“Slow down, let go of perfectionism, laugh” are the top three suggestions by the American Institute of Stress as simple steps one can start today to help overcome stress in 2020. “Accept that you cannot control everything, do your best, maintain a positive attitude” fall under the Anxiety and Depression Association of America’s “Tips to Manage Anxiety and Stress.”
But do broad, cookie-cutter lists really help? Would Eugene Hubbard, the janitor who spoke from the heart at the MLK parade about the indignity of not making enough money to feed his family really benefit from drinking herbal tea?
“A lot of the times, people talk about self-care but they don’t really talk about some of the sources of their stress,” explained Dr. Veronica Shead, a clinical psychologist and St. Louis native, who said it’s more powerful to practice understanding the source of your stress, and to be more in the moment of when stressors kick in.
“Basic tips are all well and good, and you really do need tools to deal with stress, whether it’s taking a bath or learning meditation or deep breathing exercises, or even just simply understanding mindful activities; but a lot of times people aren’t aware of where the sources of their stress lie. With that, I mean sometimes the one thing to change may not be the addition of something, but perhaps the subtraction of something in your life.”
According to a 2019 Gallup poll, Americans are among the most stressed-out populations in the world, with 83% of U.S. workers suffering from work-related stress and 55% of Americans feeling stressed throughout the day.
Money, work and family are consistently listed as among the most common causes of stress in America. Dr. Shead cautioned that those groupings are too general.
“Many times, people aren’t paying attention to specifics. Maybe it’s burnout on their job and what that looks like and what the source of that is. Maybe it’s not recognizing whether that relationship could be toxic or how they could better communicate with that person,” she said.
“So I think one of the things when we talk about self-care, is that, yes, people need to think about ways to be kind to ourselves, but sometimes that’s not necessarily empowering us to make changes to the source of the stresses in our lives to begin with. You’re dealing with the symptoms and not the source.”
Referring to America’s “mental health nonsystem.” the Psychiatric Times published an article on January 17 admonishing the U.S. as being one of the worst places in the world to have a mental illness. Dr. Shead illustrated that point by offering a common household analogy.
“It’s kind of like, if you have something rotting in your refrigerator and just continue to use a really nice air freshener and you never throw out whatever is the source of that smell. You just keep covering it up and it gets worse and it gets worse. And soon it doesn’t matter how much you spray – the smell isn’t going to go away. And that’s exactly it. People aren’t taking the time to be mindful of the source of their stress.”
Being mindful or introspective, admits Dr. Shead, can be challenging.
“It seems overwhelming to just sit with yourself. But sincerely, if you practice mindfulness and you sit with yourself sometimes you begin to realize that what’s bothering you didn’t start with what so and so said in the email at work. Or maybe it did, and now you’re at home with your family and you’re still keyed up by that. And it’s also knowing what’s triggering things within you.
“And those are the more powerful moments to do some form of self-care activity,” Dr. Shead added. “It’s in that moment when you are frustrated. You can’t stop and go and take a bath, but you might be able to stop for five minutes and go for a walk or take a deep breath and do a breathing exercise. Often people are so overwhelmed that they feel as though that one big self care activity isn’t enough because they aren’t taking those little steps to really get to the source of what’s going on.”
Popular among mental health professionals is the recommendation that meditation will help relieve stress and increase mindful self-care. In fact, according to Global Wellness Summit, meditation has had the “meteoric growth” that yoga did 20 years ago.
Dr. Shead explained how to be mindful a bit differently. “Being mindful doesn’t take, kind of this longstanding meditation. You don’t have to chant. And while yoga is absolutely great, that first step to mindfulness is literally just starting to think about the point at which you became angry, or the point in which you became bothered.”
“And that doesn’t take a lot of soul-searching introspection. Literally it just takes you sitting there and reflecting on the fact that that bothered you. And naming it. And sometimes you can actually change it by removing yourself from the situation. But the power of even naming that that email bothered you, that the person who came into the office and did not say hello bothered you – just acknowledging that one thing lends power to what mindful self-reflection is.”
Dr. Shead works with a national team providing consultation to other mental health providers to develop groups for persons of color to address race-based stress and trauma. She explained that some stress is deep-seeded because it results from past trauma. “A person’s lived experiences directly impacts how he or she reacts to situations.”
“There can be an inherent amount of stress that you’re bringing into some situations. And some of it can be racially-based trauma. Because black people have definitely dealt with racism, which influences how many cope with situations. People who deal with racism, sexism, and/or being treated poorly on the job; being talked down to, or having a bad boss – all that stuff is real. But that’s where you start to name it. Because you’re starting to see where it’s coming from. Begin to ask yourself if it is in every single aspect of your life or is it in particular spaces? And that‘s where the power lies to make change.”