May is Mental Health Awareness Month. And I’m experiencing some emotional ambivalence about this. While part of me is grateful that mental health is being discussed more publicly and frequently, I’m frustrated that people aren’t taking seriously their own individual power to manage their mental health.
To be clear, I’m fully aware of the spectrum of mental health issues. And I’m an advocate of reaching out for support from mental health experts for those who face chronic difficulties. At the same time, according to research, mental health challenges have increased in recent years, especially Generalized Anxiety Disorder, which grows out of prolonged stress. This results when the nervous system, including the brain, are on perpetual high alert for too long without a break. Imagine driving a car at high speed, in the heat, with dirty oil, clogged filters and low fluid levels. In the short term it may only affect the fuel economy. But before long, big engine problems will arise. That engine is your brain!
You could imagine why I continue to feel concerned. After all, if asked how they manage their stress, people reply, “Well, I SHOULD or I NEED TO exercise more, eat better, meditate, get more sleep.” People know what to do. Yet, they find themselves stuck in the “should” stage rather than the “want to” stage.
So, why the disconnect? In considering this from the balcony viewpoint, I have 3 answers:
-There’s an urge to continue modeling over-achiever tendencies.
-Being “busy” is seen as a badge of honor.
-We don’t feel worthy of self-care.
What’s worse, as we continue to think of ourselves last, saying “yes” too often and overbooking our calendars as to not let anyone down, our actions get positively reinforced. We hear the internal voices of our parents and assume others see us as iconic. Or we model the parental behavior of martyrdom, always sacrificing for work or family.
So, I ask you, if your best friend, parent, child or sibling were struggling from perpetual stress and overwhelm, and they and asked for your council, how would you advise them? Here’s another question: Would you consider internalizing this advice?
If your instinct is to say, “no, that’d be selfish”, consider these two laments:
-I don’t have enough time with my family and loved ones, and when I’m with them, I’m not always really “with” them.
-I have too little time for the activities that I most enjoy.
As I coach DRIVEN clients, managing stress is a key focus of our work together. After all, in order to maintain the energy to be driven, we must continually refill our energy tanks. The goal is for my clients to manage stress in three dimensions: noticing and acknowledging when stress is heightened, level setting expectations with others, and employing self-care to curb and mitigate stress.
I invite you to take a quick look at these dimensions of managing stress and consider trying any or all of them out:
Recognize and Allow Stress.
The What: A first step in managing stress is to recognize it and “invite the stress in”.
The Why: Because often we barrel through or “suck it up”, not realizing that we’re even holding on to stress. What’s more, due to our human tendency toward adaptation, an intensified level of stress becomes baseline. And unlike building muscle when we increase the weight we’re lifting, the result of holding more stress is that we become more tightly wound.
The How: This can begin with my favorite 3-breath meditation. And if you’re recognizing that you are feeling heightened stress, by identifying it and labeling it, you can start to manage it by taking action on your own or with the help of colleagues or a professional.
Level Setting Expectations with Others
The What: Get clear on the cadence of communication and the unwritten, unarticulated Ways of Working (WOWs) of the team.
The Why: A lot of stress is taken on because we don’t want to let others down. Our senses of responsibility and reliability become our identity. Once we know what’s expected of us, we can settle into down time, knowing we’re not letting anyone else down.
The How: Engage in conversations with your team about “Down time expectations” i.e.: the response time of email, the times you’re “on” and times you’re “off”.
Employ Daily Self-Care
The What: Taking time each day to do something that refreshes your physical, emotional, mental, and/or spiritual energy.
The Why: Unplugging from the “battle of life” can be a life changer. Even 15 minutes can be enough to change your answer to the questions above from “no” to “yes”.
The How: Carve out an appointment with yourself and mark it right into your calendar. You would do this for a client, and you are your own best client.
If you’ve gotten this far into this article, congratulations! Now, make a commitment to yourself. Reading will not mitigate stress. However, small steps can truly make a big difference.
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