Several years ago, I knew someone who I thought was living a well-balanced, positive life. But then one day he had a meltdown. It was a shocking collapse and he ended up in the hospital. He’s fine today but it was not only scary at the moment, it was a huge shock to those of us who were caught by surprise from it.
We weren’t aware of his stress level and neither was he. Sure, he was getting frustrated by his life but he had no idea how bad it was until that one cataclysmic episode.
That’s probably true for most of us: Unless we’re practicing mindfulness every day, we aren’t truly aware of our stress level until it gets to a boiling point. And by then it’s too late.
But there is a solution, which I call “Stress Signals”…
A solution inspired by the stock market
In the stock market, investors use something called “indicators” to track stock prices. These indicators pay attention to trends, and they measure things like the price that stocks are bought for and the price that stocks are sold for (plus many other variables that influence upward or downward trends). Based on these signals, the information alerts the investor that it’s time to buy or sell more stock.
The same principle can be applied to our lives to help us address and reduce stress.
We may not always realize “Okay, I’m feeling stress right now” but there are lots of indicators in our lives that can signal the stress long before we have a meltdown.
What are the signals? I think they’re different for everyone but here’s a cross section of the signals that I think many of us might observe in ourselves:
Hunger for junk food
Frustration expressed through shouting at inanimate objects
An increase in caffeine consumption
Short-tempered with family and friends
Teeth grinding at night
Shortness of breath
Dissatisfied with things that normally mean nothing to us (i.e. “There’s NOTHING on the radio today!” or “my spouse NEVER remembers to put the car keys back in the same place”)
A desire to escape
Of course there are many more, and they are different for everyone. (And do you notice something else? These signals can also be catalysts for further stress! Our stress keeps us awake at night and then our fatigue compounds our stress level!)
How to use stress signals
First, figure out what YOUR stress signals are. Chances are, you may have recognized a few of them in the list above.
Next, choose 3 to 5 signals that show up consistently when you get stressed. You don’t have to pick more than that because those few will give you the same information as if you picked 7 or 10 signals. Also, make sure the signals you choose are easy to measure.
Then commit those signals to memory.
Simply the act of committing those signals to memory will help you to “set them” as indicators. As that particular signal starts to ping in your life, it will job your memory that it’s a stress signal.
But to further help you, take a couple of moments in your day to check your stress signals and rate them on a simple scale of 1 to 5. Perhaps do this once in the morning, once when you arrive home from work and once before bed at night. This simple 30-second exercise will keep you aware of your stress level so you can do something about it before it gets too bad.