Stress is the most potent toxin you can remove from your life, yet it often seems like the last thing many of us want to focus on.
Of all the endo lifestyle approaches I put off the longest, this was the main one. Why? Probably because I was more stressed than I realized -- and I hated how every “stress-less” advice page told me to meditate. I was even listening to a podcast the other day when the host mentioned she stopped using the word “stress” in her show titles because they automatically got less downloads.
We’re all so busy we can’t even imagine slowing down. We don't think we can afford it.
That's why I'm not here to tell you to force an extra hour of meditation in to your day. We all know it's an exceptional way to be more present, but the same issue arrises that I've mentioned in all my other segments: You can't add turmeric to a sugar laden diet and expect your pain to recede, nor can you sit hunched in a chair day all day but assume a 15-minute walk daily is going to greatly improve your pain. In the same way, you can't take a stressed out life and add a smidgen of meditation in the morning without learning how to really cope with the following 10 hours of stress.
In my own journey, after endo forced me to give up my busy lifestyle I realized my body kept on with it’s stressors because I never learned how to calm them down. I was ignoring the fact that my brain never got a break from the whirlwind of information, social media, screens, and negative thoughts that swirled daily through my head, nor from the daily stressors of life like bills, responsibilities, etc etc.
Which is why it’s awesome to learn a new approach to stress, one that doesn’t add another item on to your to-do list but teaches you how to deal with your daily stresses without, well, stressing. No you can’t escape all of them, but you can learn how to manage them without the stress reaction.
Magic: Turning Distress into Eustress (yoo-stress)
Stress is your body's response to a situation, and you might be amazed to find out not all stress is bad: Eustress is beneficial, while distress is not. What stress could possibly be beneficial? Think of it like when you put your body through an ordeal and you're stronger for it, like training for a couch to 5k, happily preparing for a major event like a wedding, staying the course with personal development, or even getting to know someone you really like. All of these may be difficult, extra work, or somewhat uncomfortable, but eustress fuels our feeling of success and achievement.
You might also be surprised to know that you can turn distress into eustress with the correct approach. I heard this best explained through a parking ticket example. If you unfairly get a parking ticket you might angrily vow to fight it or, hey, you're way too busy you're just going to pay it and forget about it. Both of these would be a eustress response - in the face of a challenge you made a solid decision to move forward. On the other hand, if you're really upset and not sure how to handle the ticket, you throw the ticket in your purse and vow to ... well, you vow to figure it out later because it's stressing you out. That my friend, the indecision and now lingering worry, that's a distress response.
Once you separate the two, you can see how lingering worry in the back of your mind is like a computer with too many applications open, slow moving and ready to blow. But with the right formula, you can turn distress into eustress and free your mind from worry and your body from inflammation. How? Formulate each stress into a problem that needs a decision, then make a decision! As you see below, it's when you can't decide on a course of action that the distress response takes over:
Too much Distress = Chronic Stress
Most of us here in the US go through life in a somewhat constant state of distress, whether we realize it or not. Sometimes we think we were just born an anxious, nervous, or worried person, but what all these three emotions have in common is that they're symptoms of distress. Even if you're functioning through the stress, if your body has a constantly high level of cortisol your body will start breaking down.
In the short term the high levels of cortisol in your system will lead to the usual and somewhat normalized behavior below. I saw normalized because so many people are chronically stressed it’s almost odd not to have a handful of these symptoms every-single-day. Can you check off which ones you have?
Common effects of stress on your mood
- Lack of motivation or focus
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Irritability or anger
- Sadness or depression
- Angry outbursts
- Social withdrawal
- Exercising less often
Common effects of stress on your body
- Muscle tension or pain
- Chest pain
- Change in sex drive
- Stomach upset
- Sleep problems
- Overeating or undereating
- Drugs, alcohol, or smoking overuse
Long term stress without help leads to the burning out of adrenal function altogether. These cases usually go hand-in-hand with chronic disease and a feeling of utter, incurable fatigue (ahem, endometriosis anyone?). These more-severe symptoms also include dizziness upon standing, eyes sensitive to bright light, allergies, pain in the knee, foot, or ankle, insomnia, and complete lack of sex drive.
