When people find out that I’m a therapist, they often ask how to cope with stress and anxiety. In an already go-go-go! culture, our abundance of technology makes the bombardment seemingly inescapable. To-do lists, endless reminders, near-constant interruptions, messages of comparison, incoming images and sounds that stoke emotions of alarm and panic are everywhere – in our hands, in our faces, and in our pockets.
In order to answer this question - what do we do about this overwhelming amount of stress and anxiety? - my question back is initially: who's asking?
It's usually an individual asking about their own growing sense of unmanageability. But I often wish that this was a question that people in powerful, culture-changing positions would ask. Certainly we have some leaders on the national level that help us to challenge and change this narrative of what a successful American life must look like, but I'm talking about leaders of microcosms of culture - heads of organizations, small-business owners, faith leaders, principals, parents. Each of these roles are in a position to change the tempo of their small corner of the world - to challenge our belief in multi-tasking and the glorification of busy-ness, to call our attention to the importance of transitions between activities, to create systems that reward, or at a minimum do not penalize, spacious schedules that allow unplanned time that is crucial for creativity and innovation. With a realization that stress and anxiety negatively impact performance, absenteeism, job satisfaction, physical illness, and mental health, business leaders are in an ideal position to begin to affect change that not only keeps us healthy, but improves the bottom line. And with an acknowledgment of the harm that stress, rushing, and a lack of rest and play has on kids, parents are their family's own best shot at being healthier and happier.
My next question is when are folks asking? We are so accustomed to stress, that we don’t often seek help until we hit about an 11 on a scale of 1 to 10. Often, we are so busy and disconnected from our bodies and our feelings that our stress doesn’t even register in our awareness until we’re around a 7 or 8. As a therapist, I can certainly help you when you’re at an 11, but I’d rather help you before then. In addition to providing relief from the immediate stress, we also want to help re-calibrate your stress-o-meter, so you can tell you’re experiencing stress before it gets to such a harmful level.
I often use an analogy of dental care when talking about stress, because every one loves going to the dentist (ha!). For those of us who dislike visits to the dentist, it's likely because we've had to utilize their services for some type of unpleasant and urgent dental issue. We can either have the pleasure of getting a root canal, or we can practice preventive dental care: regular check-ups and cleanings, and practice daily dental hygiene. Similarly, for stress management, we need both emergency coping skills, for when our body's alarm bells are ringing, and daily preventive practices, to help prevent the alarm bells in the first place.
Have you ever had an especially busy day and then looked up at the clock and realized it's 4:00pm and you haven't had anything to eat today? Have you ever noticed that you needed to take a bathroom break, but just wanted to finish that one email first, and before you know it an hour has passed and the signals faded from your awareness, but now you are really aware of them? This is clear evidence that we are not hearing all of the messages our bodies send us. And if we can tune out messages that our basic human needs of food and elimination are not being met, we can certainly tune out messages about stress and anxiety.
The good news: stress management techniques are really simple. The bad news: maybe even because they're so simple, we tend to brush them off as not important. It is immensely hard to prioritize this type of self-care, because we are so conditioned that these activities are not contributing to our productivity. These techniques may be very simple, but they are not easy to implement. The work here is not challenging in the typical check-list, figure-it-out, hustle, sweat, anxiety-increasing way that we typically think of "hard work." This work is difficult in the I'm-asking-you-to-do-the-opposite-of-what-our-entire-society-has-conditioned-you-to-do-since-birth kind of way. It might not feel like you are doing much. But you are. Rest is a constructive action, and the "work" is in ignoring all of the pieces of you telling you not to do the work. You might surprised at your own thoughts and feelings that rise up to resist you as you set out to practice good self-care. Our work is in counter-acting some of the sources and results of stress and anxiety.
Next week's blog will focus on some of these simple, though not easy, solutions. Stick around!
If you would like to schedule an individual therapy session to work on your own stress and anxiety, reach out via email or use my online scheduler. You can read more about my practice here.
