“Embracing stress is a radical act of self-trust.”
My reading notes for Kelly McGonigal's great book by the same title.
Have you ever stood there, in front of your wardrobe, totally depressed about what to wear, or overwhelmed because you have to colour-coordinate? Let it be known, dressing up in the morning is one of my least favourite activities in the whole world. It literally adds stress to my life. I’d trade you for dishes if you could get dressed for me.
I think I might have found an answer to my calls. With the Fall equinox at our door, I've decided to take the bull by the horns. And for the first time in my life I feel excited about my wardrobe! Not because I got new frocks - quite the contrary -, but rather because I’m taking the Project 333 challenge, and I hope it will revolutionize the way I dress.
It’s simple, effective, and fun. It’s essentialism at its best! All I have to do is pick 33 pieces of clothing for the season. The idea is to streamline options and make sure that my selected pieces all work well together. I invested one full morning in organizing and making my selection. The result is a nicely organized wardrobe with lots of space for storage, two bags of clothing to be donated, and a few pieces stored for next season. I plan to stick to this selection for Fall, and replace oldish items as needed by better quality sustainably-made pieces.
So here is the result. I’m sharing my wardrobe with you (1) to make a case for simplicity, (2) to prove that I can live with 33 pieces for a season. And so can you!
For Fall, my wardrobe includes 2 trousers and 4 pairs of leggings, 4 yoga tank tops and 4 long-sleeved t-shirts, 3 dresses and 5 tunics, 1 pair of leg warmers, 2 pairs of shoes, 3 sweaters/cardigans, 1 bag, 1 jacket, and 3 scarves. Simplicity put to good use is dressing up made easy peasy!
If you think this display looks shitty, (1) I know - it was meant to be practical rather than aesthetically-pleasing, (2) I was trying to fit everything into one single shot before the cat lounged in it, 3) my college years were mostly devoted to bartending and driving a forklift, hence the lack of retail experience to give life to my displays, I’m sorry if this upsets your sense of decorum.
Three letters. The MD gave me three little miserable letters to explain all the pain and suffering I’d been going through for years. IBS, as in Irritable Bowel Syndrome. It seemed too little, too common, too simple. I don’t know what I was hoping for, some badass degenerative disease? “It’s only IBS,” she said. “The tests show no damage, no nutritional deficiency. This is good news. You just need to relax.” I was secretly hoping for something complex because it might have been treatable. Medication seemed easier than to relax. How the hell does one relax, I thought. You think I haven’t tried?!
IBS is one funny unpredictable condition. You’re fine and the next minute there’s so much pain you can’t stand up and walk. You feel bloated, sometimes nauseated, your digestion is funky, you’re not hungry for hours and then you suddenly want to eat an elephant. Let’s not even mention the episodes of diarrhea, interrupted by mysterious bouts of constipation.
And so the best advice the MD had was to relax! And avoid uncooked veggies, especially lettuce and red pepper. By then, I had already made many changes in my life. I had ditched all my jeans (too painfully tight) for dresses and yoga pants; I had abandoned dairy (oh, ice cream, where art thou?). I knew I could easily adapt my habits, but to relax?! That was a different ball game. I didn’t even know what it meant.
In my mind, relaxation was for retirement. It was completely incompatible with real life. There was no way I could even imagine myself as anything but stressed-out, over-active, over-zealous. I did every task as if my life depended on it. I was intense, and I did pride myself on getting things done, fast. Fortunately for me, the pain caused by IBS was so unbearable, I had to pause and revisit this assumption.
What I have since understood is that our digestive system is directly affected by our nervous system. Regular stress, when it goes unmanaged, will seriously impede our digestion from beginning to end. Stress affects the foods we choose, how we chew, how we breathe (which in turn influences our digestive organs’ work). It may divert the energy away from the intestines, slowing down digestion, or even cause food to move faster along the digestive system causing discomfort, and serious inconvenience.
What’s even more interesting is that your body knows about the stress reaction before you do. Before you can cognitively recognize that “I am under stress right now,” your body has initiated the response: dry mouth, tightening muscles, faster breathing. Although the mind is a serious player in the stress reaction, the body is the only way in.
That’s how I slowly learned to relax and make friends with stress, and successfully managed to eliminate my IBS symptoms. The first step into deconstructing stress is to take care of the body, breathe mindfully, and move the body in sync with the breath. The mind is completely clueless in this regard. Try talking yourself out of stress, and see if it works. The mind cannot lead this transformation, it can only follow.
I really thought we were over. But now I would like us to be friends instead. I hope we can work it out.
There is no such thing as good and bad stress. Stress is stress. Stress manifests in different ways in the body, it takes different shapes and personalities, but it’s still plain stress. The human stress reaction is necessary and practical. It’s what allowed us to fend off predators or run as fast as we could to save our lives. It helps us ace interviews or exams with sharp clear thinking.
Unfortunately, our relationship to stress has gone wry because we experience too much of it. Over and over, we neglect the fact that our bodies and minds need to rest after a stress reaction. Stress is so pervasive that we don’t even recognize it as such until it’s too late. In fact, it is so much so that even our ‘resting’ activities are stressful. Television is number one in line standing accused. We slouch in front of the screen and we let it bombard us with sensational, negative and aggressive talk. That’s not resting. That’s nervous system boulimia. And let’s not even mention having coffee as a break from work…
As Kelly McGonigal explains in her latest TEDtalk, stress is healthy… if you believe it is. Stress is not in your head, but rather everywhere in your body. Once you start exploring your stress reactions in your body and you recognize that they are real, you will naturally feel the need to rest the body and mind after a stressful event or day. Activities that make you feel like yourself are a good place to start.