There’s a host of information out there on how to heal from adrenal dysfunction, from nutrition exercise, and hormone balancing, and I plan on writing much more detail about it in the future. But for now, this is a great time to tune into your body and understand what your stress level is at currently.
Hunt Down the Distress
Time to start sniffing out all your distresses so you can start inventing solutions. To uncover them though, you must understand another thing about stress: It comes in three forms and all three will affect your body in the same way by raising cortisol levels, which in turn will cause inflammation.
Physical: This can be anything that makes your body uncomfortable. from overtraining for a marathon to being a chronic couch potato. It can also include poor alignment, teeth grinding, bloating, constipation, or chronic endo pain. Anything that’s hindering your physical body from performing at its best
Chemical: This is more often what you put in or on your body. It’s eating inflammatory foods like sugar and vegetable oil, taking medications, or simply not drinking enough water. It’s also found in putting highly chemical laden body products on your skin, using a lot of plastic, anything that adds to the chemical burden inside your body.
Emotional/Mental: The one most people think of when imaging stress, this is often the hardest one to address. It can include the job, school, or project, the constant mental dialogue you do because you want to be thinner/prettier/smarter/richer/etc, a poor relationship with a loved one, or simple negative thoughts.
It's common for most people to have stressors in all three categories, and even though each of these factors comes from different inputs, amazingly your body responds the same to all of them! How? When under stress, your adrenals come to the rescue. They produce hormones that deal with the problem, like the well known cortisol. Our body is wired to deal with a problem with an influx of cortisol, and then have it disipate once the problem’s gone. For our ancestors this might have been in, persay, a battle. But in the case of chronic stress, these cortisol levels remain high ALL THE TIME.
Learn Your Personal Distress Signals
Learning to read your distress signals will help you understand when your body is secretly in destress — for whatever reason. It may not even make sense to you. But this is a good time to tune in so that you can really make your stress list cohesive.
Check in with yourself to look at your body’s signals that it’s in a state of distress:
- When do you find you are upper chest (shallow) breathing?
- When do you get random facial twitches or muscle spasms?
- When do you find yourself with your shoulders up at your ears?
- When do you find yourself way too easy to startle or scare?
- When do you yawn, pick your nails, or clench your jaw throughout the day?
- When do you chronically hold tension in your stomach?
- When do your eyebrows knit together? Does it end up causing headaches?
All of these are symptoms of distress, that your body is secretly in fight-or-flight mode. Each time you notice these symptoms (whichever ones you do most), sit back and look at what’s happening to cause it. Is it every time you’re on your computer you start shallow breathing? When you’re sitting in traffic are your shoulders tight and sky-bound, your eyebrows knit with concern? Rushing to make dinner and stomach clenched like a rock? Watching the news and realized you’re picking at your nails or clenching your jaw? The more you learn to distinguish the stressors in your life the more you can jot them down on your list so you take action to release them
When I listed these out I found my biggest stressors weren’t what I initially thought. I found:
- My daily to-do's made me feel like I was in some sort of highly competitive marathon. So much to do! Not enough time!!
- When I was on Instagram I'd pretty mush stop breathing
- When I watched Vikings my stomach would rock hard with tension the whole time
- Doing the dishes. This is so odd, but my stress signals went off like an alarm every time
- When I listened to podcasts while I walked outside I would find myself rushing and out of alignment.
- Even when I wasn’t plugged in, my mind was often filled with worrisome, anxious, or negative thought patterns. And not new ones, I realized, but negative thought patterns I’ve been feeding and fostering for a long time.
As you can see, your fight-or-flight mechanism could potentially be ringing all throughout the day without you realizing it. Even during your walks, your free time, or your chores.
