image credit: Darryl Cross

as you can imagine the last week or so has included many moments and prolonged periods of high stress. talking to a friend recently we were discussing where in our bodies we felt stress, and mine definitely sets up camp in the pit of my stomach. I wake with a dull ache which stays with me all day. it is with me now at the prospect of a difficult work task ahead.

I’ve blogged a good deal about dealing with feelings, but there are still a number of areas where I struggle, work amongst them. I’ve been reading a fantastic book called ‘The Upside of Stress’ by Kelly McGonigal. I was fascinated to learn that the initial research into stress in the 1930s was carried out on samples of primarily male subjects, because women and our tricksy hormonal swings buggered up the results… so when those studies came up with the ‘fight-or-flight’ theory of stress response, then that set the mould for all future attitudes towards stress. however two other stress responses have now been identified – the ‘tend-and-befriend’ response and the ‘challenge’ response, which utilise entirely different hormonal cascades to promote more appropriate behavioural responses, promoting social connection, social cognition, the processing and integration of the experience, and the ability to learn and to grow from it.

Kelly has a TED talk here, if you are interested. and here’s an extract from the book:

‘Stress mindsets are powerful because they affect not just how you think, but also how you act. When you view stress as harmful, it is something to be avoided. Feeling stressed becomes a signal to try to escape or reduce the stress. And indeed, people who endorse a stress-is-harmful mindset are more likely to say that they cope with stress by trying to avoid it. For example, they are more likely to:

  • try to distract themselves from the cause of the stress instead of dealing with it
  • focus on getting rid of their feelings of stress instead of taking steps to address its source
  • turn to alcohol or other substances or addictions to escape the stress
  • withdraw their energy and attention from whatever relationship, role, or goal is causing the stress.

(I read all these items and was nodding yes, yes, yes to the lot of them. In Tommy Rosen’s phrase: Addiction is – “I’m going to look away.”). the book continues:

In contrast, people who believe stress to be helpful are more likely to say that they cope with stress pro-actively. For example, they are more likely to:

  • accept the fact that the stressful event has occurred and is real
  • plan a strategy for dealing with the source of stress
  • seek information, help or advice
  • take steps to overcome, remove, or change the source of stress
  • try to make the best of the situation by viewing it in a more positive way or seeing it as an opportunity to grow.’

I am intrigued by the idea that we can re-frame the feelings – of stress, or anxiety, or overwhelm, however you like to describe them – as being helpful feelings. the a-ha moment came when I was thinking about this, and thought – hang on – so if these feelings are actually my body preparing me to meet a challenge – if I evade them, or try to stifle them, rather than put them to work, maybe that’s why they won’t subside, as they are not being allowed to play their part?

for so much of my life I have shrunk from these uncomfortable feelings, like a little girl hiding under the bed from the sound of heavy footsteps – when in fact they are the footsteps of the fire-fighter coming to carry me out through the flames.

if I can trust in those feelings and let them do their job, I have a strong suspicion that they will take me further than I can imagine right now.

a question of Dr Russ Harris for you to ponder, and to share if you feel so inclined in the comments:

“If you weren’t struggling with your feelings, or avoiding your fears, what would you spend your time and energy doing?”

by the way I did start looking for some fireman eye-candy for this post – rescue labrador puppy optional – but decided that I greatly preferred Jessie, the real life firefighter whose image tops this post! Prim xx