“It’s not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.”Hans Selye
Why I don’t give out tips
While out shopping for plants, I met a fellow plant lover looking to bring some life into her home during quarantine. She and I started chatting because, I suspect, we were both starved for human interaction during this time. Anyway, somehow we got on the topic of what we did for a living, and after I shared that I was a stress coach, she said, “Wow – I need that now!” then asked for a few tips, to which I pointed out that looking at plants is actually a great way to relax our nervous system.
This interaction, although brief, reminded me to write this blog. Let me explain…
I love the various reactions from people when they first find out that I’m a stress coach. But one of the most popular reactions I get is, “Ooh, I can use that!” or “I need that!” Followed by “Tell me what to do!” or “Give me a few tips to de-stress!”
Look, you and I both know that if your stress could be solved with just a few tips, you would have de-stressed and unstuck yourself already.
Anything I can share in 30 seconds, you can easily google and try – and some people do, and it helps.
However, the clients I work with are smart, capable, resourceful, and have tried managing stress on their own – not to their satisfaction, which is why they hire me. The reality is that insights, results, and transformation that clients get from working with me or another qualified coach can’t be experienced from a google search.
With that said – I get it. People are stressed and stuck and want some tips to feel better so that they can do what they love, be proud of how they show up, and experience more beauty and ease.
Ok, maybe people don’t usually say they want to experience more beauty and ease initially, but really, that’s what it boils down to.
So, while I usually respond with “Let’s set up a time to chat about this in a way that can be useful to you,” today, I’m going to share more.
I’ll break down the four common root causes of stress and stuckness that I usually don’t get into in a quick response to “Give me some tips to de-stress.”
Like all things meaningful, it starts with the self. What I’m going to share are also things that I personally had to overcome in my journey moving from a chronic state of feeling stuck and stressed, to seeing possibilities and choosing the path to beauty and ease in each moment.
For some context for those who don’t know me, I’ve been working with human behavior and transformation for most of my life. I’ve known this passion and purpose since I was about 12 years old. Human behavior and transformation is the area in which I was trained and have decades of experience. In the past, I’ve worked for Fortune 500 companies; today, I run my own private coaching practice working with business leaders and creatives (for more, see my bio).
In all of my years of working with people, I repeatedly see the following four things that are at the root of stress and stuckness. But also, I’ve witnessed for myself and with hundreds of clients that it’s working with these four areas that real transformation happens.
The four common root causes of stress and stuckness that no one’s talking about:
1. A false understanding of self-care & putting self-care last
When it comes to self-care, people fall into two automatic thought patterns.
The first is through the productivity lens and the second is through the self-sacrifice lens.
Through the first lens, we live in a hyper productivity-focused world. This means that there’s a general judgment around the notion of self-care because we associate self-care with stopping productivity.
If we stop being productive, we stop showing our value. If we don’t show our value, how do we experience self-worth?
Through the second lens, many of us are socialized from a very young age that we have to do things we don’t want and to sacrifice ourselves in order to be a “good person.” And if we don’t sacrifice, it means we’re selfish.
We might have learned this in our place of worship, at school, in our communities, or at home.
Most often, we’re taught by watching our parents as they modeled this behavior, likely because it’s how they were taught. So this becomes our experience:
Mom or Dad loves us so much that they’re eating last, working tirelessly, giving up their dreams and what they want – all to care for us and provide for us in the best way possible. And they remind us at every opportunity that self-sacrifice equals love.
There could be other reasons, but these are the two general beliefs I’ve seen the most at a subconscious level for why people don’t prioritize self-care – I’m less if I stop producing and I’m selfish if I meet my own needs.
It’s also these two basic beliefs that are driving a lot of modern people to burnout, physical illnesses, and emotional pain like depression, anxiety, and rage.
While we’re seeing a movement toward more self-care now, frankly, we’re not talking about the root of the issue.
Self-care has become on-trend even in places we least expect to see it, such as corporate settings and consumer retail, and with catchphrases and programs like:
- Treat yourself
- You serve it
- Be well; work well
- Healthy snacks & lunch options
- In-office yoga
- Well-being PTO
But according to the American Institute of Stress, stress is on the rise.
Although any focus on well-being is a step in the right direction, these trends tend to talk about well-being on a superficial level. I believe that what’s creating stress and unease runs deeper than unhealthy snacks, not treating ourselves, and not taking enough vacation. This mainstream wellness model is flawed because we’re still confronted with a depleted self that’s always going to need another snack, another massage, or more vacation.
Instead, what’s more powerful and sustainable for relieving stress is looking at the beliefs that are driving our stressful thoughts and behaviors, consciously and subconsciously.
It’s developing a new way of being so that our self-worth and value aren’t tied to how overbooked we are. It’s realizing that the only way to continue to show up, contribute, and make an impact sustainably is to first show up and contribute to ourselves. It’s so vital to meet our own needs first that flight attendants remind us every time we fly to first put on our oxygen masks before helping others.
Our self-care is the foundation on which we build our life. Everything we touch, take on, and give is dependent on and shaped by how whole we feel. From there, it ripples out. This means that if we’re showing up and creating and serving from a place of depletion, others can feel that energy. But when we take care of our body, mind, and spirit, we’re energized, inspired, and can serve from a place that radiates from within.
What’s the solution?
Instead of waiting for everything to be done before we “do self-care,” we infuse self-care into everything that we do. The mindset shift is seeing self-care as how we do everything. It’s how we prioritize our day, spend our time, spend our money, nourish our body, engage with work, connect with others, connect with nature, define our boundaries, speak to ourselves, engage with our mind, process our feelings, express our truths, etc.
