3 tips to get clear on how your really feeling

by Dr. Heidi Hanna, AIS Executive Director

Peering through the curtain, I see the beautiful, curious faces of over a thousand women waiting to hear what I have to say. A flush of anxiety rushes through my body from toe to head, as my vision starts to blur a bit and the swirl of sounds around me feels like waves about to sweep me off my feet.

As I stumble forward and smile my way up to the spotlight, I choose to describe the sensations I’m feeling to the audience eager to meet me: “I’m so excited to be here. I mean really excited. In fact, if I think about how excited I am right now it might take my breath away cuz I’m actually pretty nervous too.” A calming giggle provides music to my ears. A reminder that this moment is a blessing not a curse; an opportunity to share an important message and set the tone for the day ahead.

My job is to talk to people about stress, and how to turn it into fuel for positive change. And I do this, not from a place of studying the impact in a clinical laboratory (although I’m so grateful for my friends who do), but from a lifetime of experience learning how to survive with an anxiety disorder. After four long decades of being told it was “all in my head”, I was finally diagnosed with a condition called Vasovagal Syndrome. I like to explain it like the playing dead version of the fight or flight response.

It’s true. A small percentage of us who are likely born with an extreme sensitivity to stress react quite differently than the average bear. Instead of feeling over-activated and primed to take action to run or attack, our innate response is to shut down and hope that it goes away. After fainting, blood flow is returned to the brain. We scoop ourselves up off the floor, convince everyone that we’re just fine, and hope to shift focus to something other than the debilitating embarrassment of being completely out of control.

One of the greatest self-taught lessons I learned trying to navigate this very confusing challenge, is the powerful relief of understanding what’s really happening and choosing a word or label that fits the situation, while also helping me to move forward towards my most important goals. The only other option I had, which I’ll admit was tempting on more than one occasion, was to allow the stress of my situation to completely take me off track towards what I wanted my life to be (service and significance), and settling into a simple life of solitude.

Each of us has a unique hardwired reaction to stress and stimulation, primarily fueled by a cocktail of hormones designed to protect us from harm. Recent research has uncovered six primary stress reactions; that’s four more than what most of us have been taught. When we understand that stress impacts us in a variety of ways and become clear on our own stress signature, we can start to make adjustments to the language we use and our coping strategies so we can effectively adapt in ways that strengthen us rather than break us down.

As a result, we can see stress for what it is, assess — appreciate — and adjust it, and use it as fuel for positive change.

How Stress Becomes Worry and Anxiety

The energy of stress is not something to push away or try to minimize, but rather information that can help us adjust in a way that enables us to stay on course. Stress is what happens in the gap between demand and capacity. It’s not good or bad, but the result of stress can be positive or negative depending on how we use it.

When we feel the energy of stress, we can look into it and ask questions of clarification that enable us to either decrease demand or build capacity. In many cases, it’s not a circumstantial change that’s required, but a retargeting of our energy and attention that provides us greater resources, either through our own clarity of focus or by aligning with others who can provide us additional support.

Stress can turn into worry when we allow ourselves to drift off into concerns that aren’t related to the present moment. We can swirl in our ideas of what we could have done or should have done yesterday, or what we could do or should do tomorrow. This is the brain’s way of helping to protect us from the possibilities that might exist; a neurological upgrade from more primitive brain types that only react to what’s right in front of them. Our ability to worry can be helpful in preparation, but when we’re stuck in this state we can find ourselves hijacked from taking any action at all.

Stress becomes anxiety when it is too intense or goes on for too long, similar to physical exercise that causes injury or debilitation from overuse. Also like working out in the gym, when we push the capacity of our brain beyond our comfort zone and require stress hormones like adrenaline to give us an extra energy boost, it works to our advantage as long as we don’t over do it.

While worry is a more cognitive or mental construct, anxiety resides in the body. When our nervous system gets stuck in a heightened state for too long, the inability to slow down, relax or recover from stress can manifest with physical sensations like a rapid heart beat, short shallow breathing, tightness in the chest, sweating, or even a system-wide shut down that leads to passing out (vasovagal syncope).

Each of these states — stress, worry and anxiety — serve an important purpose. They give us information so that we can navigate towards safety. When we ignore them or try to overpower them somehow, they manifest below the surface leading to more serious states of imbalance. But when we identify them quickly and choose the use them to our advantage, we mobilize the energy in ways that serve us rather than letting them burn us out or break us down.

In the moment we recognize stress, notice worry, or feel anxiety, one of the quickest ways we can shift it for good is to use language that is empowering instead of overwhelming. Here are a few suggestions on how to do that.

Three Tips to Tame Stress

Tip 1: Stop and Assess it. When you notice stress, worry or anxiety creeping up on you, give yourself permission to stop and take notice. The worst thing you can do is try to push it down or pretend like it doesn’t exist. Your brain and body are trying to get your attention for something important, so just like a child wanting to share a new discovery with you, the best thing you can do is share your time and energy in an effort to really listen. What’s happening, and why? Something is out of balance and causing tension or pressure to occur. The more clarity you have on its cause, the more certain you can be of how to use it that energy to your advantage.

Tip 2: Appreciate it. Before you move into problem solving mode, take a moment to thank yourself for being aware and able to look right into your concerns. Recognize that our stress, worry and anxiety are there to help us, not hurt us. The worst thing that could happen is that we feel hopeless and helpless, and don’t care at all. One reason stressing is a blessing is it brings our attention to things that matter to us. If we didn’t care, we wouldn’t feel stress.

Tip 3: Adjust it. You don’t have to fix the problem to make an adjustment that’s helpful. And what’s most important with internal cues like stress, worry and anxiety is that we use it in the service of change. What’s the smallest adjustment you could make right now that would enable you to reduce the tension you’re feeling, and bring better energy to the time that you have?

Often, this isn’t related to your worries at all, but rather a nudge you give your neurons in a more positive direction by doing something restorative for yourself or offering service to someone else. Take a few deep breaths, get outside for some fresh air, go for a walk, listen to some music, watch a funny video. Find a cause you care about to volunteer for, mentor a young person, or offer support to a friend in need.

When you take time to shift your physiology you change your psychology for the better, so you can see stress through a new lens. My stress mastery habit #1 is to watch your words. When you get curious about what stress is trying to tell you and ask the important questions of yourself, like what matters most in this moment, you begin to make stress your friend instead of your enemy.

Stay tuned for more tips from my new book, The 7 Habits of Stress Mastery, available this fall.