Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response, lies our growth and our freedom. – Victor Frankl
Learning to manage and control the pain and inflammation in my body due to autoimmune disease, has certainly been a marathon, not a sprint, as they say. (You can read more about it here or here, if you’d like.)
It began with a handful of pills several times a day, which thankfully, led to the search for a much less pharmaceutical and much more holistic, natural approach. There are so many lifestyle choices I can control, that require no prescription pad at all – food, exercise, and yes, stress, or the reduction of it, that is.
I used to think that my rheumatologist was placating me when she’d say things like, “Watch your stress.” or “Routine is so important.” I thought it meant this illness wasn’t real BECAUSE it was in my mind. Now I know it’s very real AND it’s very much in my mind too.
There was something else she said more than once that stuck, “It’s too bad you have to work [at a job that adds stress to your life].”
We choose our life, no?
There is a point at which we become old enough and capable enough to move beyond being a victim of our circumstances, to being the creator of our circumstances. This is one of those hindsight things. It seems so obvious, but it really only sinks in little bits at a time. The first bit, I didn’t really have to work at a stressful job, did I? That was my choice.
So we chose to look closely at how we were spending our money each month, budget it according to our priorities, and live on one income for a while – an experiment to see how it might improve my health and the health of my family.
Let me just get a few things on the record:
- I truly enjoyed most aspects of my job.
- I spent roughly 14 years growing and refining my skills, until I felt like I was actually at the top of my game, as far as my career was concerned.
- I deeply value hard work.
- My identity was tightly entwined with my role as a teacher, so much so that I considered it my life’s purpose.
- I was stressed, tired, and overwhelmed, blaming much of that on teaching.
There are so many blog posts in the loaded list above, but I will keep this one to what it has to do with stress and health.
I chose to take control of my life, to choose my life, by letting go of something I thought was my greatest source of stress. I left my career in public education on a high note, and for all of the reasons above, it was not an easy decision. I walked away with high hopes and expectations of leaving stress behind to find ease and health ahead in the distance.
Warning [and side note]: Be careful with tying your entire life’s purpose or happiness up in your present job.
Your job won’t always be there, for one reason or another, but your healthy, vibrant life will always need a purpose. A professional athlete, for example, won’t be able to maintain their peak physical performance as they age, but their lives won’t have any less meaning when that career comes to an end if being an athlete isn’t their purpose, but a means to carry out their purpose. Likewise, if my purpose is to serve others, I can do that with or without a public teaching job, making me no more or less worthy, whole, or full when that job has run its course.
I quickly filled my life back up with stress, when I started attempting to fill up the empty places losing my “purpose” left behind, by saying yes to anything people asked of me and jumping at any opportunity that presented itself. I didn’t have paychecks coming in or a job to head off to in the morning, but I was stressed and I was busy. Again. I couldn’t blame it on my job anymore. I only had myself to blame this time.
I began to see that ultimately, the stress was within me not around me. That I could make anything stressful if I set my mind to it, and I’d become pretty good at that.
To my surprise, stress didn’t just fall away with the W2 income. Stress was my response to what I didn’t like or feel I had no control over. It had become too much of a habit and routine to just melt away. I began to see that ultimately, the stress was within me not around me. That I could make anything stressful if I set my mind to it, and I’d become pretty good at that.
Take away: Stress is not a stimulus. It’s a response. Acknowledge your response. Be aware of it without judgment. Then begin the work of managing your responses to the stimuli in your life, in a way that protects your health.
Stress is not a stimulus. It’s a response. Acknowledge your response. Be aware of it without judgment. Then begin the work of managing your responses to the stimuli in your life, in a way that protects your health.
We can’t always control the stimulus in our life, but we can certainly learn to manage our responses to those stimuli we aren’t so fond of. AND I have come to learn, we have far more control over our lives than we may like to admit. Remember, you choose your life. Don’t you? You set your priorities. You decide what you spend money on; how much money you spend; show up at a job you may or may not like. My teaching job meant that I was showing up for a lot of outside stimuli that I felt added an unhealthy amount of stress to my life. Walking away from that work meant walking away from those stimuli.