Dealing with Distress
Now that you understand stress a little more, that it can be your diet as much as your job as much as your back pain, it's time to learn how to cope. Here's a 3-step approach that will help alleviate the stresses you don't need in your life, so you can be charged enough to deal with the ones that come your way. Use them as a guide to carry with you throughout the day and begin to see that you have power over your stress response. Only you can turn it off :)
#1: Make Your Distress List
This is a great activity to see just how many things in your life are secretly distressing. The goal isn’t to finish quickly, in fact it may take you a few days to fully think of (and tune into) everything on this list.
How: On a piece of paper write down your known stressors, including all physical, chemical, and emotional. Take a few days to tune into your stress signals so you can form a really cohesive list. Here's an example list: (obviously an example since it's so short :)
- Physical: heels hurt feet, terrible bloating and stomach aches, endo pain each month, terribly fatigued, nagging pain in right knee
- Chemical: want wine every night, don't eat organic food, I rush through meals, need painkillers often
- Emotional: poor time management and multi-tasking leaves me completely overwhelmed, my job, the rainy weather, waiting in line at Starbucks, washing the dishes, social media obsessed, bedroom is always messy, constant negative thoughts
Now that you have a list of all your distressors (is that a word?) it’s time to re-organize them:
Make a Can Control, and Can’t Control list. Breakdown your stressors into those you believe you can control, and put the ones you can't (or don't know how) in a separate column.
From the Can Control category choose 3 items at a time that you want to start changing. For example, even though you could control the wine every night, maybe you really don’t want to right now. In fact, it may cause you more distress. So instead focus on a few little things you can control, and imagine solutions that suit your own life and circumstance. For example:
By making decisions on how you're going to handle each distress, you will be affirming a solution to a problem you didn't realize you had before. So no matter which eustress path you chose, if it comes from your heart it should immediately start curbing the nagging stress in the back of your mind and body.
Plus, by only tackling 3 at a time, you may find it pretty impressive how these little stressors start getting crossed off your list. Eventually you might even be able to work your way over to your previously Can’t Control list. The job? Maybe you decide to finally find a new job. Weather? Maybe you move. And back to the wine? Maybe now you realize you needed it every night because your body was stressed-the-ef-out, and now you feel comfortable have less … maybe even none.
You might also realize some of the previous stressors have minimized without even focusing on them. Like the bloating and endo pain. Perhaps by stopping your rushed meals your digestion is much better and your bloating less, and because you’re lowering your all-over stresses you find your endo pain doesn’t take you out every month like it used to.
By learning to deal with life’s little stressors, you can make room to tackle real problems as they arrive. And they will. But by coming into this more relaxed state, where every little thing doesn’t stress you out, you’ll find yourself being more alert, fun, happy, and in less pain
What about the stresses I really can’t change? It's all perspective
For the stresses you really can’t stop, the only thing to change is your perspective on them. It doesn’t matter if you take an hour of meditation or do yoga, but instead requires a new approach to how you handle life.
For example, if you’re driving in traffic and going to be late, send a text or call ahead to let people know, then accept you’re going to be late. No worrying will make the traffic disappear.
On the other hand if you start getting distressed everytime you have to clean the kitchen (omg, how many times must one clean the kitchen??), turn on an interesting podcast, book on tape, or music and allow yourself a little free time to get through it without rushing. No one’s going to clean the kitchen for you, so learn to enjoy the little “have-to’s” throughout your day.
Most important, learn to calm down that little voice inside of you that wants to stress you out. Remind her there’s no tiger chasing you, no impending famine, just a little to-do list that will get done when it’s done. :)
#2: Tapping for the Distress that has no solution
I learned about tapping from a documentary on a generation of Rwandan orphans left after the genocide. These young adults were so thoroughly traumatized from this experience they couldn’t move on. It was a distress with no solution, so they couldn't move past it. How you could you when you might see the exact man who murdered your parents every day in the market and know they would never go to jail?? The solution came in the form of "tapping". and through this type of stress-work these kids ended up making amazing progress in jumping mental hurdles over what I can’t even fathom.
