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The Truth About Stress

the-truth-about-stress

Figured there was no better time than the start of a new week to talk about stress. Whether it’s stress at home, at work or even the stress we feel when sitting in traffic, I think we can all agree that none of us are immune. We know it’s there, we might have some idea what’s triggering it and we do our best to “manage” it, accepting that we are incapable of fully eliminating or controlling it.

For me, it took a number of years to fully accept the way stress was affecting me. Sure, work has been pretty stressful for the past 5 years and yeah, I’ve moved 6 times in the past 5 years, one of those moves being cross-country. Not to mention, I went through some tough personal challenges and growth over the past couple years. But I really thought I had it under control. I wasn’t pulling my hair out or drinking excessively. I went to the gym, I took walks and I took baths when I could. I considered myself a pretty calm person overall and reminded myself that I had so much to be thankful for. What else could I really do? It wasn’t as if I could change my surroundings entirely. This was my life. It was the life I chose and I knew it would come with a bit of stress. I knew it wasn’t going to go away and all I could was manage it or do what I could to distract myself from the issues that felt stressful.

Looking back, I realize there was more than one sign that the stress in my life might have been affecting me more than I realized. Out of the blue at age 22 I suddenly started suffering from acne. I attributed it to going off birth control 6 months prior. I assumed my hormones were all out of whack and within time, they would go back to normal. But almost five years later and it’s still never gone away. I’ve tried elimination diets, every skincare product on the planet (natural and otherwise) and recently, spent several weeks pay on consultations with a naturopath, something I’d avoided for years thinking I could solve it on my own.

I was prescribed a whole host of supplements and was told I have a sensitivity to both gluten and dairy. I hadn’t eaten much gluten in the previous 5 years but took the advice and eliminated dairy. My skin has vastly improved since, but it’s not exactly where I want it to be. What she also told me was that I was suffering from a adrenal fatigue. She told me the supplements she prescribed would help but that I should think about other ways to address the stress in my life. Of course I shrugged this off as I always had. I didn’t feel overly stressed and there wasn’t really anything I could do to address the stress in my life other than what little techniques I was using to manage it already. What I didn’t realize until now was that during times in my life when my stress levels were lower, my acne was much less severe. I’ve also realized that even just one stressful thing on one single day can provoke an entire breakout.

Another sign was a couple years ago when I suddenly felt like I was on speed. I didn’t understand what was going on. I felt jittery, on edge and completely out of control. My Dad suggested I stop consuming caffeine. I really only had a cup of coffee per day and some dark chocolate occasionally, but he suggested I stop, at least temporarily. He explained that for him, when he was experiencing stress in his life, things like caffeine that didn’t normally affect him, started to. He was right. I was going through a tough time transitioning from one job to another one and my stress was out of control. So much so that my body was reacting really severely to things that used to not affect me at all. Eliminating caffeine helped decrease the feeling of anxiousness but looking back, I wish I’d addressed the stress itself and not just its symptoms.

The last sign that I was under more stress than I realized happened a couple times in the past 5 years. The first time I noticed it was near the end of a relationship that probably should have already ended, but that I was in some pretty severe denial about. The second time it happened was within the last 6 months. Like I mentioned earlier, I consider myself to be a pretty calm, kind and level headed person. I always give everyone the benefit of the doubt and have long been considered the “therapist” amongst my friends and family. But I noticed an intense shift in my personality. For lack of a better word, I became a huge, insensitive bitch. I was mad at everyone and at the world. All of the sudden I had severe road rage, I was snapping at people I loved and felt completely out of control. I knew something was wrong. This wasn’t me. It felt like some evil spirit had taken over my mind and my body.

When it happened for the first time, I didn’t have any idea I was feeling this way because of the stress surrounding my failing relationship. But when that relationship ended, it instantly went away. I felt like myself again. It was actually pretty shocking. Of course at the time I was still naïve and thought it was a one-time thing that couldn’t happen again. It was just the relationship. Not my body reacting to stress.

