose connection to our ability to feel altogether. Brené Brown puts it eloquently in her TEDx talk that's been viewed more than 22 million times: "The problem is — and I learned this from the research — that you cannot selectively numb emotion. You can't say, here's the bad stuff. Here's vulnerability, here's grief, here's shame, here's fear, here's disappointment. I don't want to feel these. I'm going to have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. I don't want to feel these ... You can't numb those hard feelings without numbing the other affects, our emotions. You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness. And then we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning, and then we feel vulnerable, so then we have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. And it becomes this dangerous cycle."
4. Connect to what you want, what matters to you, what you desire, what you value — every day.
“The mind goes insane without the guidance of the heart.” Marianne Williamson
Make it a daily practice to ask yourself: What do I want? What is important to me? What is my heart yearning for? What lights me up? We get worked up "balancing" our life and problem-solving challenges, but we forget about inner alignment. To know what aligns to you, you need to know who you are.
This is what therapist Meg-John Barker calls “reflective self-care” that’s all about tapping into your inner-most truths and reminding yourself of who you are and what's really important — why your life matters.
5. Celebrate your successes every day. Big and small. Measure your success not only by what you do, but also how you feel. Count the ways you smiled today. Acknowledge yourself about what went well. Make a list of things you're proud of yourself for, even if it's just for making it through the day.
We are wired to pay attention to the negative (because it helps us run away from the tiger), but that creates a life of mere survival, not thriving. Hack your system by focusing on the wins and gratitudes to fill yourself up.
None of these practices alone will remove stress in your life. Together, they will build your resilience for when things go wrong. They will give you a sense of power over yourself (as that’s the only thing we have power over) and equip you for dealing with the challenges in the world.
* Todd AR, Forstmann M, Burgmer P, Brooks AW, Galinsky AD. Anxious and Egocentric: How Specific Emotions Influence Perspective Taking. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 2015.