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Ann Rasmussen Headshot

When 'Stress' is Soul Shredding: A 3-Step Plan

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In a single week, my friend Karen had to move her 82-year-old father out of his home and into an Alzheimer's facility, was in a serious accident that totaled her car, found drugs in her daughter's jeans and learned her sister had breast cancer. Meanwhile, she was also faced with preparing for the holidays, not only for her family, but also for her catering business.

To say Karen is "stressed" is a gross understatement. The term "stress" utterly fails to capture the deeply jarring reality of life's upheavals. We use the term generically like we are referring to nuisances akin to foul weather. But the fact is that "stress" is shorthand for specific life blows that rain down on us, hit by hit, layer by crushing layer. The saying "when it rains it pours" certainly rings true for many of us. Like Karen, we feel like bobo dolls -- those retro blow-up vinyl plastic clowns with dopey smiles that rock back to the ground when punched and then bob back upright, only to be punched again.

How do we "de-stress" when, like Karen, we are so besieged? Scattershot de-stressing tips like "go get a massage," "call a friend" or "go for a walk" simply aren't enough to get us through. When we are hit with a multitude of simultaneous life stresses, we need one systematic response plan. Why? Because stress mobilizes our survival fight, flight or freeze responses, while disabling the very cognitive powers we need the most to negotiate our life dilemmas: self-restraint, rationality, concentration and memory.

How can we free ourselves from the shredding vortex of distress to get traction on a clear-minded course of action? Here's a 3-step approach.

1) Override your alarm stress response by calming down your system. The best, most portable technique is deep breathing. Research abounds about the benefits of deep breathing's increased oxygenation, including: lowering blood pressure, heart rate, irritability and fatigue, while increasing energy and sense of well-being. The proper technique is to inhale deeply (distending your diaphragm) to the count of five in your nose, and then to exhale out your mouth to the count of five, slowly, methodically, for five to 10 cycles. During especially stressful periods, deep-breathe regularly and often. (It takes, at most, three minutes.)

2) Adopt an attitude of compassionate consideration toward yourself, given the wretched turmoil you're suffering. Be gentle with yourself, relax your standards, drive especially carefully (you're preoccupied!) and strive to be as kind and caring with yourself as you would be with dear friends in your straits. (Now why is that so hard?! And while we're at it, why can't we sustain compassion for ourselves, and others, ALL the time?!) Self-compassion wards off self-condemnation, that inner cruelty that deepens our own misery and hardens us to those around us.

3) Compose a master-list grid of to-dos to carry around with you. Now that you've released your brain from the immobilizing anxiety response, design a grid, one page per problem area. Make 5 columns:

l Calls l Emails l Internet Searches l Actions/To-Do's l Help Needed l

Grab a tea or coffee, turn off your phone, put your feet up, and brainstorm all the ways, small and large, to fill in the columns for your comprehensive plan of attack, for each problem area. Make a back-up copy, since crucial lists have a habit of getting misplaced. When friends beg to help you, LET THEM! Wouldn't you want to be there for them if the tables were turned? This master list spares you those maddening moments when you have free time but forget what all those crucial "to-do's" were. (Short-term memory is a casualty of the stress response, as evidenced by those misplaced phones/keys/credit cards at the most anxiety-ridden times.)

Keep cycling through all three steps by, again, 1) soothing yourself with deep-breathing, 2) bringing the same compassionate consideration to your straits that you'd bring to your friends, and 3) systematically marching through your master list, updating it as you go. With this three-step cycle, you can free yourself from anxiety's disabling effects so that you can bring to bear the very highest and best of your resources in managing life's hardships; your calm, considerate clarity.