Stress, Trick No. 2
In my last post, I wrote about various emotions covered by the term 'stress' and their positive and negative effects. I focused particularly on fear, its real sources and ways of dealing with it. Today, I'd like us to have a closer look at another feeling that always accompanies stress and can easily penetrate all areas of our lives.
I'm sure I don't have to convince anyone that this is what bothers us most in a challenging situation. We may practice our concert program for weeks, we can rehearse our presentation in front of friends, we can go through all the books over and over again before an exam, we can check our looks a hundred times and make a list of conversation topics before a date - but no matter how we try, the feeling of discomfort will always be there. Symptoms are common for all stressful situations. Our hands are sweating or shaking, our body is getting stiff or too relaxed and sleepy, our mind is feeling confused, we are having problems with memory, focus and creativity. We may have dry mouth and a stomachache. In general, our whole system is protesting in every possible way and we still have to use it as a tool to perform an important task we care about. Is it possible to handle this anyhow?
My experience has taught me that there's only one sensible reaction to discomfort: acceptance.
I know that now you can feel slightly disappointed. You probably expected some miraculous anti-discomfort formula that would change your life ;). The truth is, though, that there is really no such thing. People are biologically constructed in a certain way and the effects of stress cannot be completely eliminated. But there are a few things we can do to improve our situation.
At the beginning of this post I mentioned that a sense of discomfort can spread to all areas of our lives. I don't know if you've ever experienced it, but it happened to me after a long, emotionally overstraining time, that for a while I felt an allergy to any kind of discomfort. If the task required the slightest physical, intellectual or, God forbid, emotional effort, I was out straight away. Putting myself out there for anything and anyone just seemed like too much for my system. But I was wrong.
Of course, at times like this, you have to allow yourself a break and rest. Beware, though, of getting used to treating yourself as a never-recovering patient. It's very easy to get stuck in this state but the longer you're there, the faster your world shuts down and the harder it gets to open it up again. Meanwhile, in this situation one must remember two fascintaing facts about human nature . First, we act like accumulators- the action creates power for more action. Second, it's our dreams and desires, not our fears, that limit our capabilities.
I remember that it struck me when I was browsing various Internet TEDtalk and heard the quote "Discomfort is the admission to a meaningful life"/ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S45YDJZLjW8 / . At that time, discomfort had a stamp of the greatest enemy in my head. But when I was listening to Susan David it all became clear all of a sudden- like she said, avoiding difficult and harmful emotions was a goal of a dead person. Running away from anxiety and doubts or escaping from danger of losing something I care for was a goal of a dead person. Rejection of effort, sweat, fatigue, hope, fear, expectations and disappointments was a rejection of life in its full, satisfying meaning!
But now the whole trick comes on stage. I already understood two facts: first, that I wasn't going to be happy if I kept running away from discomfort and second, that taking up challenges and dealing with discomfort the way I had been doing until then wasn't making me happy either. How to solve this problem, then? A ridiculously simple solution came to my mind and once again I was struck by its effectiveness.
It is natural that our brain resists when it anticipates effort and any kind of discomfort. It reads it as a message about danger, the possibility of getting hurt, so it does everything to protect us from it. Following this lead, I decided to teach my mind to interpret discomfort in a new way. I started to enjoy more pleasure, especially in times of challenges and increased stress. The completion of a task itself is rewarded by our system with a release of dopamine and other hormones that cause satisfaction, but sometimes the path to the end is long and the expected success is very uncertain. That's why, I decided to give myself plenty of tiny rewards all the way through. Very quickly, my intuitive part started to associate discomfort with pleasure and I began to like and truly enjoy challenges. In this way, almost instantly, my world started to transform from a constant battlefield to a place of friendly, joyful cooperation in which everything could be seen as a fun adventure instead of an exhausting burden!
What does all this mean for us? Basically, that there's nothing to worry about if it comes to discomfort. The first step to overcoming its destructive power is accept that it sure will arise when we're stressed. After that, pure fun is all that's left- we have to pamper and indulge ourselves whenever we feel stress and discomfort as much as possible. Very soon our mind will fall in love with challenges and we won't even remember how discomfort could have ever limited us in any way!