Stress -- it’s everywhere. It’s even been part of the vocabulary of my young niece and nephew for years.
But is life really becoming more stressful?
In the developed world many of the life-threatening stressors such as the very real threat of being attacked by a wild animal or starving to death are no longer everyday occurrences.
And yet a 2018 study by the Mental Health Foundation found that “74 per cent of us felt so overwhelmed in the last year that we were unable to cope, with 32 per cent of people considering suicide and 16 per cent self-harming as a result. These figures are higher for women than men and for young people (from 18-24) compared to older adults (55+).”
It is certainly a huge issue for the people that I work with. And the causes are incredibly varied -- health issues, overwork, difficult bosses, relationship troubles, aging parents -- the list goes on.
While it is not always possible to remove the factors that are causing the stress, at least not straight away, there is almost always something that we can do.
Below I explain some of the most powerful ways that work for my clients. And for me.
➊ ~ Create some space ~
When we’re caught up in extreme stress we tend to feel overwhelmed as if there is nothing we can do. As a result we can feel that we absolutely have to act now to try and deal with the situation.
Obviously there are times when this is the case and we need to take immediate action. But all too often the trigger to act becomes the norm and before we know it we are simply fire-fighting left, right and centre.
Our actions then tend only to make things worse as we waste our precious resources and time.
One of the best antidotes to stress is to find ways to get just a little distance on our situation so that we can see it from a slightly wider perspective.
From this wider view point we can assess the situation with a little more ease and increase the effectiveness of the actions we do take.
➋ ~ Connect to resources ~
Once we have created even a little space we are then more able to connect to our resources.
One of the easiest ways to do this is to connect with someone that is supportive. For some a particular friend is a great help.
Others work with practitioners like myself for a period to ease the difficulty. The advantage here is that a practitioner is not personally involved in your life and as a result is able to offer support and insight without the vested interest that a person close to you may have.
They have also hopefully, a lot of experience with the type of issue you are struggling with which is always a question you should ask.
A further way to connect is through support groups both on and offline. There are an incredible number of groups doing amazing work- hearing the experiences of others in a similar situation can be an incredible support.
Then there are all the other types of resources that we can develop. Anything that shifts our state to a better one is a resource.
In the same way that we can find more ways to create that breathing space to get a little more perspective on our situation, we can also deepen our connection to our inner and outer resources.
This habit of connecting to resources itself creates even more space and offers the possibility of starting to change our relationship to stress itself so that eventually our stress can be approached as a growth issue.
➌ ~ Approach stress as a creative growth issue ~
This may seem like a strange way to approach stress but to my mind it is the most powerful. This is because it allows us to fundamentally change our relationship to stress- not just to the current issue, but to our whole relationship to stress in general.
When we do this our stress starts to become a vehicle for us to become more creative and resilient in our lives rather than just wearing us down. To paraphrase the Stoic philiospher Marcus Aurelius, the obstacle becomes the way.
To be able to start doing this a few things need to be in place.
We need to have started having the awareness to be able to create a little breathing space- at least some of the time.
We need to have started learning how to resource ourselves as a way to calm ourselves and bring ourselves into a more creative state.
And we need to understand two further factors, how our nervous system works with stress, and how creativity relates to stress.
➍ ~ Our Nervous System and Stress ~
This is an immense subject, but even a little understanding of how it works can pay huge dividends.
In response to a stressor our nervous system becomes aroused. You can see this if you get scared in a horror film- your breathing becomes shallow and your heart beat speeds up (amongst other things)- you are getting ready to fight or flee.
If the stressor is extremely severe the nervous system goes into a kind of shut down. The stress is still there but out of conscious awareness. It’s like having the gas and brake on at the same time- lots of energy is being spent but we’re going nowhere.
In health our arousal gets activated and then quite naturally gets discharged and we then go about our day.
But when stress is chronic or we are in a particularly vulnerable state our buffer gets worn away and that’s when we find ourselves struggling. Our system is longer able to right itself and we may get severe feelings of overwhelm.
As we start to understand how the nervous system functions we can start to notice what sort of activation we are experiencing and then, with time and a little education, we can start to bring ourselves back into a state where there is more ease.
This is a truly virtuous circle where our awareness of the theory and ourselves emowers us to take charge of our state. As we start to do this it enables us to align to our true creative nature.
➎ ~ The relationship between stress and creativity ~
This is another huge subject but again just a little can go a long way.
At essence we are all creative beings.
In fact we are all quite simply miraculous.
Without changing a single thing we are amazing just we are right now in this moment.
The reason I say this with such confidence is because it is true of all of us. At any moment there are billions of processes unfolding perfectly within us (even if we are seriously ill there is still an incredible amount that is going right).
We are also unique.
There will never be another you on this earth and your special sauce is what the world needs (see the wonderful Martha Graham quote at the end).
It doesn’t matter whether you are in touch with this right now or not. Just reflecting on the moments in your life where you have been a little more creative is enough to start your inner processes moving in that direction.
This is in my view the only direction that we need to look in and the key question we need to ask. How can I bring more of my best self to the world?
There is more to it of course, particularly in terms of application to day to day real life situations when we’ve been triggered- but this is the essence.
In this context we can look for the creative impulse in any situation.
It means focusing on the things that you can do, no matter how small, and focusing in such a way that it allows you to grow and become more alive.
So is modern life becoming more stressful? I would argue this is the wrong question to be asking.
A better one would be to ask how we can get more access to our creative selves because this is when we feel truly empowered and in charge of our lives.
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it.
It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.
You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. ... No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others”
― Martha Graham