Why Stress is my Superpower
Learning to harness my secret superpower during the most difficult year of my life
This is a story about one of the most difficult years of my life. And it’s also a story about how I discovered that the very thing I thought was going to ruin me was actually my secret weapon. And no, it isn’t a new superfood and it doesn’t come in a pill or out of a box. The answer for me was learning to love my stress. I discovered that the ability to embrace my stress rather than let it terrify me was what helped me survive one of my toughest years.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Once, there was a busy, working mum who spent every waking moment taking care of those around her. She was constantly pulled in all directions between her business, her family, her partner and the usual bouts of illness, worry or grief that pop up along the way. Her stress levels were sky high; she never gave herself time to destress and not surprisingly, things were starting to break. A familiar story, right?
Well, this was once my story. Life had given me a fair amount of challenges, and the stress that came with it had on many occasions left me physically or mentally sick. And then 2017 happened! It was by far my most challenging year yet, and it was looking like it would be the end of me! But I took a different approach. I discovered that the way I perceived my stress gave me the power to change everything.
The rollercoaster ride
Over the last 12 months, I have felt like I have been on a rollercoaster ride – a terrifying and exhilarating one! There were highs like launching my new business and online breathing course (www.thebigexhale.com) and setting myself the big hairy-scary-mission to teach the entire world to breathe better.
And there were also the lows, moments that nearly brought me to my knees. In September 2016, my husband and I separated (this was a mutual decision, and we prefer Gwyneth Paltrow’s “consciously uncoupling” description!). Separation is not easy at the best of times and is particularly difficult when there are young kids, businesses, and property involved. Despite the challenges, we both knew that separating was a better option than living in a constant state of turmoil.
So, if ever I was going to fall prey to the health effects of stress, it was during this time. And I did! During the separation, my husband and I both noticed stress causing havoc to our body and mind. A week after making the call to split Mike had a full-blown panic attack, and my body was hormonally hijacked. You have probably heard that divorce is one of life’s most stressful events but until you experience it, it is hard to imagine just how difficult it is. In a time of so much change, it was hard to see the feelings of stress as a good thing. But this is what I decided to do and I want to show you that you can do the same when you are facing big (or small) moments of stress.
#embracestress #lifesbigchallenge #onebreathatatime
What happens in our body when we are stressed?
I always say that if you want to really understand something, you have to take it apart piece by piece. So, let’s take a good look at stress and what is going on in our body and our brain when times get tough.
Our body and brain are intrinsically wired for survival. While this is an incredibly useful function and has allowed us to evolve into the ingenious, bipedal species that we are today, it has caused us problems as we navigate our way through today’s busy lifestyle. Our stress response spends a lot of time on overdrive these days as it constantly picks up threats. And it doesn’t matter if these are real threats or that we are simply worrying about something that happened last week or something that might happen in the future. Our body, and therefore our stress response, react the same way to a perceived or real threat.
When a threat is detected, our brain sends a message down to the hypothalamus and the body primes itself for action. Stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol are released from our adrenal gland (which sit above the kidneys), which act on the body in different ways. Adrenaline primes our heart ready for action and increases our breathing rate, and cortisol mobilises our fuel stores by binding to our fat cells and liver. These fast-acting hormones also knock out several key systems in our body such as digestion, immunity and hormone regulation. When key systems such as these are out of balance because the stress response has taken over the show, then we start to see some serious health effects.
What’s so good about stress?
At this point, stress isn’t sounding that good, is it? But wait, we haven’t gotten to the good bit yet. (And I promise you, there is a good bit!) What we have to accept is that there is no avoiding stress in our modern lives. You can’t run away from it, you can’t meditate it away or go on a special diet. Stress is here to stay, so it all comes down to how you perceive it.
Incredibly, new research has proven that if you perceive stress as a good thing, not only can you live longer but you will also release different chemicals in the brain which helps increase the neural connections in the brain. Even small things that may cause a minor stress like getting up to do some exercise or eating a meal can impact how your body functions. And when used at the right time, stress can help you focus and perform.
Can you change your perception of stress?
It’s not easy to change long-held beliefs overnight and suddenly start loving your stress! Most of us have lived the majority of our lives in a constant state of stress. And those who have experienced big challenges like a marriage breakup, loss of a loved one, or illness have probably experienced layers of stress on top of each other leading to anxiety, depression, chronic fatigue or panic attacks.
It is in these times of crisis or challenge that you need to search deep into your superpower toolbox and help your body back to calm to reduce the impact of stress. If you want to break the cycle of stress, here are several ways you can do it.
What you can do to embrace stress
The Mindset Reset
My first (and favourite) way to embrace stress is to change my mindset. Now, this isn’t an easy one! I’m sure we all know what it feels like when our brain starts imagining the crazy scenarios of what might go wrong if x, y or z happens. But just like the half full or half empty glass, it all comes down to how we look at it. And research is now showing that the way we think about something affects the genes in our body and how they are expressed.
This one is a biggie! Whenever I am stressed, I stop and focus on my breathing. Growing up with a speech impediment, I learned from a young age the power of good breathing. It soon became a fascination for me and is what led me to pursue my current mission with The Butterfly Effect. What I have learned through decades of study, research and clinical practice is that not all breath is equal.
This is why I started a business that aims to teach people about optimal breathing and how to retrain individual breathing patterns (www.thebigexhale.com). Like any lifelong habit, it isn’t easy to change ingrained breathing patterns. As one of my clients said the other day, “Learning to breathe right was one of the hardest but most rewarding things I have ever done” – and she is an ex-Olympic athlete! Put simply, breathing is one of the best ways to quickly change your stress response and bring the body back to calm. And the whole idea behind breathing well is that you know what to do BEFORE things get crazy. For more information on breathing retraining, try the first 5 days of my breathing course for free at www.thebigexhale.co.nz.
I had always underestimated the therapeutic benefits of writing. Journaling in whatever form you choose is a great way to work through times of turmoil or to make sense of thoughts that seem to swirl endlessly around in your head. More often these days, I recommend my clients try writing as I have experienced the benefits myself. One of my favourite techniques is called Morning Pages. First thing in the morning, I take a notepad and write as fast as I can, it doesn’t matter what I write, I don’t bother to read it, and when I’m finished I screw it up and throw it away or burn it! It is a great release and shows the way that writing can help streamline the constant chatter that goes on in your head and gets to the bottom of what you are really thinking. It is often said that we have 70,000 thoughts per day and 80% of that is just the same thing said over and over again.
There is more research coming out about expressive writing as a way to help manage stress – but I know it’s not for everyone. You need to find out what appeals to you so that you can cultivate a practice, so you have your tools ready to go before stress builds up.
My mindset shift
My mindset is now one of challenge. Seeing my marriage come to an end has been a very difficult challenge but I soon realised that I would get through it. I can be grateful for the wonderful time I shared with my husband and all that he has taught me. I am so proud and thankful for the two children we nurtured and who will forever connect us. I am happy that I have control over my future. And because of this, I see an abundance of growth and possibility for myself just around the corner.
Whatever is going on in your life and causing you worry or stress, I encourage you to step into it. There are plenty of things in this world you can’t control, but you can change the way you view it. Learn to say no more often than yes and invest time in yourself. Build up a collection of tools in your super calm toolbox that you can call on when you feel stress creeping in.
Not every breath is made equal.
Emma Ferris is known as a breathing guru. She’s also called a wellness nut, entrepreneur and a woman on a mission. Drawing on a 12-year career in physiotherapy, as well as expertise in Pilates, acupuncture and stress management, Emma Ferris is teaching the world to find calm and stress less at The Butterfly Effect.