Stress: Taming the Beast

A recent headline reads: Cortisol: Why the “Stress Hormone” is Public Enemy No. 1.

But here’s an idea. Maybe we don’t want to eliminate stress from our lives. Here is a three-part alternative:

  • Understand it.
  • Manage it.
  • Modulate it.

Understand it.

Definition: Stress is pressure or tension exerted on a material object. My body in bed in the morning, now there is a material object! Stress is the motivator that gets me out of it. Stress makes things happen. In its absence, we spend the day on the sofa, watching game shows and stuffing our faces with Cheetos.

Cortisol is the hormone the body uses to handle stress. Cortisol levels fluctuate throughout the day. The level is highest in the morning, specifically to wake us up and move that material object out the door to whatever we have to do today. It gives us an extra boost when some pressure or tension calls on us to marshal our resources. Like, it’s our turn to speak to the group, or the project deadline looms, or that troublesome person crosses our path. Cortisol levels generally back off as the day wears on, so we can relax at the end of the day and go to sleep.

At least that’s the way it’s supposed to work.

Manage it.

But the bipolar brain is not that good at managing these internal processes like hormone levels that are supposed to rise and fall throughout the day. What goes up keeps going up, until it crashes, at which point, it keeps going down.

We can use intentional behaviors to help reset our cortisol levels. Common reset tricks include controlled breathing (in all the way to the diaphragm on a count of five, hold for a count of three, out all the way for seven); mindfulness (focus on a physical sensation in the present, the touch of feet on the ground, the color green, the smell of an essential oil, the taste of a raisin); a saying or mantra (like, I am enough, or Garbage in, garbage out, or The Serenity Prayer—find one that works for you); a touchstone; a quiet half smile; physical activity, even just walking around the room; music; time spent outside; a pet; movies; laughter.

Experiment. Find your favorites. Stress can make your mind a blank, so that you don’t remember your strategies to manage it. Write them on 3×5 cards and shuffle through them when your mind needs a prompt.

Modulate it.

Those of us who manage our bipolar best are those who are microscopically tuned to fluctuations in our functioning and respond before things get out of hand. The amount of stress we can handle changes from time to time. Some days we’re up for a new challenge. (It’s best to add just one new challenge at a time to test our current capacity and not get caught in mania overdrive.) Other days, it’s time to back off.

It might even be something we enjoy that adds stress to our lives, like a party or an extreme sport. Before saying yes to any invitation or opportunity, I try to do a scan of my stress level. Am I bored and up for some stimulation? Is a sense of obligation to somebody else threatening my obligation to maintain my health? Would adding one more thing tip me over or even just be more than I want on my plate right now? My life got better and I got to do what I really want to do once I added the word No to my vocabulary. No to some things makes Yes to other things possible, like control, purpose, health.

Really, managing bipolar is a full-time job. And taming the stress beast is part of it. Taming stress will reduce the work that medication, or therapy, or any other strategy has to do. So take a deep breath and go for it! Or not! Depending on what you need today.

Willa Goodfellow

Author: Prozac Monologues: A Voice from the Edge

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