By: Jessica LaMarre
Stress has been an epidemic for decades. Time magazine’s June 6, 1983 cover story called stress “The Epidemic of the Eighties” and referred to it as our leading health problem. In 2015, the US National Institutes of Health released a national study that found 60-80% of primary care visits are stress related. In 2020, the pandemic caused American’s stress levels to rise to greater proportions: Nearly eight in ten adults (78%) say the coronavirus pandemic is a significant source of stress in their life.
Search “stress” on the internet and you will get over one billion hits. Search for “stress management” on the internet and you will likely find a variety of answers including exercise, eating healthy, avoiding unhealthy habits, getting enough sleep, avoiding caffeine or alcohol, keeping a positive attitude, and the list goes on.
When I first started in the quest to reduce my stress around two and a half years ago, these were the recommendations I found while doing my research. As a working mom, adding things to my already lengthy to-do list just caused more stress and guilt.
Exercise: Great! When shall I find the time?
Eat healthy: Awesome! As I rush through most of my meals.
Get enough sleep: That’s funny!
Avoid caffeine: Do you know how we make it through the day?
Keep a positive attitude: Have you not seen this smile glued to my face and me constantly saying ‘I’m good?’
So, if stress has been an epidemic for decades and the internet has countless stress management options, why are we so stressed?
[Related: Numbing for Coping With Stress, Especially During the Holidays]
Searching for an answer.
I was determined to find the answer – as a stressed, overwhelmed, overworked working mom, I was desperate. In my quest to understand stress I learned from Karla McLaren’s book, “The Language of Emotions,” that the word “stress” does not even come from the world of emotions; it is a term from the world of physics and engineering, where it is defined as pressure – pull or force exerted on one thing by another.
Interesting that we use this word to define our emotions. So now if we’re angry, disappointed, sad, frustrated, irritated, exhausted, or overwhelmed, we just use the word “stress” to describe how we feel.
As I dove deeper into what is at the core of stress, I learned that when the stressor occurs, our bodies signal a stress response (physical, mental, or emotional). We typically overlook or suppress the stress response our bodies are giving us. As we continue to do this day in and day out, our stress becomes distress, which is stress that is severe or prolonged.
I love the way Dr. Erin Olivo puts it in her Psychology Today article:
So why aren’t we better at managing stress? Because we aren’t targeting the right problem! We use stress as a catch-all phrase to describe a general sense of feeling overwhelmed but in order to really begin to break down the problem of stress we need to get more specific and call it what it really is — distressing emotions.
The root cause of stress.
What I learned is that the root cause of our stress is the suppressing or repressing of our stress response. Bottom line: We are not listening to our body’s response to stress. We are not listening to ourselves!
It’s not just a stress problem, it’s a disconnection problem. Which is not a surprise, as we have kids, significant others, employers, customers, etc. all demanding our time. So, we don’t take any time for ourselves. We may feel the stress in our body or sense it in our irritation or frustration, but we suppress it or repress it because we have too much going on – and who has time to slow down, right?
Since first learning about stress, a lot has changed, and I’ve had plenty of times to practice what I learn and teach. One thing we know for sure is there will always be stressors, so the key is to address the stress at the core. The goal is to listen to what our physical, mental, or emotional stress response is and act upon it.
We have forgotten how to identify with our own bodies. We typically treat the symptom, not the root cause. For me personally, I would end up on antibiotics for the inevitable sinus infections that would come monthly as a result of stress, treating the symptoms – not the cause.
Now that I treat the cause, the sinus infections are no longer an issue. On the rare occasion that I do get one, it is because I am not addressing my stress at the core.
[Related: Five Tips for Creating a Culture of Health in Your Workplace]
Getting to the core of your stress.
Here is a three-step process to address your stress at the core. I know that as busy individuals taking on more, this can be overwhelming. But this process is not about doing more; it is about listening to what you need.
Initially the process will take about a minute, but as you build the connection with yourself, it will become something you can do in seconds. Ask yourself the following questions in each step.
Step 1: Become aware of your stress response.
Step 2: Identify the root cause.
- Using mindfulness, which in simple terms is focusing on the present moment, take a few deep breaths. Inhale fully, exhale fully. Ask yourself what it is you need.
- “What is my stress response communicating to me?”
- You may be surprised to find yourself with very fast responses. Trust what comes to you. Your body has been trying to communicate with you for decades.
- If you don’t receive a response, just breathe a few more breaths and ask again. It will come. It is there; you just have to be willing to be open to listening to yourself.
Step 3: Listen to what you need.
- This may be the hardest step, as what you need may not be something you have time for in the moment. If that is the case, finish what you are doing and then take a few minutes for yourself to re-connect.
- Give yourself permission to give yourself what you need.
- Trust yourself! Listen to yourself! You know what is best for you!
If you don’t know where to start, I recommend that when you feel stressed or overwhelmed, you take a break. Research shows taking a break can reduce stress and improve productivity.
[Related: Work + Life: Balance or Collision? Why Workplace Wellness Matters]
Jessica LaMarre is a mom of three, writer, speaker, and workshop facilitator. She guides high-achievers to access personal and professional success from the inside out. She’s been featured in ForbesWomen, UpJournal, Thrive Global, EllevateNetwork, and Medium.