If you are looking for help for your organization to better address stress and anxiety on a more macro level, contact me to discuss specifics and a free brief consultation and proposal presentation.
Hate crimes are punished more severely in our society based on the understanding that they affect more than just the immediate victims of the crime. The attack and its effects on the dignity, worth, and personhood of the primary victim spread to other people who share the characteristics that prompted the attack. Whether it is a nightclub shooting, yet another murder of a transwoman, the epidemic killing of black men and boys by police, the passage of discriminatory policies and laws that limit civil rights, or a televised protest of hatred and ensuing violence - each of these events that may happen geographically far from home, they don't feel far away. They are felt in the core of people of color, LGBTQ folks, immigrants and women everywhere. That is the intent of actions like this. To frighten entire groups of people. To control them. To silence them. To say, "you are not worthy of dignity and respect." This expands the victimhood of these events to entire minority groups.
So, if you are a victim of such an event, it is important to know that you have experienced a trauma.
When we experience trauma, events are happening and we are attempting to take in information that cannot be assimilated into our understanding of how the world works. Our minds, our worldviews, and even our concepts of our very selves cannot accommodate this new information. Our fear responses get (and stay) dialed all the way up. We (rightfully) don't feel safe. Very foundational beliefs that our lives indeed depend on are shaken and even split apart.
In response to this, it is a very human response to want to, as quickly as possible, regain a sense of safety and re-establish meaning. We want to make the world make sense again. Sometimes this can lead us to whitewash the truth, to minimize what has happened, to spread the blame around to "all sides." I have even said to myself and others that "this is just a small group of people who feel this way." We ask ourselves questions about "how could people do this?" and we answer by saying things like it's a learned behavior within a small community, or it's misplaced fear and anger. This quest to understand is understandable - we need things to make sense. But I don't want to make sense of terror and hate. I don't want to live in a world where it is understandable. This is the nature of traumatic events - they're traumatic because they should. not. happen. Let's not find ways to help our minds accommodate this. This is not ok. Let us work towards the hope that events such as these would not happen. But when trauma does strike, trauma should be disruptive, not normalized.
There is a place where we do need to seek to re-create and nourish meaning, and that is in our own and each others' sense of self, our sense of love and connection with one another, and each person on earth's sense of dignity and worth as a human being. This can look different for each person, and at different times. To some, or today, it may look like constructive rest. To others, or tomorrow, it may mean taking political action by donating money or physically showing up for restorative causes. Take in current events and remain aware and engaged, and please also take breaks from the bombardment of traumatic images and harmful energy. Find positive, supportive sources for news and information. Don't let hate and violence be the only messages you are taking in. Please rest when you need to. Cry and shout when you need to. Reach out for support. And if you are not feeling the need to rest, shout, cry, or reach out, then please turn to your neighbor that does and be of service.
A note to myself, and other white people: When I was asked to do an interview on this topic for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, I very nearly did not accept the interview. I was afraid that I might say the wrong thing. I was afraid to jump in to a conversation about race so publicly. When I recently had a conversation with other white clinicians about Charlottesville and about race, it was supremely uncomfortable for everyone involved. Getting uncomfortable is for-sure a price we have to pay if we want to see a country without racism, and we are going to be sitting (and hopefully standing and marching) in that discomfort for a while. It is indeed important for us, too, to practice good self-care, and rest when we need to. But I ask you, and challenge myself, to firstly consider two things. 1: Am I more tired than the people of color who have been fighting this battle longer and harder and with greater consequence than I have? and 2: Is it really just resting, or am I seeking to hide or to quit? When we take a break from this conversation, for us it can truly be a break. When our brothers, sisters, and siblings of color take a break, they get no respite from feeling the effects of what is being done to them. Surely, we will make mistakes. Surely, we will quite probably screw up in big ways every now and then. And being called out won't feel good. I say as much to myself as I do to you: please, do it anyway. Racism and division and hatred and injustice are damaging to us all.
For people of color looking for a safe space to heal, and anyone looking to support healing spaces, please check out the work of:
If you would like to learn more and get involved, please check out: