Stress is a fact of life. Whether the stress is physical or emotional, everyone experiences it from a variety of sources throughout the course their lives. It is inevitable. The human body’s natural reaction to any kind of stress is the primitive "Fight or Flight" response, but when you have a chronic illness, this response exacerbates all of your symptoms, often triggering a flare up. Learning how to manage stress in your life can be a valuable tool to help you cope with the challenges of fibromyalgia.
Coping effectively with stress in your life is an achievable goal, it is also an ongoing process. It isn’t something you do once and then "poof!" you will never be stressed out again. You have to learn the coping skills, decide which ones work best for you, and then put them into practice in your daily life.
Recognizing what causes you stress is the first logical step. I suggest keeping a "Stress Journal" for a few weeks. All you need is a small, pocket-sized notebook in which you keep a running list of things or circumstances that caused you stress. Is it family or relationship problems? Fear of change or the unknown? Unrealistic expectations? Too much to do and too little time? What about stress caused by any negative perspectives or attitudes you may be holding onto? Identifying what creates stress is your life is important information for you to have! At the end of each day, review your list to see what you notice. There may be a lot you can learn. Do some patterns emerge? Are there specific triggers that you might avoid or modify? Are there areas where you seem to be creating your own stress? Sometimes simply seeing your problems in black and white can alter your perception or your perspective, and even suggest possible solutions.
Here are a few suggestions to help you cope with or limit the stress in your life:
- Stop for a moment before you react. Take a deep breath, back away, and ask yourself how important this really is. Is this something that will have a huge effect and still be important tomorrow, or in a few weeks? Is this even worth reacting to, or can you walk away from it? Take a few moments to consider your response before simply reacting. Measure your response so that it is appropriate to the situation.
- Recognize and accept those things over which you have no control. Being realistic about a stressful situation goes a long way towards cutting down your anxiety and anger. What you do have control over is how you choose to respond to any given situation. Will you choose to stew over something you cannot change, or let it go? How much of your precious energy are you willing to waste? What positive action might you choose to re-direct that energy towards instead?
- Be pro-active with problems. Avoid procrastinating. When there are unpleasant things that need tending to, putting them off only extends the stress. Get it over with and off your mind as soon as possible! When there is a specific problem that needs resolution, begin by allowing yourself to explore your options before you decide on and embark on your plan of action. There is always more than one option available to you! If you discover that you can only see things as either/or, remember that you are setting yourself up because you will only be satisfied with one outcome. Allow yourself the leeway to take another look at the problem. Sometimes the way you see a problem IS the problem!
- Choose your battles! This not only reduces your opportunities for stress, it also ensures that when something is worth fighting for, it gets the attention it deserves. "Don’t sweat the small stuff" is good advice! Focus on your values and your priorities, and take the time to step back to get a broader view before you spring into a negative reaction.
- Be realistic. Throw out all the pre-conceived ideas of what you "should be" doing and simplify your life. If you are overwhelmed by too many things to do or take care of, prioritize and see what could be eliminated! Break big projects into smaller, more manageable tasks, and ask for help when you need it.
- Give yourself permission to say NO! Knowing your limitations and then deciding to push yourself way beyond them does not make you brave and it is not admirable. It’s just self defeating and destructive. Why would you choose to take on more responsibilities than you can safely handle, knowing that it is detrimental to your health? Keep in mind that every time you say NO to doing something, you are saying YES to taking care of yourself, and making time for the more valuable parts of your life.
- Talk things out. Keeping your negative situations and feelings bottled up inside of you greatly intensifies and prolongs stress. Share your feelings with someone who will really listen to you. This could be a friend, a family member, a coach, or someone in a support group. Whoever it is, be clear with them about what it is you need. Do you want them just to listen so you can vent? Or would you really like their advice? Perhaps you want them to brainstorm with you about whatever is bothering you because things seem easier when they are shared. Remember that sometimes, all you really need is to know someone out there cares about and supports you.
- Manage your time effectively. Knowing what to expect and planning ahead can go a long way to lightening your load. Structure your time in a manner that works for you. Too many simultaneous activities or tasks clustered together is a major stressor, so take preventive action and build in breaks and flexibility to make it easier on yourself. When you learn to recognize that your life is on fast forward, you will know when to hit the pause button!
- Identify what helps you. What soothes you? Bubble baths, interacting with family pets, taking short walks, meditating, praying, taking time for a hobby or simply listening to music may be just the break you need! When you find yourself in a toxic situation, know what antidote will work for you and use it!
- Make use of relaxation techniques. Controlled breathing exercises, visualizations, stretching and yoga are proven to help relieve stress. Try some of these techniques and incorporate the ones that work best for you into your daily life.
- Use humor! It is physically impossible to be stressed out while you are laughing. Laughter is a positive emotion as well as a physical reaction and it releases tension and energizes us. Look for things that make you laugh and allow yourself to fully experience them! My favorite "Coach Eve RX" is to ask my clients to watch Ellen Degeneres three times a week. My clients not only enjoy her humor, which relaxes and de-stresses them, but they also learn by her example how to look at their lives through the lens of humor. What a valuable gift that is!
Finally, learn to notice and heed the warning signs that tell you that stress is building inside your body. Are you clenching your jaw? Is your breathing becoming shallow and rapid? Is there a feeling of pressure or tightness around your head or chest? Once you are really tuned in to receiving to the messages your body sends you, you will be able to recognize when it is time to step back and take care of yourself before stress has the opportunity to build up to a roaring crescendo.
Take care of yourself, and be proud that you do! When there are moments of happiness and joy, allow yourself to fully experience them before you jump back into the more mundane parts of you life. Focusing positive energy on those areas of your life that are truly worth your effort is very powerful medicine!
This is your life. These are your choices. It’s all about creating a richly rewarding, balanced, and abundant life for yourself, no matter what obstacles you may encounter along the way. You can do it!
Eve Reddin Lennon is a Certified Life Coach who specializes in working with people whose lives are affected by life altering illness. Eve is a stroke survivor and has fibromyalgia and lupus. Her mission is to help others learn how to live richly rewarding lives beyond simply coping. For more information, go to www.abundant-life-coaching.net/.