The Stress Test

Wow, sometimes stressful events can seem to just drop right out of the sky. My first week of April proved to be both challenging and illuminating. This subject of this post was entirely inspired scientist Jill Bolte Taylor, who scientifically observed her stroke while it was actually happening. She used her expert observational tools and applied them minute by minute and second by second as her body was experiencing a major catastrophic event. Her riveting TED Talk My Stroke of Insight has been viewed over 22 million times. While I am not a brain scientist nor did I have a stroke, I borrowed her methodology when I experienced my out-of-the-ordinary week of stress to share with you here.

All Hands on Deck

First, after running around with family for Passover and taking my usual cycle class, a former back injury flared to the point that I could barely walk. Two days later, work stress shot up to an unexpected high. The emergency broadcast system in my head went off “this is a test, this is only a test.” I put myself as the test subject in my virtual stress laboratory and become the observer of my own stress responses as they happened.

Based on previous experience, when the acute back pain hit, it was overwhelming. It’s the oddest injury, completely localized around the soft tissue of my SI joint. When it hit it’s apex by Sunday night, all hands were on deck and immediately my physical self-care regimen kicked in. Acute physical pain is very stressful and since I had experience this before I knew the routine: complete rest, reclining, Motrin, icing, hot bath, repeat. Thankfully I have an alternate way of getting to work, albeit a very expensive way via Lyft and the ferry rather than my usual bus, subway, and walk to work.

After being snowed in the next day (yes a snowstorm in April in New Jersey) I made it to the physical therapist who told me in no uncertain turn that my current exercise routine that I passionately love had to immediately cease if I wanted my back to heal properly. Crap. What was I going to do? As the only way I can describe it, a slow wave of anxiety washed over my body from head to toe. In reality it was a low level fight or flight stress response where I felt the physical dose of stress hormones released and coursed through my veins. In the next moment, I wanted to crumple up on the floor and wail to the gods “this is so unfair.” Instead, I emotionally shut down and diligently followed the physical therapist’s instructions during his assessment. The intense physical pain provided easy distraction.

Fight or Fly Away

Then the next day, the work stress came knocking. Sparing all of the details, most of us have experienced unwanted work stress during some point in our careers. What arose that day at the office instantly triggered a full blown fight or flight stress response. As my sympathetic nervous system took over, unlike the slow wave the day before, my heart-rate shot up, my palms got sweaty, and I became hyper alert. I noticed that in this moment of hyper awareness I put my hands out to the sides and looked around like I was surveying the scene for danger. Mind you, I was in my office all by myself. I found this primitive response to be utterly fascinating.

As reason kicked in a moment later, I found my arms slightly in front of me moving in a self-calming and disarming way. I closed my eyes, took a deep breathe in and a deep breathe out and found my center. Thankfully, I allowed my parasympathetic nervous system (the “rest and digest” state) to take over and calmed down enough to focus and tackle what was in front of me. In this instance, my “fight” kicked in rather that “flight” so it was particularly important to stay composted. As emails and phone call ensued, I did my best to stay cool and collected on the outside. Inside was a different story as you’ll see.

Insights on the Stress Response

What ensued over the next three weeks provided me with some deep insights about my stress reactions and especially how I let them affect my mental and emotional health. To simplify, issues at work went a bit into overdrive and persisted, I had to severely cut down on exercise and during this due to the stress I got a terrible cold, and got some type of infection on my foot for a few days that made it hard to walk. Argh.

It’s one thing to have expertise on stress management but entirely another thing when that stress is your own. Despite spending the past 6 years working with groups and individuals on stress management techniques from educational webinars and 1-1 coaching sessions to interactive workshops teaching specific relaxation techniques such as controlled breathing, chair yoga, visualization, and mindfulness – alas, it’s clear that I was my own worst client, until now.

One of the main lessons I impart to people is to become more aware of how stress shows up for you. It has four components and shows itself in four ways: physically, emotionally, behaviorally, and mentally, and its footprint is entirely unique to every individual, from indigestion or hives to negative thinking and overeating.

Especially for the first two week, I let stress express itself in its most negative forms and can easily list one main culprit for each of the four categories. Physically the muscles of my uppers traps and neck tighten constantly ache. Emotionally, and especially without being able to exercise the way I like to, I felt myself getting depressed. Behaviorally, I socially withdrew and stopped going to the gym to do anything at all, even a stretch. But the worst for me was Mentally. I got caught up in excessive mental loops of worry and anxiety, which caused even greater levels of stress that lasted longer than they should have (and I believe the reason I got sick).

It really took me about three weeks to get to a happier, calmer, and more resolute place. Credit is due to my dedication and practice of wellbeing and positive psychology practices, my amazing other half, and best friends that lifted me up and out of the bog. Here are some of the things I did in a nutshell:

  • I continued to to see my physical therapist at HHS Rehabilitation and do my exercises (I was also gradually given permission to move more).
  • I meditated a couple of times, including a loving kindness mediation using the free InsightTimer meditation app recommended to me by a client.
  • I was able to modify a couple of cycle classes at my favorite local studio, CycleBar.
  • I was proactive at work and requested the support I needed.
  • I talked to my best friends for social support and advice.
  • I went to the famous Korean-style King Spa where I got a full body massage and rested in a number of unique saunas (all day admission to the spa without the massage was on special for $35.00, the same price with Groupon, normally it’s $55).
  • The following week I went to the Korean-style Paradise Spa where I got a not-for-the-faint-of heart intense body scrub, wet massage, and laid on a soft bed of heated loess earth balls (all day admission to the spa is only $20).
  • I did some forest bathing at Flat Rock Brook Nature Center.
  • I cooked homemade, nutritious meals the entire month.
  • I journaled a couple of times.
  • I listed to a wide variety of music (some Bach solo violin, new-agey calm vibes, and a lot of Foo Fighters).

The Upside of Stress?

I also cracked open a copy of The Upside of Stress  by Kelly McGonigal who is doing groundbreaking research on how the perception of stress as negative or positive can have a huge impact on your wellbeing. She talks about it in her TED Talk, How to Make Stress Your Friend. Yes, she is saying that research shows that shifting your mindset and embracing the positive aspects of negative stress can actually be good for you. It can enhance cognition, motivation, and resiliency. I’ve started to make that shift this month to become stronger and more resilient, ready to take on the challenges both at work and healing this back injury. There is definitely more to come on this!

After my experience this month, I wholehearted agree with Jill Bolte Taylor who believes that the very changes we want to make reside very much inside ourselves. “We are, I am, the life force power of the universe.” JBT

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