Self-care is the basis of individual sovereignty. In order to own ourselves, we need to be masterful at taking care of mind, body, and spirit so that we can grow, flourish and thrive on our own, irrespective of what’s going on in our world. One of my favorite quotes about self-care is one by Audre Lorde who said a few decades ago (but even more relevant today): “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
2. Not knowing what to do with feelings (especially uncomfortable ones)
Similar to self-care, people fall into two camps when they’re struggling with feelings. The first is feeling too much and not knowing what to do with it all. The experience here is feeling like we’re on an emotional rollercoaster, often making us feel out of control or drained.
The second camp is not feeling much of anything apart from “good” or “bad.” The experience here is a general numbness. This tendency was likely created to buffer unpleasant emotions at one point – but inadvertently, the numbness also ends up buffering pleasant emotions, such as love and joy.
If you can relate to this, not only are you blocked from fully experiencing life’s beauty, sometimes “bad” feelings surge and can become overwhelming. This is because we’re not built to “hold in” our emotions, so eventually what’s suppressed will want to emerge. It’s extremely frustrating because usually, you can’t pinpoint what’s wrong, so you can’t take action to fix it.
Not understanding how to navigate feelings can cause a lot of internal stress that inevitably manifests itself externally.
But once you’re able to understand the purpose of feelings and how to process them, feelings become a helpful tool that shows you what you need, rather than a nuisance you need to “contain” or “manage.”
3. Believing thoughts are facts and an inability to recognize unhelpful or distorted thoughts
I’d say 100% of my clients struggle with stressful thoughts. On some days, I’d put myself in that camp as well. It’s a constant struggle because of how we’re wired physiologically.
First, our brain has a feature called negative bias. This means we’re better at seeing what’s wrong or what could go wrong versus what’s right and what could go right. Experts believe that this was a survival feature when we lived in the wild to keep us safe, as it benefited us to occasionally mistake a rope for a snake versus the other way around. But in the modern-day world, it’s creating more harm than good.
But our negativity doesn’t stop there – we also have more receptors in our brain to perceive negative experiences over positive experiences. This creates something called positive-negative asymmetry, meaning the criticism is going to sting more and last longer compared to the fleeting joy from the praise. Dr. Rick Hanson describes it as the Teflon effect, where positive experiences will slide off like Teflon and negative experiences will cling on like velcro.
Given our inherited features, if we don’t work to counterbalance this negative bias (and studies have shown that we can train our brain to get better at noticing and savoring the good), it’s easy to fall into the automatic loop of stressful thoughts.
When we believe our stressful thoughts are facts… we walk into the loop.
When we can’t differentiate between helpful versus unhelpful thoughts… we get pulled into the loop even deeper.
And when we buy into our own distorted thoughts… we get completely sucked into the “spiral of doom.”
Working on alleviating stressful thoughts begins with creating space between us and our thoughts.
Next, we want to be able to differentiate between helpful versus unhelpful thoughts so that we can catch and disrupt unhelpful loops at the start.
Then, we want to understand all the different types of distorted thoughts that we have, such as catastrophizing, mind reading, fortune telling, minimizing, black and white thinking, and many others that generate unnecessary stress.
When we can observe our thoughts, we get good at spotting what I call COLD thoughts. It’s an acronym to help spot unhelpful thoughts coming our way so we can disrupt and swap them for helpful ones. COLD stands for critic, oppressor, limiting beliefs, and distorted thoughts. These are the key characteristics of unhelpful thoughts. We want to get good at spotting COLD thoughts to train our brains to leave the path of stuckness and stress and create the path to ease and possibilities.
4. Not realizing intuition is our sixth sense
In our modern-day world, most of us have been conditioned to de-prioritize or, worse, ignore our intuition.
Instead, we value the senses we can traditionally measure in a lab (although science is catching up and we’re able to measure intuition in repeatable experiments). But cutting off a sense that we’re naturally born with creates confusion and disorientation.
Think, what if we were to cut off our sense of hearing or sight? It would create immediate stress. Similarly, life is harder and more stressful to navigate when we suppress one of our other senses like intuition.
We’re born with it for a reason – it’s our internal compass. It’s a part of ourselves that’s connected to something bigger than us, making it the wisest part of ourselves. Our intuition is always in support of our highest good, pointing to our purpose and keeping us safe.
It’s easy to discount our intuition when the modern world conflates intuition with other things like thoughts, imagination, subjective bias, feelings, and triggers. Intuition is different from any of those things; rather, it’s something else completely that we can develop and access to help guide us.
I’ve personally experienced the power of intuition in my life, and also witnessed clients who, when reconnected with their intuition, made wiser decisions that deeply fulfilled them, served and supported their purpose, brought more abundance, and kept them and their loved ones safe.
You were born to experience beauty & ease
So there you go – those are the four things that most people don’t talk about when discussing what’s at the root of stress, and how to alleviate stress.
The best way to tackle stress is rarely head-on. It’s not helpful to talk about stress in and of itself, because stress is not the problem. Most modern-day stress is the result of one of these four areas out of sync. The stress we experience is a symptom, not the cause.
You can see now that if any of these four areas are misaligned, daily living can be full of stressors. We’re challenged, provoked, and triggered at every corner. It can be nonstop.
But you have the full capability to shift that experience. Instead of being depleted, you can recharge and nourish yourself. Instead of getting triggered and feeling overwhelmed by your emotions, you can befriend them and receive the important message they’re trying to send you. Instead of letting your stressful thoughts run on their own, you can disrupt unhelpful loops and choose helpful thoughts that support your values and goals. Instead of feeling unfulfilled and partially dead inside, you can trust that inner voice that’s been whispering to you.
I hope you’re able to see a different and deeper perspective on “how to de-stress” that a 30-second reply doesn’t do justice.
If I can be of any help in your journey to experiencing more ease, reach out here, If you benefited from this article, consider sharing it.