3 Phases to Heal Chronic Stress

Written by on December 31, 2014 in Features - No comments

Thoughtful-doctorWEBStress often receives a bad reputation, but it is critical to distinguish the effects of acute stress and chronic stress.

Acute stress, stress that last for a short period of time, is normal and a necessary function of biological existence. There is nothing inherently harmful with experiencing acute stress. Some studies show acute stress can increase a healthy immune response1 and when people are informed that stress symptoms – a racing heart, butterflies in the stomach, feelings of nervousness – are working in their favor, perceived negative symptoms of stress decrease2.

The effects of chronic stress, however, are harmful. Chronic stress happens with the perceived demands of life outweigh one’s available resources for a period of months to years. It is chronic stress that wreaks havoc on the physical, mental, and emotional body, leaving those who experience it feelings of constant tension and susceptible to physical illness, insomnia, depression, anxiety, relationship problems, and career disruption.

There are many external conditions that contribute to chronic stress, often identified as caring for someone who is ill or caring for a child with special needs, managing a chronic illness, experiencing long-term financial strain, and/or traumas.

Although these conditions contribute to chronic stress, there is another group of high-performing professional adults who experience chronic stress from a demanding career combined with competing personal demands, ambition, high expectations, perfectionist tendencies, and an overextended schedule.

In my work with high-achieving professional women, chronic stress symptoms show up as insomnia, a racing mind, exhaustion, reactivity, impatience, discontent, and feelings of disconnection from themselves and the ones they love. It is rarely their professional work that suffers, but symptoms first show up as a decrease in their own felt sense of well-being followed by relationship strain with a partner and/or children.

If the physical, emotional, and/or relationship problems get bad enough after goal-setting cycles and traditional self-care measures fail to provide relief, high-achieving women may seek counsel from a healthcare provider, therapist, or health coach.

Providers may offer advice to take some time off, practice yoga, get a massage, or take warm baths. Although these are wonderful acts of self-care and temporarily reduce acute stress, these tactics do not resolve chronic stress. The belief that a vacation, taking a yoga class, or receiving a massage resolves chronic stress is a myth.

In my practice, I guide high-achieving professional women through three phases to heal chronic stress. These phases, when approached with compassion and gentleness, create a restored nervous system, resiliency to prevent harm from future stressors, and self-awareness to regulate emotions and activities without guilt or exhausting one’s resources.

Phase 1: Stress Awareness

“It came out of nowhere…I don’t know how this happened…I’ve been a little stressed but I feel fine.” These are words commonly heard after someone has received a stress-related health crisis wake-up call.

In order to heal chronic stress, it is imperative to develop body awareness to discern and honor the body’s sensations. The body is constantly providing sensation and feedback from internal and external stimuli, most of which goes unnoticed, ignored, or denied.

With so much cultural identity and emphasis placed on scholastic knowledge and external achievement, few have mastered the art of embodiment. What is it like to live and be in the body instead of the head?

Developing stress awareness through embodiment practices allows one to observe and respond to fluctuations in body temperature, tempo of mental activity, and constriction of muscle and breath patterns that alert one to their current stress state. In order to change any pattern that is causing harm, awareness must precede action.

Phase 2: Stress Regulation

Stress management is a popular term, but I prefer the term stress regulation. Stress management assumes that one needs to manage something – work, domestic responsibilities, relationship strain – outside of themself.

Healing from chronic stress is an inside job. Oftentimes, it is internal stressors like fear, guilt, perfectionism, high expectations, and/or self-judgment that fuel the external circumstances high-achievers believe create their experience of stress.
By developing mindful awareness, the practice of paying attention to the present moment without judging it, high-achieving professionals learn to regulate their emotions, responses, and activities to maintain a personal well of energy that never runs on empty.

Stress regulation allows for ups and downs within safe parameters of enough activity for stimulation but not so much activity to create overwhelm or exhaustion. Balance is never static.

Phase 3: Stress Shifting

Managing stress as a consistent way of life is like managing misery. It sets the bar of what is possible very low and in turn, keeps one assuming that chronic stress is the norm.

Freedom from chronic stress happens when one shifts out of the ‘managing stress’ mindset and engages in activity and relationships that increase connection, love, and joy.

Love is humanity’s supreme emotion and governs the experience of contentment and peace needed to shift toward feeling light-hearted and connected. This is not romantic love, but rather a felt sense of warm connection with other humans, animals, and nature that evoke positive emotions.

Chronic stress is rooted in disconnection from the present moment, nature, and the experience of being alive. To heal chronic stress, one must decrease their stress muscle and flex their connection muscle. Slow down, pay attention, and connect.

It takes vulnerability, awareness, and self-reflection for high-achieving professionals to heal chronic stress. Approach the process with compassion; view it as a practice instead of a destination, and everyone can experience freedom from chronic stress.

1 – Viswanathan, K. & Dhabhar, F. (2005) Stress-induced enhancement of leukocyte trafficking into sites of surgery or immune activation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 102, 5808-5813. doi:10.1073/pnas.0501650102
2 – Keller, A., Litzelman, K., Wisk, L.E., Maddox, T., Cheng, E.R., Creswell, P.D., & Witt W.P. (2012) Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health Psychology, 31(5), 677-684.

By Angela Savitri, OTR/L, RYT
Freedom from Chronic Stress Coach
www.freedomfromchronicstress.com

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