|Warning! Please seek professional advice to ensure that information is used wisely!
The general suggestions given here are no substitute for common sense & individual skilled help from a counsellor, healer, stress consultant or medical practitioner who you feel you can trust.
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1. Separate Physically!
Separate yourself temporarily from the environment, person or situation where you are experiencing stress. This can be quite hard to do, often we "hang on in there" trying harder and harder to "fix things" and becoming increasingly stressed or exhausted. If our efforts to fix things are not succeeding, the best thing we can do is to leave the situation for a while. So next time you find yourself "walking out" on a tricky situation, console yourself with the thought that this can be a very wise instinctive response to a situation we are not yet able to cope with.
Taking a walk can be a very skillful response when our stress levels rise. A famous psychiatrist once remarked that if everyone took even just a 15 minute walk each day he would lose half his patients! Walking, or other gentle exercise, helps our bodies to process the chemicals that stress feelings cause to accumulate in our blood (usually reducing our coping skills) matters worse. Repetitive simple physical activity is also very effective at calming an overactive mind.
We may be unable to separate permanently from our source(s) of stress, and indeed it might be that we have something to learn from staying in contact with it, but even then periods every day of temporary separation are important in order to rest, refresh and process what we are experiencing, rather than persist continually in accumulating stressful feelings and symptoms.
Of course, there are some situations that we cannot physically remove ourselves from, e.g. a personal illness or an experience of deep loss, in these cases we have to skip straight to step 2....
2. Separate Mentally!
Separating ourselves mentally from our perceived source(s) of stress can be even more difficult than separating physically. We might go for a walk, but find ourselves still brooding or worrying about our situation. We can become quite compulsively attached to mental analysing, fantasising, repeatedly going over things, or searching determinedly for a solution to a situation. There is a point at which such mental activity becomes stressful in itself - tiring the brain and generating yet more feelings of frustration, anger, helplessness or hopelessness.
The insight we need at this point is that problem-solving often benefits from "taking a break". Taking a break not only allows the brain to rest and refresh, but also enables it to "make a fresh start" on solving a problem, where previously it had got into the rut of seeing things in a fixed, narrow and unhelpful way. The stressed mind will respond to this insight by saying "Yes, but you don't understand - the situation is really desperate and urgent and must be fixed NOW! - otherwise there will be major consequences and the world will fall apart!" The insight we need now is that our sense of urgency and desperation is more likely to be a symptom of our stress than a cause of it!
Some people find that vigorous exercise (e.g. jogging or swimming) helps to turn off overactive or obsessed mental activity. Other people will find something pleasant that engages the mind can be just as effective, e.g. singing, dancing, aromatherapy, listening to music, having a massage, watching a movie or engaging in an enjoyable hobby. Even simple activities such as taking time to breathe or Sacred Circle Dancing can be enough to reduce the weight on the mind and body.
If stressed feelings are so strong that it is impossible to switch to another activity, then we need to reduce our negative emotional energy by expressing it - finding a way to channel it out of us that does not generate more stress. We can do this by "acting out" or "talking out" or even by screaming, yelling or moaning. The important thing is to find a channel that reduces the power and tension of the emotional energy we are holding, rather than gives it more power. For example, "talking out" can be very therapeutic provided that the listener is not someone who responds in a way that makes us feel worse e.g. by agreeing with us that we are helpess, that our situation is hopeless or by joining us in a bout of blaming or "demonising" others that just generates more distressed feelings.
3. Gain Comfort!
When small children are distressed it is instinctive to comfort them in a way that reassures them that the world has not really ended (even though it feels that way!) and that life is not all bad. Adults sometimes need this kind of comforting to because no matter how old we are or how strong and independent we have become in their lives, we can all be deeply hurt or feel miserable. A good tip to remember is that underneath anger, there is fear, and underneath fear there is hurt. Underneath hurt there is love, because it is our capacity to love life that makes us vulnerable to being hurt. So comforting ourselves when we are distressed gets directly down to the level of what stress is really all about - the fear of not having, or of losing, the lovable experiences that are important to us. So, when stress distresses you, comforting (loveable) experiences get to the heart of your pain. Who or what has comforted you in the past when you have been distressed!
4. Learn and Grow!
Stress occurs when we have travelled outside the limits of our "comfort zone". At this point we can attempt to avoid continuing stress by retreating back inside the comfortable limits of what and who we can cope with. Indeed the tips given above are basically about doing just that - getting back into safety, at least temporarily, while we rest and refresh. But what next? Should we stay within our comfort zone long-term or should we venture back into that stressful situation? Well, is there something attractive in the stressful situation that we want? If so, we may need to return to it, but handle it with more maturity or with more skill - in other words "learn and grow". Paradoxically, even to stay out of the stressful situation we might need to "learn and grow" also - because we may have got into stress because of an unhealthy desire or vulnerability.
5. Take Responsibility!
It has been said that we cannot solve a problem unless we take (a certain amount of) responsibility for creating it. Blaming can be a very natural human response to suffering. I have seen even very small kids, after accidentally tripping up, angrily look round to see "who did this to me!" This is not to say that we carry all the responsibility for our suffering, what I am saying is that we can usefully take full responsibility for fixing it. "Fixing it" does not always mean taking action - it can mean "coming to terms" with it, which brings me to the next tip...
6. Gain Perspective!
In a way, us human beings are quite unstable biological entities. We rarely respond to events in the consistent logical measured mechanical way that a machine can. Quite often we either under-react or over-react to situations that we find ourselves in. This is not entirely a negative state of affairs - our emotional lability can make life more challenging, entertaining, fascinating and dramatic. The under-reaction and over-reaction deviations from a "measured and balanced response" can however lead to much suffering. Under-reaction can allow problems to accumulate, while over-reaction can exacerbate problems e.g. when our anger or rage makes us do or say things that we deeply regret later. For these reasons, when under stress, it is valuable to move towards a healthy and clear perspective of the importance of the actions, situations, events or words (our own and this of other people). Unfortunately, one of the first things to go, when we come under stress, is our sense of perspective. What can help us? Well, talking to other people who have a different perspective can enable us to re-evaluate our own. Meditation techniques can also by very helpful.
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