How does this relate to you? You may not have experienced anything near this level of horror, but you may have experienced another sort, or endo itself might be your horror. Maybe your distress with no solution is a bad breakup that you constantly think about, or an event all the way back in high school when you were ruthlessly taunted. There’s no judgement or scoring system to which horror is worse than another, in your own life whatever haunts you is at the top of the scale. Which is why tapping can work for everyone.
Tapping is wonderful because it allows your brain to honor what’s haunting you, and then release it. If you find yourself stuck in a negative brain swirl and instantly just try to cut the thought away (ie. change the subject), you’re not dealing with the root of the problem and it's bound to keep boomeranging back. Here’s a really awesome talk that will help you on your way:
#3: Learn to Breathe
Shallow breathing (chest breathing) is a very common reaction to stress. And since we become experts at what we do most, if you’re always breathing shallowly from your chest you will probably need to remind your body how to take some big, diaphagm-based breaths. You need this type of breath to calm your nervous system so even if you’re not facing imminent danger, if you’re always taking shallow breaths you’re body will still think there’s trouble brewing and keep you in a stressed state. As a quick reminder, this is boring video of what your diaphragm should be doing while you breathe normally.
If you find it difficult to take a deep-diaphragm breath start by first totally releasing your stomach (was it unknowingly tensed). Still challenging? Try a) laying down, b) putting your arms over your head, c) with your arms over your head lean to one side. Do any of these help release tension and allow oxygen into your deeper lungs? Whichever position you can take deep breaths in, remember it, and over the course of the day try to get in that position when you can and allow your body even just a handful of solid deep breaths.
If you’re interested, Katy Bowman has a course you can purchase that helps you move your body better to increase breathing ability. (click here). You can also, of course, google any breathing technique you want and get more information :)
Moving past a life of chronic Distress
Once you learn you were living life in a chronic state of distress and take actionable items to move past you will find yourself amazingly lighthearted and more able to deal with the big stressors that come your way. The deluge of stresses will always be there, but hopefully now you can see how you can either fall in the stress river and drown, or built a raft and float. Heck, maybe it’s a yacht!
Ok, maybe your life won’t be exactly like this after your de-stressing journey - it will totally depend on your own circumstance. I can’t pretend to know what you’re circumstance is, if you are a woman with endo you could be in high school or you could be nearing the end of your career. What I can do is show you a little glimpse into my own world now that I’ve learned to let go of the little things and replace them with healthy life choices:
- I cut out extra responsibilities that I didn’t need to do (or no longer felt passionate about) and inserted things I should. A little reprioritizing allowed me to get a much needed nap before work, walk my dog 2 miles every day (on top of my own walk/run/movement), and time for Saturday mornings to be my farmers market and veggie prep time so I have a week of chopped veggies at my cooking disposal.
- Instead of facebook-trolling or pinterest-wandering during my free time (or first thing in the morning), I began to read for pleasure again -- real paper books! I made a concerted effort to do this, and am now engrossed in wonderful stories that light up my brain and soul. This could be substituted with any hobby: cooking, crafting, DIY, anything that makes you feel good.
- I stopped listening to podcasts or music during my nature walks. Now I feel like I’m really connecting with nature and allowing my mind to think and daydream on its own without being constantly forced to think in a structured format. Free time for the mind is a beautiful thing.
- Most importantly, I’m learning to retrain my brain. Like many people, I battle a tendency letting negative or anxious thoughts control me. If you find yourself caught in similar cyclical thought patterns, try to reason if they should be addressed so you can finally solve the problem (like asking your mother to stop criticizing your boyfriend), or if they’re obsessive thought that are ready to be cut loose (like that embarrassingly drunken thing you said 5 years ago). Thoughts like these serve you no purpose in becoming your best self, and should be throughly axed from your daily brain operations. Try tapping to release :)
I can say de-stressing in totality is a long journey, so be patient. But when you start waking up calm about the day ahead, like a relaxed house cat, you'll begin to see the world in a totally new light. And boy is it beautiful :)
If you want to learn more about stress and it's affect on everything from disease to the way you think (yes, it can literally re-program your brain to think certain ways), check out this series from NPR all about: STRESS.