But then 6 months ago, it started happening again. In fact, over the past couple months, it’s been pretty challenging and I haven’t felt like myself at all. Within the last 6 months I accepted that I needed to drastically address my work life balance. For those of you that don’t know me, I am extremely introverted. I only have a few close friends and barely any acquaintances. I don’t necessarily enjoy socializing (especially not with people I don’t know), I’m uncomfortable with small talk and I desperately need alone time to feel normal. While I’ve absolutely loved my job at Suja and the people I’ve met, I began to realize that the daily commute, my 8+ hours a day in the office and the open-plan office space was affecting me on a very deep, personal level. This job I had previously loved was starting to feel like a prison. Nothing had changed in terms of my surroundings, but my body and my mind were trying to tell me something. This environment wasn’t the best for me and if I didn’t address it soon, it was only going to get worse.

Unlike the last time when I didn’t feel like myself, I knew that this time, I needed to take control of the situation. My job was becoming extremely stressful and my health and state of mind were suffering tremendously. I made the difficult decision a couple months ago that I would leave my job at Suja and pursue something that was better fit for my personality and my life. For me, that was becoming a freelance marketing consultant so that I could make my own hours and work from home. Not to mention, it would give me a bit more freedom to work on this blog, which brings me so much joy and fills me with a huge sense of purpose.

The absolute most important thing to know about stress is that it’s all in our head. “Stressors” don’t exist. Two people can be sitting in the same traffic jam and only one of them might feel stressed out by it. It’s not the traffic that’s causing you to experience stress, it’s the way you are dealing with that circumstance in your head. For me, it wasn’t my bad relationship or my work environment that was causing the stress, it was the way I was internalizing them and my inability to address the situations head on.

For me, stress has manifested itself in adrenal fatigue and acne, severe physical reactions and most concerning, a change in personality. For you, it might manifest itself in overeating, depression or varying degrees of deteriorating health.

Stress “management” is not a solution. There is no degree of walking in nature, baths or even meditation that is going to eliminate feelings of stress. Sure, these things help, but they don’t address the root cause of the issue. They’re just band-aids. In order to truly address stress and heal, we need to confront the issues head on and be honest with ourselves. We all have the capacity to live truly happy and healthy lives. If we’re not living that life, we need to rally and take control. Sure, there may be stressful situations that are out of our control, like a sick relative or financial circumstances we couldn’t avoid. But that doesn’t mean we can’t still address these issues and think about them differently. Reevaluate the situation, accept that it’s difficult, work to change what you can and learn to accept what you can’t, if you really, truly can’t.

Instead of running away and trying to avoid stress, embrace it. Ask yourself what’s going on in your head that’s making you feel this way. Accept that it’s there and give yourself permission to feel all the crap that comes along with it. I highly recommend checking out Andrew Bernstein’s book The Myth of Stress. He recommends boiling down the situation into a simple phrase. For me that could have been, “I should be happy at work”. Then, take that sentence, add “In reality” to the beginning, swap the verb (to shouldn’t) and then at “at this time” to the end of the sentence. Then see how you feel. I know, sounds crazy, but he not only elaborates on this exercise itself in the book, he also outlines countless case studies in which he is able to show how this simple technique can greatly reduce stress in a number of different situations. It’s really quite fascinating.

For me “I should be happy at work” would turn into “In reality, I shouldn’t be happy at work, at this time”. Because guess what… it’s true. I was in an environment that wasn’t right for me. The stress was coming out of my inability to acknowledge the situation, not the situation itself. In reality, I shouldn’t be happy at work, especially not now, because it isn’t serving me. By confronting the issue and recognizing what I could do to change it, I felt completely freed from the feeling of stress that was controlling my life.

What is it in your life that’s stressing you out? Can you boil it down into one simple phrase? Try the exercise above and see if it makes you feel any differently. I can’t tell you how relieved I felt when I started to control my own stress, instead of the other way around. We are all resilient, strong and intelligent beings. We can do anything we put our minds to. But first, we have to stop running away from our own thoughts and fears.

This week, I encourage everyone to think about stress differently. We all have choices when it comes to dealing with stress. With just one simple technique that doesn’t involve therapy or stress “management”, we can better recognize opportunities to increase our health and happiness in the present, and for years and years to come.

There is no better day than today to turn over a new leaf and take control of things we’ve felt were out of our control for far too long. I wish you all a phenomenal Monday and a week full of growth, happiness and new opportunities.