I haven’t eliminated stress from my life, but I have learned to choose a healthier response to it, and give myself much more grace when I let it overwhelm me from time to time.
Some tricks I’ve learned that help me manage my responses in a way that protect my health and freedom are:
A buzzword for this (and many of the items in this list) these days is self-care. This is the first step in maintaining mental health and clarity for me. It means getting to sleep before ten each night and getting up at about the same time each morning. I take my supplements and medications at the same time each day. I stick to the foods I know make me feel good and stay away from those that don’t, as much as possible. I exercise, meditate, journal, etc. on a regular basis. When my routine fails, my stress response is quick to drift back in, creating a downward spiral of pain and illness.
This can seem counterintuitive when you’re in pain or exhausted from an autoimmune disease or chronic illness. I know well the pain of achy muscles and joints and a tiredness that feels like it’s seeped all the way to your bones. The truth is, my joints and muscles and soul ache much less with regular movement/exercise. There may be some added muscle or joint soreness at first, as your body adjusts to a new routine if you’re just beginning or you’ve fallen out of practice. I find that goes away after 1-3 weeks, and my pain, achiness, and exhaustion actually begin to improve overall. Sore, weak joints need strong muscles to support them, so gaining and maintaining muscle strength really does help improve joint pain over time. Furthermore, there are so many fabulous hormones released by your body when you move and get your heart rate up, that your mental health and energy improve too. Allowing time for movement/exercise in your day allows time to unplug, to think, time for you to actively meditate on what’s important to you. It also ensures a much better night’s rest, because you’ve used energy that your body will be happy to recover from when you lay your head on your pillow.
Carving out some time for yourself to do something you enjoy, for one or two moments during the day, will bring you a sense of calm, clarity, and joy. For me, it’s drinking tea and taking long, hot baths. Find your own rituals(s) and make time for them.
Starting with gratitude is always a good idea when your feeling stressed, overwhelmed, worried, upset, or like life has handed you a bad deal. It will move you to a much better place quickly. Then continue writing about what your goals are for maintaining and improving your health. Include some affirmations, inspirations, and ideas that will keep you moving in the right direction too. Here’s my journal of choice.
When I quit working, I couldn’t sit still for more than a few minutes, let alone practice yoga or meditation. So my beginning attempts at meditation were just four-minute, guided sessions with the Omvana app. I have worked up to 10+ minute sessions now with the Daily Calm app. and I love a good yoga session every now and then, which feels much like an extended meditation. It’s included in this list because it has helped me immensely in my response to external stimuli and myself. The way I view and treat myself and others have changed entirely because I started practicing meditation. It’s worth your time and effort. Start small and extend much grace in learning to sit quietly with yourself.
Changing My View
Whenever possible, if I’m feeling anxious or pressured about something that’s happened in the past or I’m anticipating in the future, I try to look at it from an outside perspective, as though I’m an observer of another’s life. This helps me give grace to myself and others and relieves the pressures of everything working out “right” or being perfect. I can look at situations without judgment. My internal dialogue is a lot like this, “This is a thing that happened. It’s neither good nor bad. It just is. How can I move forward from it in a way that allows healing and growth?”
Realizing I’m a Work in Imperfect Progress
Lately, I’ve been letting myself feel ok with taking risks and not being afraid to make mistakes. I like to think that someday I look back on myself at this point in life and laugh about how much I thought I knew (just like I do now with the ME of 10 years ago). That will mean that I’m moving forward, growing, and improving. I love the thought of that!
Of course, stress is your response, not an outside force in your life you can’t control. Don’t judge or pressure yourself when you feel stressed or your response isn’t what you’d wished it would be. But do begin to give yourself more space more often. Give yourself the space to choose the response that will lead to health, freedom, and growth. You’ll still feel stressed, but you’ll begin to rewire your response and be able to choose a different one more often when you give yourself the space to do so.
What are you doing to manage stress, heal, and add growth and freedom to your life? Do you have helpful hacks or apps to share? We’d all benefit from hearing what you have to say! Share your thoughts below. Afterall, progress is so much sweeter when shared!