By Ruchi Puri, MD, Msc, FACOG
The questions I kick around are: What happens in me when I have it? Why is it different for each of us? Does it happen to me or do I do it to myself? What do I do about it? To be honest, my list of questions is much longer but this is a stressful enough start.
Stress is a big deal because there comes a point when it is just not healthy. A little stress may light a fire under our butts to motivate, get things done and grow. A lot of stress all the time gets us sick. The evidence shows that stress correlates with a higher risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, infertility, digestive problems, anxiety, and suicide. So yes, stress is a big deal. It is worth a personal exploration if you are committing to being healthy.
In my experience, significant stress is anything that knocks me out of my flow. It triggers a contraction in me, feeds defeating thoughts or negative feelings. It is the moment when happiness and relaxation stop. There is a wide spectrum of possibilities that we can experience as stressful.
Life moves like a see-saw. There are ups and downs. This is the nature of its game. It is not our nature though. We are not meant to perpetually swing up and down. Our natural place it to rest on the pivot. The point of equilibrium. It is our place of flow, happiness or balance. Stress happens when we were are trying to balance on the ends of the see-saw. Finding our pivot and balancing there requires A LOT of Conscious Awareness. Catching ourselves teetering on the ends of the see-saw during storms of stress is the challenge.
There is a complexity behind the nature of stress. Understanding this grows our capacity to keep our balance in the face of it. What is stressful to me, may not be stressful to you. There are definitely circumstances that the majority of us find stressful. You are driving in heavy traffic, the phone is ringing, the kids are screaming and you are running late. A textbook example of stress 101. This thing going on around you is an external experience and its only half the story of stress. There is also something happening inside of you.
Our internal experience is what most of us are not conscious of. Problems begin when the see-saw teetering happens inside of us. Teeter too long and you get a sense of what follows. Awareness of your internal experience means feeling your physical body. Observing muscles contracting, sensations flowing through you, and the movement of your breath. Slow down and you might realize that the stress generates some emotional currents. Those currents may course with anger, fear, shame, or other unpleasant feelings. Many of us are taught that these feelings are “BAD.” Being the “GOOD” people we are it is natural to grow a blind spot to those “type” of feelings. We won’t even acknowledge that they are there and the social norms around us conspire to keep it this way. Observe your thoughts. High on the pedestal of blame, is there a judgmental critic shaming you over some not enough-ness? We have a tendency to get on an auto-pilot mode with our focus directed outwards. In this mode, we loose sight of what is happening inwards.
Are you in perpetual helpless victim mode to your circumstances when you do not have to be? How much of this internal experience is helping you or hurting you? Anxiety is another internal experience of stress. It is the presence of stress in us before there is something to stress about. This is when we EXPECT that we WILL get stuck in heavy traffic. That the phone will be ringing and the kids will be screaming while running late even though we are not in the car yet.
The physiology of a stress response is well studied. Stress triggers a cascade of hormones that allows our body to cope with our external demands. These hormones keep us alive on a daily basis and too much of them all the time has a physical impact. Cortisol is a good example. Too much all the time can trip up our immune system. We catch infections or fall in the bucket of auto-immune illnesses. Other factors trigger the high blood pressure that contributes to the heart attack. Digestion slows down with the body occupied with fight or flight functions. When food does not breakdown our stomachs hurt. We have weight issues and get poop problems.
These things do not happen overnight. They occur slowly over time as our experience of stress becomes so chronic that we normalize it. We adapt to stress so well that we stop recognizing it. We are swinging wildly up and down on the see-saw all the time as if it is normal. Our natural state of balance is gone and we do not even know to go looking for it.
So what do you do? First, you got to realize that it is happening. This is what the popular mindfulness movement is all about. It is not enough to be mindful of what is happening outside of you. The real money is being aware of what is going on inside of you. The sooner you are consistently aware of this, the less time you spend teetering. Awareness is powerful. Awareness takes you out of the knee jerk reactivity that usually leads to regret. You freeze and do nothing or do the thing you want to take back. Reactivity highjacks that grounded response you want. From awareness, you can experience the emotional currents move through you instead of festering within you. Awareness keeps you in the body and honest to your experience. It keeps you authentic. Awareness gives us the control of choice instead of a facade of control.
Yes, you always have a choice by cultivating awareness. You can outwit the shut down instead of unconsciously plowing through. You can always choose to slow down. Give yourself a higher resolution experience of what is happening inside so it can flow through. Be vigilant in your self-awareness and avoid getting stuck in stressful patterns. This is the brilliance behind setting a few reminders during the day to check in with yourself. Your body is what roots you to life. Grounds you in your experience provided you stay aware of what your body is saying. This simple practice as a habit can help you restore balance as you move through the daily stresses of life.
Ruchi Puri, MD, Msc, FACOG, is a board certified Obstetrician and Gynecologist who grew up in the suburbs of Washington, DC. As a first generation Indian American, she possesses a rich curiosity for both Eastern and Western healing traditions, along with a habit of challenging conventional thinking. She holds all the usual degrees of Medicine along with a few extras. She continues to study Ayurvedic Medicine, Five Element Acupuncture, the impact of trauma on our development, and modalities of spiritual healing.
Her journey is off the beaten path. She is a global nomad who has traveled, worked and studied in over 35 countries. Her experience traverses the healthcare industry, policy, research, public relations and clinical medicine. Ruchi maintains a strong passion for improving women’s healthcare globally with years of humanitarian service devoted to improving obstetric and surgical care. She lives in San Francisco where she enjoys being close to the ocean, hiking the headlands, and photographing life unfolding. Her joy lives in the collective nurturing of family, friends and community.