Navigating the Storm: Understanding Stress and Effective Management Strategies

Navigating the Storm: Understanding Stress and Effective Management Strategies

At the end of this article you’ll find a technique called "Dropping Anchor" to help ground yourselves when experiencing difficult internal thoughts and feelings.

How We Experience Stress

We experience stress when there is an imbalance between the demands being made on us and our resources to cope with those demands.

Stressors are external or internal factors that cause stress or pressure on an individual. They can be physical, emotional, environmental, or psychological stimuli that trigger the body's stress response. Stressors vary from person to person, and what may be stressful for one individual may not necessarily be stressful for another.

Humans have been developing for over 300,000 years and for most of this time daily life was focused on physical survival, which included finding food, preventing and healing from injuries and defending against attack. To deal with these acute stressors the human body evolved to automatically speed up certain body systems (blood pressure, muscle tightness, breathing rate, etc.) to help either the sprint to escape (flight) or the battle to eliminate the danger (fight). Once the threat was gone the body would automatically return to normal physical functioning.

As humans developed into today’s modern-day lifestyle and our basic needs (food, shelter, safety) have been for the most part taken care of, there has been a shift in the threat from the physical to the psychological. Emotional, social, and financial events are the typical causes that trigger the stress response in the same way that physical stressors used to. These days we can consider stress mostly in terms of a mental and/or emotional response to a feeling, situation, or event that interferes with our sense of wellbeing and safety.

When we continually worry about work deadlines, relationships, or finances our body’s recovery response is not activated, leaving us with elevated blood pressure and heart rate, shallow breathing, tight muscles, and high blood sugar levels. These stress responses have significant negative impacts on our physiological and cognitive functioning. Because of this, our response to perceived psychological stressors causes more damage than the actual sources of stress to begin with.

The good news is that we can do something about this!

Managing Stress by Responding to Our Thoughts.

The most important thing we can do to manage stress is to change the way we respond to our thoughts. While we have no control over what happens; what other people say and do, what the weather will be like, or whether the car gets a flat tyre, we can influence how we respond to these stressors. This ability to manage our stress perception is a fundamental aspect of stress management.

From a neuroscience perspective, our thoughts are shaped by our individual experiences, beliefs, values, education, and cultural background. Our mental models (frameworks we use to understand, interpret, and navigate the world around us) shape our thoughts. Our thoughts arise spontaneously from our mental models and may or may not accurately reflect reality. Because of this, we want to be aware of our thoughts and consciously choose how we relate and respond to them. What we do with our thoughts is very much within our control.

Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space there is the power to choose our response. In our response lies our power and our freedom” – Viktor Frankl

There are many ways we can become more conscious of our thoughts and feelings, and experience greater control over our stress responses. These include:

Acceptance - acknowledge and accept your thoughts and emotions, even if they are uncomfortable. Allowing our thoughts to be without judging means acknowledging them without necessarily reacting emotionally to them or trying to get rid of them. This frees us up to experience greater psychological flexibility and emotional wellbeing. Avoidance and suppression of emotions can increase stress, while acceptance allows for a more flexible and adaptive response.

Mindfulness - involves being aware in the present moment and paying attention to your thoughts and feelings without judgment. By letting thoughts come and go without attachment we can be more present in the moment. Mindfulness techniques, such as mindful breathing or body scan exercises, can help us observe our thoughts and emotions without getting entangled in them. When we are aware in the present moment we can notice when we are being pushed and pulled around by our thoughts.

Values Clarification – to understand what truly matters to us we can identify and clarify our values. When we are connected with our values we can choose to act on the thoughts that take us towards them, as opposed to acting on the thoughts that take us away from them.

Unhooking - from thoughts that aren’t taking us in the direction of our values. When we get hooked by our thoughts they can push us around and influence our behaviour in ways that we might prefer them not to. We can unhook from our thoughts by distancing ourselves from them. Instead of believing our thoughts to be accurate and true, we can see them as passing events. This helps reduce the impact of negative or distressing thoughts.

Observer Self - is the part of our consciousness that is capable of observing and noticing our thoughts and feelings. It is a part of us that can step back and observe our experiences from an objective standpoint. It helps us recognise that our thoughts or emotions do not define us. 

Committed Action - take actions that align with our values. Instead of being driven solely by avoiding discomfort, we want to focus on actions that move us towards a meaningful life. This can lead to a greater sense of fulfilment and satisfaction.

Self-compassion – involves treating ourselves with gentleness and empathy. It's about refraining from severe self-criticism, particularly when facing difficult circumstances.

Inner Critic – learning to recognise and understand our Inner Critic: where it’s coming from, its motives, how and when it shows up, and what to do about it, supports our ability to distance ourselves from thoughts that can pull and push us around.

There are of course a multitude of other strategies we can implement to manage stress such as calming our nervous system, engaging and connecting socially, creating healthy boundaries, and designing healthy habits for better nutrition, exercise and sleep. These strategies nurture our physical and mental resilience.

“Dropping Anchor” in a Storm of Emotions

Navigating a storm of emotions can be challenging, but there are constructive ways to manage these intense feelings. Here’s a tool that I hope is helpful for you called “Dropping Anchor”.

“Dropping Anchor" is a metaphor often used to describe a technique that helps us ground ourselves when experiencing difficult internal thoughts and feelings.

You can use this if you become overwhelmed by big emotions where it feels as if you could get swept away in the emotional storm. This is when we're hooked by any kind of internal experience, such as a thought, memory, feeling, or an urge. Often when we're in the midst of an emotional storm, we feel as though we've lost control. Dropping anchor allows us to have control over our physical actions, as well as being in contact with what is here in the present moment.

The aim here is to drop an anchor amidst an emotional storm. The goal is not to make the storm go away or pass by quickly. Instead, we want to hold tight until the storm passes, no matter how long this may take.

If you practice Dropping Anchor regularly, you’ll be able to access this tool more easily the next time you feel in a stressful situation. It can be used for 30 seconds or 20 minutes, whatever works for you.

"Dropping Anchor" Technique – Remember the sequence with “ACE”

Read the explanation above before trying this technique out.

A = Acknowledge your thoughts and feelings. Silently acknowledge your internal experiences by noticing what is showing up for you in the here and now and naming it.

Approach this with an open, curious stance as if you were an alien, having thoughts and feelings for the first time. Acknowledging your thoughts and feelings might sound something like this "I'm noticing the thought that I'm going to fail, and I'm noticing a feeling of butterflies in my stomach".

C = Connect to your body. Take physical control over your body. You could take a couple of deep breaths and slowly let the breath out through your mouth, stand up and stretch, push your feet into the ground, press your fingertips together, go for a walk, or do anything that works to bring you back to connect with your body.

E = Engage in your environment.  Actively participate in your surroundings by noticing what is happening around you and using your five senses to notice. This might be noticing five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste (or anything similar). You can repeat this as many times as you need to and do it anywhere and at any time.

 As a certified Mental Health Coach and ICF Professional Credentialed Coach, I help people manage stress and anxiety using Transformational Coaching techniques and ACT tools. ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) is a mindfulness-based behavioural therapy, which develops our psychological flexibility allowing us to live in more meaningful and fulfilling ways. If you would like to take more control of the stress you experience, please feel free to connect with me at . I’m here to help.

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