Softening is Strength: Using Self-Compassion For More Success Managing Stress

The Body’s Natural Reaction to Stress

The body’s natural reaction to stress is to tighten up.  Our muscles and joints flex. Our heart rate increases.  Our breath becomes a little more shallow, and we narrow our eyes, readying ourselves to combat, overtake, or destroy that which threatens our well-being.  The funny thing is that all of this work only diminishes our resources to manage stress.  Stress becomes a foreign agent sent to muddy our entire day, and seeing it as opposition, we strain to get to it before it can get to us.  This makes stress more cumbersome. 

The story we create around stress makes it more difficult to manage, and more difficult to let go of, which means that we will be struggling to manage it for quite some time after it is really necessary to do so.  By personifying it, we also give stress greater dimension and greater power than it has naturally.

Why Do We Make Stress So Complicated?

Stress does not feel good, and we want to feel good.  When it comes up, it feels like an unnecessary burden in our life.  It also feels unknowable and surprising.  If we knew more about stress and when it was going to arrive, we would probably be less intimidated by it, and more likely to respond to it with ease and confidence.  To make stress more knowable, we personalize it. 

Personalizing stress helps us see stress as coming from outside of us, which we find relieving because this makes us less likely to blame ourselves, and experience shame.   We also personalize it, so that we can organize it, and make it knowable.  The stress may be new, but experiencing harm in opposition to someone or something else is something with which stories, movies, social media, and life experience has made us familiar.   Moreover, conflict is the simplest way to organize something.  It reduces the complexity of the relationship to one simply defined by conflict.

How Does Stress Manifest Objectively?

Objectively speaking, stress can be defined as any time you feel the challenge or challenges that lay before you are greater than the current resources you possess.  Stress can come from your internal experience, like a thought, or a dream, or a bodily sensation, or it can come from outside of you like an angry boss, or lots of paperwork. 

If you look at stress with a scientific mind, you will notice the burden it is placing on your resources, and you will note this by describing the feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations that arise in relation to it.  Rather than create a multi-dimensional, personified, antagonistic relationship with this stress, you will use your measurements to ascertain what you must do to isolate the causes of this stress, and how best to respond to them with the most efficient use of your resources.  This is too ideal to hope for in most cases, so we require self-compassion tools to bridge the gap between our natural tendency to personify and oppose stress and a healthier way to manage it by softening into it and using objective means of understanding and responding to it.

Self-Compassion Tools for Managing Stress

First things first.  Bring compassion to your experience.  We tighten around stress because conquering and overcoming is the ethos held in most parts of the world.  It is a philosophy that comes directly from generations where survival was tough, and war was all around us.  There may be fewer wars today, but the war ideals are still heavily embedded in movies, books, and social media, and we have enough access to media coverage around the globe to feel like war is happening close to us everyday.  So, it is no wonder that we take stress on to best it.  We want to be the heroes of our stories, to make our people proud, and to inspire others.

Second, notice that taking on stress in this way is exciting initially, but slowly depletes your resources and damages your health and mindset.  Too many wars with stress, and you will find yourself on the losing end once your energy has been exhausted.  When stress is personified, it has the power to make us feel that we have lost or been subjugated by a force greater than our own.  This is traumatic in a way, as it gives us the sense that we are the hapless victims of another’s aggression.

Third, since we can agree that all this tension and aggression towards stress is dwindling our resources, let’s make room for a strategy that decreases tension and increases our resources.  Stress requires more resources, and the body has the most resources to offer when it is relaxed.  So, identify stress.  Locate it in your body, and piece by piece begin to soften those parts of your body.  Accept the stress, so that your mind and body can get a sense of exactly what is required to handle it, and return to a more relaxed state.  Note the level of resources and body tension you have after managing stress by softening into it.  Record your successes.  We need evidence to change our ways, and we need successes, even small ones, to persuade us to adopt this change permanently.

Fourth, I understand that harden sounds tough and soften sounds weak, but read up on the experience of today’s warriors: boxers and cage fighter.  Most of these warriors will tell you that they need to remain relaxed and befriend their obstacles.  Stiff muscles and conflicted minds respond slower and with less accuracy.  They also take more time to recover.  In a real fight, you cannot afford to be slow or to recover poorly.  Because you have more than enough obstacles before you, you simplify the ones you can to have the greatest likelihood of success.  Be a true warrior, and soften into your experience, simplify your stress to give yourself the greatest chance of succeeding at your goals.  This strategy plays to your advantage, and as the world famous boxing coach Tommy Connors notes, “You never give up an advantage.  Never!.” 

Summing It All Up

 It may seem stronger to harden and become antagonistic towards stress, but our body actually is more capable of managing stress when we soften into it and accept it with objectivity.  Give yourself permission to acknowledge your predisposition to tense up, and slowly soften around the areas of your body that are tight.  Make room to accept the stress.  Name it, and let it pass.  Then, consider the simplest way to address this stress, so that you have the most advantageous position to succeed in accomplishing your goals.

 365 Days of Kindness.  Self-Compassion.  Day 74.  In the Books.