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Recognizing the Cycles of Stress

Since going into business for myself, I’ve recognized a pattern. Every few years, the stress of running my own firm and juggling the millions of demands on my time and energy builds up. Suddenly I find that I’m not responding to my life, I’m reacting to it.

It’s like my body goes into permanent fight or flight mode.

I have a pretty high tolerance for stress, so it takes a while for me to see what’s happening. It’s not until the symptoms have gone too far — that I’ve gained weight, I’m suffering from insomnia, and the muscles in my shoulders are so tight I can’t even move my neck — that a little voice pipes up that something is wrong.

At the doctor’s office, a series of tests reveal my cortisol levels, adrenals and blood sugar are all out of whack. My doctor tells me the only way to get back in sync is to reduce my stress levels. I tell her that’s impossible because, to put it simply, stress is my life.

Hi. My Name Is Bertha. And I’m Addicted to Stress.

Some time ago, I went to a workshop where we talked about “medicators.” Everyone has a medicator, something that drives them and keeps them going during hard times. For some people, it’s alcohol or drugs. For others, it’s exercise or sex.

For me, it’s stress.

Stress makes me feel alive. It’s why I’ve chosen one of the most stressful careers out there.

This craving for stress is written into my DNA. My mom is a stress monster — I love you, Mom! — whose own addictions to stress had led to a series of serious health problems.

In an attempt to find relief, my mom recently attended a healthier living retreat in California. The instructors taught my mom how to prepare nutritious foods, get more exercise and embrace better sleep habits. But the biggest takeaway was this: No matter how many Brussels sprouts you eat, miles you walk or hours you sleep each night, if you don’t address the levels of stress in your life, nothing else matters.

My mom took that last piece of advice to heart. Literally.

She started recognizing the stressors in her life and made plans to address, eliminate or somehow deal with each one. The results were outstanding.

My mom, who had been in the process of preparing for open heart surgery, was able to reverse her heart disease, lower her cholesterol levels, lose weight and dramatically reduce her medication intake, and she told me she hasn’t felt this happy or healthy in decades.

Her experience made me realize: As much as I love stress, I had to make a change.

Changing Your Relationship With Stress

As another popular saying goes, stress happens.

Even after my mom went on that life-changing retreat, she still had to deal with New Jersey traffic and the stressors of running her own business. She still had to pay her bills and deal with client issues. My mom didn’t suddenly become immune to the stressors in her life. Instead, she started reacting to them differently.

And this is where the power lies.

In my case, I realized I didn’t have to totally give up my favorite medicator in one big swoop (my therapist will not be pleased to hear this!). I could keep my high-stress lifestyle as long as I learned how to recognize the signals that my body and mind needed a break and respond accordingly. I could keep all my favorite stressors, as long as I didn’t let them affect my health.

When I started waking up in the middle of the night, I paid attention. When I found myself driving past the gym on the way home, I didn’t admonish myself for being lazy. Instead, I realized I was too burned out to exercise. When I polished off a huge bowl of chocolate ice cream, my first thought was, “That was delicious,” followed by, “Okay, what’s causing me to stress eat a bowl of chocolate ice cream every night?”

I also tried to stay ahead of my stress by scheduling activities that let me burn off some steam. I’ve become more adamant about taking vacations. I go on annual retreats. I also make more of an effort to stay in touch with friends and the people I love. These regular and consistent breaks give me a chance to come up for air before diving back into the madness.

It hasn’t been easy. But I’ve found that my cycles of stress are shorter now and less extreme. I spend less time in fight or flight mode, and my blood sugar and cortisol levels have improved dramatically.

But you’ll never get me to give up my chocolate ice cream.

 

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