Understanding Your Stress Cues

“Since attention is largely under volitional control – you can direct it with conscious effort – you have an extraordinary tool at your disposal all day long.”
~ Rick Hansen



In last month’s Harmony Habit Tip, I wrote about the importance of aligning actions with values to both reduce stress and increase our happiness and well-being. I also shared my experience of working with a group of professionals at a stress management seminar I presented this past spring.

stress managementIn addition to creating a “Bliss List” to aid in  buoying  our spirits, I emphasized how vitally important it is to become a keen observer of the stress cues Mother Nature sends when we’re feeling distressed.  If we miss them, we can end up with a less effective response.

“Learning to work with the ‘observing ego’ (as it’s referred to in psychology),” I said, “or the ‘Observer Self’ – is key to managing conflict and stress.”

That was the most important point I wanted to emphasize during this workshop, yet didn’t really know how truly significant it was until I had a second opportunity to teach another stress management program in mid-June, at a Women’s Conference in the SF Bay Area.

After I’d given a general overview of what stress is and what we can do about it, I asked this group to pair off and talk about a recent stressful situation they’d experienced.  As they found partners, one woman spoke up. “Do you want us to talk about a big stressful event, like a divorce?” she asked.   “Or do you want us to talk about something less stressful?”

“For this exercise, it doesn’t really matter.”  I replied, “The idea is to pick something you’ve gotten worked up about in the past and see if it has any charge for you now.”

There was a lot of energy in the room as everyone engaged in lively conversations about the people and events that had set them off.   A few moments later, I asked participants to explain how they knew they had been stressed.

“Where in your mind, heart or body does your stress tend to reside?” I asked.

Several people shared that when they were stressed they also felt angry or fearful.   Tension built up in their chest, they said.  Some felt it in their abdomen; others said they could almost feel their blood pressure rise and their face get red.  Many talked about the cascade of negative thinking that often accompanies stress.

“My neck and shoulders tense up when I’m stressed” I said, “and I’m more easily bothered”.

I later pointed out the importance of developing the ???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????capacity to tune in to ourselves to become more self-aware.  “Knowing when, where or how we hold tension is a critical first step in managing stress”, I said.  “That’s the point of intervention; it’s only when you become aware of – and understand – your stress cues, that you can begin to break free from them.

To illustrate this point further, I gave an example of a recent experience I had talking about politics with a friend.

At one point in the discussion, as our views began to clash, I became stressed, yet initially missed the warning signs.  I was on auto-pilot, swept away by an old, ineffective reaction.  The more I defended my position, the more annoyed I felt.   An unhelpful pattern of thinking – “I’m right, you’re wrong”- had emerged, along with an old habit of “listening to reply, not to understand”. (Covey)

These stress cues were my “red flags” and thankfully, I eventually noticed them.

Once I caught myself behaving this way, I remembered my commitment to become a better listener, especially when it came to different viewpoints.  Then I consciously chose to respond differently to my friend.  I diverted my attention momentarily away from my thoughts to my breath and quietly said to myself:  “Ah, this is the energy of anger. I don’t need to go with it.”

My “observing ego” was at work, turning the tide of the conversation – just in the nick of time!

As I listened to better understand my friend’s ideas, the conversation became less emotionally charged, we both relaxed and the evening went unspoiled.

I didn’t have to agree with my friend”, I explained to the group, “and that didn’t concern me.  What mattered was that – through a simple process of self-observation – I heightened my awareness of unhelpful, limiting behaviors and disengaged from them.  Plus, I preserved an important friendship.  He felt heard and understood.”

By paying closer attention to our stress cues, and not allowing ourselves to be emotionally high jacked by them, we can consciously choose to act in ways that are more in line with our values and not just pay lip service to them.

As the class wrapped up, I looked for the woman who had earlier asked the question about the exercise we were doing, yet apparently just missed her.  Fortunately though, I spotted her in the parking lot as I was getting into my car.  “Excuse me” I said, grabbing her attention. “I’m not sure that I answered your question as well as I could have and wanted to double check.”

“Oh, no,” she said rather cheerfully. “I definitely got what I came for!  girl breathing and pondering croppedI realized it wasn’t the stress of my divorce – or any other stressful event –  that’s creating problems for me.  The first thing I need to do she continued, is to learn to pay attention to my stress cues, because I’ve missed all of them!  That’s where I need to put my focus for at least the next year!”

Running into this woman again was serendipitous.

Of course, as an instructor, I felt relieved knowing she received value by attending the workshop.  Yet she also gave me another wonderful gift – the reminder not to underestimate the power of the Observer-Self.

When skillfully – and consistently – utilized, this amazing tool can be a catalyst for great change.


This month’s practice:

Last month I asked you to notice where you hold tension in your body, how you behave when you’re under pressure and what kind of self-talk you engage in when you’re stressed.

This month I’d like you to go a bit deeper by doing the following Self-Examination Exercise:

Sit comfortably.  Close your eyes.  Take a few deep breaths, relax and engage your Observer-Self….

  • Recall a recent experience you considered especially stressful.
  • See yourself back there in time. Try to paint a picture of what went on.  What happened?  Who was there?
  • Notice how your body responds. Where did you hold your tension?  Do you notice your body holding any of the same tightness now?  How were/are you breathing?  Was your neck tight?  Are you frowning?
  • Scan your body for any other tension areas – check your shoulders, throat, jaw, upper and lower back, arms, legs, stomach, head.
  • Notice how you felt.  What feeling surfaced temporarily?  What feelings remained? How did these feelings contribute to your stress levels?
  • Notice what your thoughts were like.  What were you telling yourself?  Did this “chatter” continue on after the event was over?  If so, for how long?  Do you often tell yourself these same things when you are under stress?
  • What might you need to do to align your actions with your values?
  • Can you do something soon to meet that need?

What would be your answers to the following questions?

  1. Describe the stressful event briefly.  What was going on, who was there?
  2. Was there anything you liked about the situation?  Was there anything satisfying, challenging or stimulating?
  3. What don’t you like about the situation?  What was distressful?
  4. What happened to your body?  What were your thoughts like?  What feelings erupted?
  5. How did you cope?  What did you do (or not do) to take care of the demands?
  6. Did your response leave the demand unaffected or were you able to do something about it?
  7. Did you get what you wanted?
  8. Are you avoiding the best possible solution because it’s a difficult choice for you?
  9. What do you really, honestly need?
  10. Are you willing to courageously act on that?

Click here to download a printable worksheet for this exercise.  Plan to use this sheet the next time you experience stress.  Then see if the Tool of Observation can help you disengage from outmoded behaviors and point you in the direction of a more desirable outcome.


Moving From Reactive To Responsive

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Watch a short video of Mary discussing
Moving From Reactive To Responsive

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1 Response to Understanding Your Stress Cues

  1. Enamul Hoque says:

    Awesome website. This will help me on stress management, health care, My yoga development, fitness care. I am so grateful to you. I have also a website. If you don’t watch , you will miss. It’s A Sole Provider for A Singapore Spin on Laughter Yoga by Master Trainer, Laughter Therapist Ram. http://www.singaporelaughteryoga.com/

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