When it comes to resting from stress, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Some of us need strong physical movement, others will prefer restorative yoga or meditation. When you ask around about activities to relax from stress, you’ll hear about going out for a walk, having sex, reading, gardening, sailing, wood carving. I’m not sure what all these have in common, but my guess is this.
• First, none of these activities are passive. Contrary to what we might think, resting the body and mind is not synonym to slouching. It is an active form of letting go.
• Second, the activity must be enjoyable for the person doing it, which is why what works for you might not work for others.
• Third, all these activities are free of competitive drive, unless it’s completely friendly competition of course. When you start introducing a goal or a benchmark in the activity, you start adding stress.
• Fourth, all activities are practiced with balance. Too little is just as bad as too much. Again, we are all different. For me, an uphill hike longer than one hour puts stress on my body and mind, but my sister-in-law can keep going for 3-4 hours. (And I’m not saying it’s bad to put stress on the body with such activities, I’m rather saying that it’s no longer a stress-resting activity at that point.)
The final thought of this long comment is that stress is what you make of it. If you think it’s bad for you, it will be bad. If you think it’s good for you, it will be good. Don’t let it rule your life. Be proactive and get some restful activity going.
Kelly McGonigal strikes again with this amazing demystifying TEDtalk on stress. She explains it all, concisely. Enjoy!
Here's a note to let you know I’m doing fine without you. Thank you for checking in a few times this week with our old friend Digestive Discomfort. I assure you that you did not have to trouble yourself. Would you please find something else to do? Go do yoga or something.
As I mentioned in my last post about stress, it’s important to reconsider the benefits and aches of your relationship to stress if you wish to part with him (yes, in my creative unconscious, stress is a Him. Don’t ask me to explain.)
What we refer to as stress is in fact a normal response from the sympathetic nervous system to perceived threats, whether it be a wild beast, a bad driver, an unforeseen event, or bills.
That response in itself wouldn’t be so bad for us personally if it weren’t for the resources it borrows from other systems in the body, especially from the parasympathetic nervous system. When you feel threatened, your sympathetic nervous system calls for all resources to be directed its way so it can prepare the body to fight or run by speeding up the heart beat, dilating the pupils, drying the mouth, constricting blood vessels. You get the picture.
The nervous system comprises sub-systems, two of which are important to understand to have a better relationship with stress. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is the counterpart of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). You can think of them as two scales of a balance. When the SNS is activated the PNS loses some of its resources, and vice versa.
Ideally, you would want both sides of the balance to be roughly equal in their share of resources. The SNS controls the fight-or-flight responses. We are so well accustomed to this reaction that we barely notice it anymore. Unfortunately, we spend too much time on this side of the scale, and we forgo the necessary restorative and renewal phase of the process once the potential threat is done with.
This deprives the PNS of its resources on a regular basis. And this is where it hurts the most, because the PNS is associated to our digestive, reproductive, cardiovascular, and immune systems. Ergo, when you are always stressed-out, or “normal” as it is, you are seriously compromising your digestion (heartburn, constipation, bloating, anyone?), your capacity to have children, your heart rate (headaches, high blood pressure, anyone?), your body’s ability to protect itself from colds, flus, viruses.
Restorative Yoga aims to trigger the PNS response so it can take back its share of resources within the body. The result is a feeling of lightness, rejuvenation, and calm. After practicing Restorative Yoga, it is typical for practitioners to say that they feel clear-headed, rested, balanced, more comfortable, more open, more present.
Come and experience the wonders of Restorative Yoga with me. Check Myriam's schedule.
You and I have had a long history, and I hate to leave you behind, but I’m quite frankly ready to be over with you, and I’m not alone. I’ll be happy to see you occasionally, but limit your visits to necessary occasions please, and I might even find gratitude for your existence.
Warm wishes, Myriam
It’s a long and windy road, the one that we have to take to reconsider our relationship to stress and clear it out of the way where it is not necessary. While teaching seminars on stress in corporate settings, I was struck by one constant: most of us talk about stress like it’s an enemy, a terrorist of sorts planting bombs in every street corner. Yet, most of us cannot imagine our daily lives without it.
As much as we all daydream about stress-free lives, are we really ready to shed this unfortunate friend and clear the space? Being stressed-out is the “new” normal, as Gary Kraftsow aptly observed. And it takes effort to not be “normal.”
What is your perception of people who are not stressed-out? People who have time to sleep, and eat, and read, and enjoy themselves? Chances are you’re thinking they’re lazy, flaky, they’ve won the lifestyle lottery, or maybe you think that they have it figured out why-is-it-that-I-can’t-figure-it-out-too.
The first question you need to ask yourself is: would you allow yourself to live mostly stress-free if you could? Given the option, would you feel comfortable going to work without rushing out the door, work effectively without missing a break, accomplish your home chores without sweating it, answer your four-year-old’s sixty-sixth question of the day without losing it? Are you somehow afraid of what others will think if they see you “on top of things”? Will they think I’m not working hard enough, will they think I’m not taking it seriously enough, will they think I’m flaky, irresponsible, useless?
I'll be writing to you, dear Stress. Feel free to take an extended break, you deserved it.