by Robyn Tibert, MDiv, LCSW
April is National Stress Awareness Month. “Do we really need a month dedicated to recognizing stress? Aren’t we all too aware of how stressed we are already?” But perhaps that’s the point: stress is an unavoidable part of life. Stress is such a familiar foe, an unwelcome companion. It occupies our minds, wears on our bodies, and impacts our relationships. When you or a loved one is coping with cancer, the associated stress may be as taxing as the cancer treatment itself.
We try many things to reduce our stress or to distract ourselves from it, yet stress has a way of lingering. And sometimes the more we try to push it away, the tighter it clings to us and the bigger it grows. Wouldn’t it be nice if stress no longer held so much power over us?
If we can’t completely rid ourselves of stress, perhaps we can at least change our relationship with it. I’d like to invite you to try an exercise in awareness. The next time you’re feeling stressed, take a few minutes to sit with the stress. Take a deep breath…in and out. Observe the stress as if it were something you’d never encountered before. Notice where your stress is sitting in your body—perhaps in your stomach, on your chest, in your shoulders or your jaw, or wrapped around your head. Now observe what the stress feels like – is it like a knot? a tidal wave? a vice grip? Spend some time just examining its qualities. Notice its weight, its temperature, its size. Breathe deeply as you focus on the stress.
Now, take a deep breath and imagine your breath going right to that spot, right into the stress. Allow the breath to stay there for a couple of seconds, filling the area of your body that is holding the stress. Breathe out, and imagine the stress blowing slowly out of your nostrils. Breathe in and out several times slowly, imagining each breath filling up the place in your body that is housing your stress, and then letting your breath carry the stress out of your body as you exhale. Continue this for several more breaths, stopping when you feel ready.
Notice now any changes in the stress. How has the size and weight of it changed? Observe where the stress is sitting—perhaps it has left your body and is sitting somewhere across the room. How does your body feel different after this exercise?
Throughout this Stress Awareness Month, I invite you to practice this exercise daily. As you deepen your awareness of stress, notice how your relationship with stress changes. For some, your stress may go away—how fortunate you are if this does happen. For most of us, the stress will simply take on a different quality; it will sit more outside of us, rather than all tangled up in our minds and bodies. As we gain some distance from the stress, we regain a fuller sense of ourselves. In this way, stress awareness—true, purposeful, compassionate awareness—may be a gift to us this month.