OVERCOMING FEAR OF THE UNKNOWN
The Quick and Dirty
This is the second part of our stress resilience series called Ride The Redline. Click here to read the original article.
- Not knowing the causes of stress will worsen the experience of stress.
- We can learn to respond positively to our already existing stressors by developing awareness, identifying the causes and creating a strategy to mitigate them.
- We can also develop proactive stress resilience by engaging in intentional, safe, and challenging experiences on a regular basis. A process I call “riding the redline.”
- By the end of this series of articles you will be able to create your own redline experiences as a means to become more stress resilient.
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The Nitty Gritty
The first of our four-part recipe for stress resilience begins with knowledge, knowledge of the causes of stress and anxiety. As a quick refresher, here are the four parts I introduced in the first article:
1. What’s causing the stress.
2. How we think about the causes of the stress.
3. How we feel about the experience of stress and
4. How much perceived control we have over the source of stress
Fear of the unknown is a major cause of stress and creates even more fear. If we know what’s causing our stress because we are choosing it, our fear response goes down. I used to joke with my patients that I like to do high intensity interval training (HIIT). During the last set of my workout I really feel like I’m going to die. If I woke up in the middle of the night feeling that way, I wouldn’t call the hospital, I’d call the morgue!
Since I know that the way I feel at the end of my HIIT session is intentional and safe, the pain I feel is very tolerable and I’ve actually gotten to the point that I look forward to it. The point here is that I know what’s causing the stress and I don’t have to deal with the added stress of wondering what’s wrong, what’s happening and why it’s happening to me.
We can use this principle to improve stress resilience two ways, responsive and proactive. Let’s explore the first way.
Responsive Stress Resilience:
Reactive stress is what most of us do. Something causes us distress and react to it trying to simply push it away or ignore it. This is ok for the short term but will most likely create larger problems down the line. A more intentional way is to be responsive rather than reactive. I’ll outline three ways to develop responsive versus reactive stress resilience.
Awareness: In order to identify what’s causing my stress, it’s important for me to develop a higher capacity for awareness. This is important because the causes of stress may not be so straightforward and if I do a little more digging I can get to the bottom of the situation and have more insight that could provide me clarity and relief. What then should I become more aware of?
1. Intense / recurring thoughts
2. Intense / recurring feelings
3. Unusual tension or discomfort in my body
4. Changes in my behavior (often reflected to me by others)
These 4 things above are like alarms and will alert us to the fact that we’re experiencing stress. The key thing here is to have time periodically throughout the day to be still and present. We often go through our day at full tilt, not stopping to check in with the quality of our experience. In the meantime, stressors can accumulate to the point that we feel intense distress and confusion that can cause us to undermine our health choices, career and relationships. These are the scenarios where we ask “how did I get here?…what do I do now?” This is the place many of my clients are in when they seek my help.
Small leaks often create large floods.
Small leaks often create large floods. Being aware of the leaks as they arise is a good way to ensure they don’t become large headaches in the future. Taking time to check in, to be still and present throughout the day will help us to be more aware of stress. During these brief check-ins we can ask “what am I compulsively thinking about? Are there any recurring negative emotions? Am I feeling any unusual tension or discomfort in my body? Am I acting in abnormal ways or saying things that I don’t really mean to say?” Checking in with ourself like this will help us to be more aware of subtleties that could poke holes in our stress resilience.
Identity: Once we’re aware that something is up and we are feeling stressed we can take some time to think, meditate and journal on what that may be. The important thing to know here is that we might not find the exact reason for the stress and that’s ok. What matters more is that we attempt to find it and to show our nervous system that we are taking action toward trying to resolve something. Also, knowing why something bothers us is as important as what is bothering us.
Here’s an example. A few days ago I noticed that I was feeling more anxious than normal, had more neck tension than normal and my girlfriend pointed out that I was acting like a jerk. I reflected that earlier that day I had received a notice from the IRS about a fine for not paying my quarterly taxes on time (which I did). What does a tax have to do with my neck, or my mood or my girlfriend? Nothing! But, my nervous system was continuously processing the news in the background of my awareness, trying to get my attention. Once I gave it my attention I was able to move onto the next step.
Strategy: In my pain practice I would notice that many of my patients would return the week after our first appointment with less pain. Not because I gave them a medication or worked my acupuncture magic. They were simply relieved to have a plan. Once we identified the various causes of pain, we would spend the majority of the first appointment co-creating a strategy to reduce their pain. This same concept holds true for stress. Once I had a plan and had set aside some time (a lot of time) to contact the IRS about the notice, and I had all my documentation ready to send them, I felt better….much better!
“They were simply relieved to have a plan.”
To summarize, we will always encounter opportunities for stress. How we respond to the stress cues in our body, mind and emotions will determine how much the stress will affect us and whether we are able to have more stress resilience as a result of the situation rather than less. We can do this by 1) being aware of our body, mind and emotions, 2) identifying the causes of stress, and 3) creating a strategy to address the causes.
I know this sounds like it should be intuitive, and to some extent it is, but I’m often surprised often I need to remind myself and my clients of this process when feeling a lot of stress, and how relieving it is to do it.
This brings me to the core of this article and the type of stress resilience that I’m most interested in.
Proactive Stress Resilience:
It’s obvious there are causes of stress in the future that we don’t know about and wouldn’t choose even if we did. What if I told you that by choosing your stress intentionally, you can become more stress resilient? One of the reasons this is effective is because it reinforces the first of our 4 part recipe for resilience. We are choosing it and hence it is known.
“I wouldn’t even bother calling 911 and would just call the morgue to let them know I’m on my way.”
Let’s return back to my HIIT example from the beginning of the article. HIIT is a stressful experience for the body. Toward the end of the exercise, when the heart is close to its maximum, the muscles are fatigued and it’s hard to get enough oxygen, it literally feels like I’m dying. If I woke up in the middle of the night feeling like this I wouldn’t even bother calling 911 and would just call the morgue to let them know I’m on my way.
Here’s the strange thing. I have a natural aversion to death and the things that feel like dying. But, when I do HIIT I actually love it! I appreciate the intensity of it and how it makes my body feel later that day and throughout my life. I feel like it gives me a kind of armor against physical and emotional stress. When I feel the hallmark sensations of stress (elevated heart rate, more shallow / rapid breathing, muscle tension, social apprehension, etc.) I have a better ability to work with it, to slow my heart rate, to increase the depth of my breathing, to calm and soothe my nervous system.
Creating intentional stress has been a game changer for me. My clients who have adopted this practice also tell me they feel better, more resilient to the sudden and unknown stressors of life.
In the following articles I will help you to craft your own proactive stress resilience plan including creating regular, safe, intentional stress…what I call riding the redline.
1. Psychologist, Kelly Mcgonigal’s Ted Talk on stress resilience
2. Dr. Andrew Huberman’s discussion about frustration, neuroplasticity, stress resilience and accelerated learning