We all deal with stress. And it is worth thinking about how we feel it and what we can do about it.
Generally, stress is a state we enter when we perceive a threat or when we set ourselves for immediate physical action. We feel it in two ways: in our bodies as our autonomic nervous system readies us for action; and in our minds, when challenges and circumstances cause us to feel jangled and at sea.
These are not either/or states, nor is all stress bad. When we are highly motivated to achieve a task or reach a goal, our bodies and our minds may feel keyed up – ready to act. This may be seen as good stress.
But for folks living with a mental illness, stress can be incredibly destructive – particularly when issues of loss, grief, regret, and hopelessness are blended in. A vexing, circular process is the result, where the mind ruminates endlessly, ruinously, and replays troubling thoughts.
This is where stress and its causes can become confused. To overcome the harmful effects of this anxiety, it is important to isolate the symptom from the cause and take appropriate action.
Let’s deal with the practicalities and a few common-sense approaches. The body comes first, because the physical effects of stress are keenly felt and can be easily softened.
The body under stress wants to work – needs to work – so make it do just that.
An hour of daily hard walking, with the accompanying increased blood flow, can help. Walking, swimming, and cycling are all great activities because they allow the mind to shut off for a while. Done in a mindful way, where you reduce your awareness simply to what the body is doing and feeling, and where you allow thoughts simply to come and go, rhythmical low-impact cardio-intensive movement can do wonders.
A diet high in the freshest food you can afford and low in salty/sugary/refined carbs will also contribute to a happy body and mind. I can’t stress this more. Mood and food go together.
The physical part of the project is easy. What troubles our minds, what worries us, requires a different and more challenging kind of work.
The first step is to identify and isolate the things in our lives that are causing our distress. Here, honesty is the best policy. We are depressed. We grieve. We regret. We wish things were otherwise. Why?
We can’t undo the past, but the second step is to face issues – maybe persistent ones – as they arise and resolve them, as we are able. Acute mental illness frequently causes us to behave in ways that we would not ordinarily excuse. Consequences we never expected cause us despair – try to eliminate these things at the root.
The third step is to reduce life’s complexity. Acts and consequences multiply. If certain relationships, habits of life, or recurring circumstances seem too much, they probably are. Prune that tree. Simplify. Love the one you’re with.
The fourth step is to understand that stress is a part of what it is to be human – for better or for worse.
To live with a mental illness, and to survive its stresses and woes, is an incredible feat. Recognize this as an uncommon strength – something that has made you a survivor.