What to Do When You've Reached Your Breaking Point
We all use the word stress a lot, but most of us haven't looked at our stress response very deeply. There are really three stages. Stage 1: You are aware of being under pressure, but you still feel centered and in control. Stage 2: Stress has got you frazzled. You have to make a conscious effort not to respond with anger, anxiety, impatience or blame. Stage 3: You can't cope any longer, and you have an outburst, which releases your tension momentarily but leaves you with feelings of embarrassment and regret.
Here, we are talking about chronic stress, the kind that builds up over time. It's different than acute stress, which happens all at once, when you're in an auto accident, say, or hear bad news; one-time events jumpstart the stress response, the hormones associated with the fight-or-flight response. Chronic stress is more like hearing a dripping faucet. First you notice it, then you get irritated and finally you can't stand it anymore. By the time you get to Stage 3, it's time to fix the drip.
For some chronic stresses, reducing or eliminating the root cause is the solution. An amazing number of people will try to put up with stress when they need to take positive steps to address the problem. Not taking action is like walking around for days with a rock in your shoe thinking, "I can stand this. I just have to work through the pain," when what is called for is taking the rock out. If something in your life—your work , a relationship, a financial strain—is causing you to reach the breaking point more than once or twice, you need to look seriously at making a significant change. Putting up with chronic stress is bad for both mind and body. The brain's stress response isn't set up to be triggered constantly, and the presence of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol over an extended period throws your whole physiology out of balance.
If you can't change your situation—you need the income from that job, for example—the most effective strategy for diminishing chronic stress is balance. That begins at Stage 1, when you're feeling centered and in control: You're already beating stress by remaining in balance. The important thing is to learn how to stay there. If you can do that, two things will happen. First, you won't reach your breaking point. Second, in the event that you do reach your breaking point (Stage 3), you will become centered and back in control much faster. These are both desirable outcomes.
So how do you achieve them? It all happens in consciousness. You need to learn what it feels like to be centered. You need to value this state. You need to train your brain to stay there.
Feeling centered has a set of feelings associated with it. Physically, you are calm but not dull or fatigued. Inside your calmness you feel alert and alive, with more than enough energy to do what you need to do. You've had a good night's sleep. Your mood is up. If you place your attention in the center of your chest, in the region of the heart, there's a sense of openness. Nothing hurts anywhere in your body.
Now, we've all experienced such a state. It's not happiness so much as contentment with just being here. You'd think that everyone would value such a basic, primal sense of comfort, but many of us don't. We want to be stimulated instead. We run after excitement, distractions and even the next stress. We only feel alive when we've escaped ourselves.
Modern culture is set up to reinforce this kind of restless existence. It glorifies action for its own sake, so that resting feels like giving up. One hears of people who claim to thrive on stress, who exist on thrills and need barely four hours of sleep. The reality is far different from the image, however. Being able to stay centered, relaxed and present is the optimal state of balance for mind and body. Being too stimulated, even by positive feelings, is stressful and unhealthy.
Your brain is used to the lifestyle you follow and has adapted to it. So if you push yourself out of balance, the brain's mechanism for returning to balance gets worn down over time. This mechanism is powerful—every cell in the body wants to be in balance—but we challenge it by various bad habits. Here is a list of habits that lead to imbalance. See if it best describes your lifestyle.
Pushing Out of Balance
1. You work until you feel exhausted.
2. You put up with a lot of stress at home or at work.
3. You seek distraction with hours of television, video games or surfing the Internet.
4. Once you begin to work on something, you focus intensely, rarely getting up to move around.
5. You take your life very seriously, without a sense of humor.
6. You overschedule your time.
7. You're addicted to being busy.
8. You fret and worry.
9. You are constantly texting, emailing and checking up on things.
10. You deal with all the demands in your life by multitasking.
11. Your diet is loaded with sugar, fat and processed food.
12. You eat in a hurry, sometimes on the run.
All of these behaviors train the brain in the wrong direction, pushing it to the breaking point if the pressure is kept up long enough. Unfortunately, there are millions of people whose lives consist of doing all or most of these things, sometimes believing that they are actually doing some good for themselves. They mistake stress for stimulation, and deep down, the last thing they want to do is to meet themselves in a state of simply being. Consider the stark contrast when you train your brain to keep you in balance.
To stay in balance you need to turn these behaviors around. The smallest changes make a difference, but pay attention to changes that aren't so small, like getting enough sleep (without drugs), dealing with your anger and anxiety before they erupt, moving around during the day, making time to play, eating sensibly and simply being with yourself.
As you can see, prevention is the best medicine. Reaching your breaking point means that you've crossed into the red zone, from which it's hard to return. You won't get to your red zone if you apply the habits of self-care I've just listed. The choice is really yours. Medical research has abundantly validated that being in balance is the healthiest way to live. Spend the next two weeks getting back into balance. You'll be amazed and pleased with the results.
Deepak Chopra, MD, is the author of more than 80 books with 22 New York Times best-sellers including Super Brain. He serves as the founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing.
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