I think it all starts with small things that I probably don’t notice. Things like maybe being less patient or being less tolerant. I think my eating habits get a little messed up from eating all the time and never feeling full to not having the energy to cook a damn meal.
I don’t notice those things so much though. They’re small and easy to not really pay too much attention to other than in passing. It’s the sleeping problems that really get to me and make me think. It’s the being so tired that I can barely keep my eyes open to make it to bedtime and yet when I lay my head down and turn off the lights I struggle to fall asleep. Maybe it’s all the stress and anxiety that I don’t otherwise notice in my hectic day suddenly demands to be noticed.
Staying asleep becomes a problem too. I wake up multiple times throughout the night but I’m not sure why. Sometimes I think I’m grinding my teeth so much that I wake myself up. Sometimes it’s just a thought of something to do that breaks through and wakes me up. Occasionally it’s a bad dream that doesn’t make sense.
It’s no wonder I feel like I have to drag myself out of bed in the morning, still feeling exhausted and not at all ready to face the day.
I do a lot of public speaking that covers a broad spectrum of topics ranging from Elder Abuse to Raising Teenagers to Human Trafficking and the most popular topic I cover seems to be the topic of stress. It certainly is something we can all relate to and as our understanding of trauma and chronic stress increases, the importance of understanding this is becoming much clearer.
When you live in an environment with a lot of stress, whether it be an unhealthy relationship or a crazy making job or like me, work in emergency services; you have to get really good at 2 key things – figuring out where your stress is coming from and then figuring out what to do about it. When you get to the point of not sleeping, it practically becomes a part-time job. But it’s important because it influences your entire life and can make the difference between moving forward or getting stuck and feeling like you’re drowning.
Not surprisingly, there are different types of stress. External and internal. External stress are all those things outside of you that you don’t really have any control over. Things like a sudden or major life change, an unpredictable event, too much work and not enough time to do it, toxic people in your life and even things like how peaceful or cluttered your environment is. Strategies for this category include things like lifestyle changes, learning how to set boundaries / limit commitments, learning assertiveness techniques and focusing on activities that are important and so on. If you’re in an abusive relationship, learning how to set boundaries is important but getting into a safe environment should come first.
Internal stress are things inside of you and are things like fear, not knowing what is going to happen next, a lack of control in your life, how you view the world and what you believe in. Strategies for internal stress include things like learning how to re-frame your thoughts, choosing a positive mindset and relaxation techniques.
Nowadays you hear a lot about how important being positive is and they are often referencing back to internal stress strategies. It is important but telling someone to ‘just be positive’ when maybe the best thing they should be practicing right now is how to set healthy boundaries or how to get themselves into a safe space in their life so that they can take control of the type of relationship they want and need, well, that’s not so helpful then. This is why understanding the differences and how they work for you are so important.
There’s also accumulative stress which is basically a bunch of little stressful things that pile up one on top of the other until you’re so overloaded that you snap. Accumulative stress can be hard to deal with because it seems like something small has triggered you and you really don’t know where to start when in fact it is a bunch of small things that have become too much when put together.
When you’re stressed, your brain releases a lot of hormones that can interfere with how you think and how you feel. It can also preoccupy your brain in such a way that you stop paying attention to what is going on inside of yourself. This is because you’re too busy paying attention to what is going on around you. This can have a seriously negative impact on your ability to make good decisions because your brain is only paying attention to your external world. Your internal world falls off the radar and that’s when things really start to go off the rails.
Stress, including chronic stress, self-awareness and self-care are all directly related to each other. You might want to take better care of yourself or you might want to stop feeling so stressed but if you’re not able to pay attention to what is going on inside of yourself because you’re too distracted by everything else, then you’re likely going to struggle to come up with solutions that will work.
Your self-care strategies, whether they are based on internal or external stress need to be rooted in self-awareness first. Only then will you be able to evaluate what you need and start to put together a plan on how to achieve it. So when you start to notice that you are stressed and need to do something about it – or, when other people are telling you that you are, start with an internal evaluation of you. It can be difficult and can take a bit of time and if you’re not at all sure where to start find a self-awareness / all about you survey or two online to get the ball rolling. Maybe do some art, start a journal, do some yoga, learn how to meditate, listen to a lot of music, walk outside in nature by yourself, anything that gives you time to you where you can start paying attention to your internal world again. Once you start doing that, figuring out how to start dealing with your stress will make a lot more sense.