“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Stress. A 5-letter word that too many of us have experienced yet few of us intimately know. If we take Sun Tzu’s message seriously, we should seek to understand ourselves as well as our stress to mediate our fear and feel victorious—even in the face of stressful events.
To know stress we need look no further than our own bodies. Physically, during times of stress, we can experience changes in appetite, changes in heartrate, headaches and migraines, body temperature changes, jitteriness, sleep disturbance, racing thoughts, and a host of other symptoms that can leave a person not feeling in control of their own body. Mentally, we may experience intrusive thoughts revolving around one issue or several, we may have trouble focusing or may be more distractible than usual. We will also start to think about ourselves in the context of these symptoms and form beliefs that can either be encouraging, uplifting, and self-promoting or negative, judgmental, and self-destructive. Emotionally, we can feel overwhelmed, agitated, angry, scared, and defeated.
Many events can provoke these feelings—some obviously stressful while others you may not always think about.
From their annual Stress in America survey, the American Psychological Association (2017) identified the following as the most significant sources of stress for American adults:
63% The Future of Our Nation
57% Current Political Climate
51% Violence and Crime
Clearly our environment has much to do with the stressful feelings that we experience and if we’re unable to control the stressful environment; how do we control our own reactions to stress? Ralph Waldo Emerson stated, “nothing can bring you peace but yourself” and following this idea, here are some suggestions for processing your own stressful feelings.
Recently, a study conducted by Kaimal, Ray and Muniz (2016) found that a mere 45 minutes of art making lowered cortisol (stress hormone) levels in 30 of the total 39 participants studied. More than 50% of the participants that engaged in the art making—regardless of medium—reported feeling relaxed, feeling pleasure or enjoyment during the process, and learning something new about themselves.
Often when we feel the worst we resist reaching out to those that can help and support us. A variety of thoughts get in the way of our reaching out—“I don’t want to burden her”, “He’ll never understand”, “She has her own problems”, “He can’t fix this anyway”. Ironically, our politeness can keep us stuck in our cycle of stress and lead to feelings of isolation, loneliness, fear, and feeling like there’s no way out. Connection with others (either the 2-legged or 4-legged variety) can positively change your mindset and your physical state. Polheber and Matchock (2014) demonstrated that companionship provided by a dog or a human friend lowered cortisol (stress hormone mentioned above) levels during stressful test taking for participants in their study.
Mindfulness seeks to put the individual in touch with the mind and body and encourages the individual to pay attention to thoughts, feelings, body sensations and behaviors in order to gain mastery and awareness of the varying states of stress. This expanded awareness can allow you to recognize stress earlier, before it’s become seemingly unmanageable, and apply self-soothing methods. Mindfulness methods include diaphragmatic breathing (placing a hand on the belly and feeling the hand rise and fall with your breath is a great way to start), grounding exercises (reconnecting with the senses), meditation and progressive muscle relaxation. Yoga can also be a powerful ally and in a 2017 study, it was demonstrated that cancer patients participating in a yoga program reduced states of depression, anxiety, treatment-related symptoms, while increasing reported overall quality of life (Rao, et al., 2017). Mindfulness is a powerful tool in the battle against stress and can be initiated independently or through collaboration with a licensed mental health counselor.
Aligning with a licensed, professional helper like a Mental Health Counselor or an Independent Social Worker can provide support while you build an awareness of yourself and this enemy called stress. QC Counselor is a group practice of 9 clinicians that seeks to cultivate new opportunities for growth in yourself and your circumstances. To gain an ally in your fight against stress, call us or visit http://www.qccounselor.com/ today!
Girija Kaimal, Kendra Ray & Juan Muniz (2016) Reduction of Cortisol Levels and Participants' Responses Following Art Making, Art Therapy, 33:2, 74-80, DOI: 10.1080/07421656.2016.1166832. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1080/07421656.2016.1166832
Rao, R. M., Raghuram, N., Nagendra, H. R., Kodaganur, G. S., Bilimagga, R. S., Shashidhara, H. P., & ... Rao, N. (2017). Effects of a Yoga Program on Mood States, Quality of Life, and Toxicity in Breast Cancer Patients Receiving Conventional Treatment: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Indian Journal Of Palliative Care, 23(3), 237-246. Retrieved from: https://doi:10.4103/IJPC.IJPC_92_17