The alarm blows like a siren, I leap out of bed.
Was that meeting at eight or 9? And where did I put my work cell phone? Look under the pillow, on the dresser, under the bed, by the computer…nothing!
Now I’ll be late, and will certainly miss the bus. Run downstairs. Arg, I bet it’s at the gym. Glance at the cell phone. No text. Why do they never get back to me?? Chew fingernails. How am I going to make this appointment?
I’m good at stressing out.
As quickly as it started, I’ve worried the entire day away. I’m crawling into bed, and still a bundle of nerves. To boot, I cannot sleep with all of this anxious energy racing, so a new stress tape begins. Did I forget to…
Worrying sucks. It often makes my life worse and rarely makes it better. And unfortunately our species is really good at it. Unlike animals, we have a well developed an incredibly resourced frontal lobe. We often allocate many of those resources to thoughts about the past and future. When we land on a bad thought, it activates our stress response.
Perhaps you’ve heard it referred to as the fight or flight response. This stress response is governed by what some psychiatrists think of as our reptile brain. As long as it reports back that we are safe, everything is copasetic.
But the moment our reptile brain registers danger, it takes over and our rather superhuman powers unleash.Access to our frontal lobe and rational thought is limited or cut off. Our body gets flooded with all the resources—adrenaline, cortisol and stress hormones—needed to fight or take flight from a lion.
Unlike us, animals are very much in the moment so they sense real danger and they respond accordingly. Lamentably for us humans though, we allow the anxiety about tomorrow and yesterday to take hold of our minds, thus triggering our reptile brain to prepare ourselves to face our imagined threat.
Our reptile brain’s response is incredibly useful to fight or flight from a real enemy. But we only get so many of these superpower doses before we are left pretty depleted. So, no wonder many of us drag through the day exhausted, irritable and short-fused. Then, to top it off, we have difficulty sleeping at night.
Commercial break. Let’s say you woke up this morning with 100 energy points to spend, how are you going to use them? I’m guessing that, like me, you would want to balance them among what’s important in your life. You know, relationships, play, work and so on. Trouble is, every time worrying generates a stress response, it zaps 10 of those points.
So, if you managed seven good worry sessions today, you only have 30 points left. That energy needs to stretch through the hectic hours of your nine to five, one grocery store run, helping your partner with dinner and putting two kids to bed. No wonder you have so little energy left over for the important people in your life and feel tired all day.
Okay, back to our regularly scheduled program. Is there a fix? Yes.
1. When a worry tape starts, focus your awareness on your breath.
One of my favorite exercises is to try to count 10 breaths in a row, and to make each breath longer than the one before it. Even right now, pause to feel this inhale and then notice the exhale that immediately follows. Then on this next one, see if you can count slowly to three as you breath in and out. Now go for four.
2. Bring your attention into your body.
Specifically notice right in this moment the way your feet feel in your shoes. Can you feel the pressure of the shoe around your foot or detect the temperature you are feeling? Now notice your ears. Can you detect a slight breeze on your ears or perhaps notice a slight tingling sensation on your earlobes?
Suddenly the worry tape starts again: totally okay. Totally normal. Human in fact. Simply come back to this same awareness of what you are feeling in a specific part of your body.
3. Expectations are ripe grounds for the activation of our stress response.
As a meditation master once told me, The future is unwritten. As a result, we often try to plan our day to give us a sense of control about how things are going to go. Again, a very human thing to do. And it’s a fine thing to do until the plan begins unravelling, as they often do.
When you begin texting your friend about meeting at the drive-In at 7 p.m., also remind yourself that things probably won’t go exactly as planned. Traffic or work or whatever will slow one of you down, and that’s okay. That way when one of you is running behind, your stress response is a little less likely to get triggered. One of my favorite ways to remember this is in the phrase, Hold it lightly.
“What screws us up most in life is the picture in our head of how it is supposed to be.” ~ Socrates
Extra special bonus. We can do things to deplete some of those energy points we wake up with every morning. Too much alcohol, caffeine, sugar and other substances are examples.
Something nagging us in the back of our minds can similarly suck battery life by acting like a constantly running background app. In this case, jot the thought down or put the needed reminder in your phone so that the nagging can stop.
On the flip side, there are all sorts of great things we can do to let go of that toxic stress that builds up in our body and even increase the number of energy points we have for the day. Here’s a quick list of my favorites:
1. The Sleep Foundation recommends seven to nine hours of sleep every night for adults.
2. 30 minutes of active movement daily. That one is a Mayo Clinic doctor’s orders.
3. Good nutrition. Focus on fresh fruits and veggies, whole grains and some protein.
4. Constant hydration. I carry my Klean Kanteen everywhere and end up drinking more just because it’s in front of me. The recommended dose of water per day is half an ounce or more per pound of bodyweight.
5. Touch a friend. Researchers at Berkeley found that this will reduce the stress hormones in your body and gives the message, I’ll share the load. And particularly when stressed, it feels good to know there’s someone in our corner.
Jeremi McManus is a Relationship Coach, Psychotherapist, and Couples Therapist who works with people who want more fulfilling and satisfying relationships. His own ups and downs in dating and relating were instrumental in leading him into this field. If you feel like you could use some perspective, he looks forward to hearing from you. Jeremi is a Licensed Psychotherapist and delighted to call San Francisco home.