As a freelancer, you most probably have plenty to worry about. Finding clients, dealing with your administration, paying your bills, managing your time… Even the smallest task adds up to the amount of stress you experience per day. That’s why it’s crucial to master your stress management skills; to learn how to deal with stress and to become more resilient.
It’s easy to end up trapped in an overstressed state of mind. But it’s also very dangerous! Being under a lot of stress for long periods of time leads to being chronically stressed and eventually burning out. Been there, done that. And that’s why I made it my mission to help you approach your freelance career sustainably.
I invited Irene Anggreeni, a dance movement psychotherapist with intercultural and corporate experience, as a guest author. She’s an ex-engineer and academic expat from Indonesia.
Irene is trying to break the taboo about mental health. She’s launched an integrative program based on the creative, embodied, and mindful values of the dance movement psychotherapy. It’s called Expat Wellbeing – you can read more about it in my article Dance if You Feel Lonely.
Today Irene Anggreeni will share a bit more about stress resilience. I hope you find zen in the chaos of everyday life while reading this article. And remember, your work is important, but it’s not the most important thing in the world!
What is stress resilience?
It’s inevitable that we experience stress at various points of our life. Stress resilience is our capacity not to get stuck, to recover, to bounce back after a difficult situation. Sometimes it means to be able to let go.
We are resilient beings. Even after surviving a threatening event, our natural tendency is to spring back to life. Deep inside we have the drive towards creating wellbeing in ourselves. However, it’s not easy to realize our inner resilience if we are still in our survival mode.
What are the traits of stress resilience?
We’ve got a lot to learn from the bamboos. In Eastern culture, these plants are praised for their qualities that embody resilience. Firmly rooted, yet flexible. “The bamboo that bends is stronger than the oak that resists”, says a Japanese proverb.
Let’s translate this into human traits of resilience. These traits of resilience are as much embodied as they are in the mind. Here’s my take for the top three resilience traits.
What would be the opposite of adaptability? Rigidity, inflexibility, black and white world view. Imagine if we see and act according to our perspective only. Very likely we would behave without empathy towards others, and also create much frustration to ourselves and others!
If you feel stuck in your mind, you might feel this in your body too. Rigid posture, tension in the muscles, limited movement vocabulary can be clear signs something is holding you back from adapting with more ease.
Adaptability means being aware of different perspectives and making a conscious action that empowers yourself.
You’re curious to understand your mind and behaviors. You dare to sometimes just show up without a calculated plan. You’re able to let go of things that are beyond your control.
Being in your body, being aware of your breaths, finding flow in your movements, sensing your surrounding, improvising, are among the ongoing practice to cultivate adaptation skills.
Whether you realize it or not, we’re constantly adapting to the world around us. By aligning our awareness and action, we reorganize our self better in our changing environment (and literally rewire our brain – neuroplasticity).
You may call it faith, confidence, commitment, loyalty or whatever. When we lack this, we live in constant worries. We fear failure and dare not to take risks. We have limited mental space to see beyond our fears. And we may push away others who actually are willing to support us.
Collapsed posture, or the opposite, pin-like posture, making our physical space small, fear to move spontaneously, are indicators that one may be dealing with trust issues.
In essence, we need healthy trust in ourselves and towards others. Even when failures bring you down, you still believe in your strength. You feel well about connecting with others and at the same time, respect each other’s individuality. Your presence is authentic, you show up for yourself and not because you want to be liked by others.
Planting your feet when you stand or your sit bones when you sit, ‘spreading’, taking up enough physical space for your comfort, sensing when you need rest, learning to relax, are practical experiments you can try to grow trust in yourself.
When you feel at home in yourself, it becomes easier to relate with others in a healthier way.
Every moment is an act of balancing in the knowledge that we have endless potentials. If we’re not familiar with our own limits, we might burn out.
Going extremely active and then dropping from exhaustion, frequent injuries, getting too intense too soon, are signs we may be shooting up the upper limits straight away. The opposite can also be true. When we cannot exert our self, are feeling lethargic, we do not make enough of the impact we want.
What binds all our potentials together is the act of balancing.
There is the inner knowing of when to slow down and rest, and when to push through. When to adapt (“bend”), and when to fight for your values. At which intensity to express your emotions, and when it’s wise to contain them. When to accommodate others, and when to make yourself a priority.
If we always react the same way because we blindly believe it’s the only way, we might get off balance. Ability to regulate our (physical) efforts, diversity in our qualities (as can be reflected in our movement profile), are crucial to creating balance.
Therefore we’re able to move actively, and also gently in delicate moments. We can move fast to catch our train, and we can stroll leisurely enjoying a beautiful park. When we’re able to flow smoothly throughout our spectrum of possibilities, we can go farther in a more sustainable way.
Are some people “naturally” better at handling stress than others?
Everybody has the capacity for stress resilience. Seen from the psychophysiological perspective, our nervous system dramatically affects how we ‘handle’ stress. Our experience up until now plays a role in how our nervous system operates. However, it is primarily the first years of our life that are foundational to our nervous system.
If someone easily gets over-stressed and has difficulty to recover from stress, this person may have been stuck in the Fight/Flight/Freeze response. This is the very definition of trauma. Trauma happens when the trapped energy from the high activation of the nervous system, cannot be released and is stuck in the body.
When we think of trauma, we often assume it’s limited to cases of accident, disaster, violent crime, etc. Those are indeed examples of ‘shock’ trauma. With a healthy nervous system, enough time, and supportive network, the survivor is able to come out of the Fight/Flight/Freeze response naturally.
This recovery, however, can be hampered if the nervous system is already overloaded or is in chaos. For instance, in the case of chronic stress, in which the body is in constant hyperalert with no downtime.
A person with chronic stress, a common form of trauma, would have their normal baseline elevated and have smaller “window of tolerance” towards your regular source of stress.
Another form of trauma that is often overlooked is the early or developmental trauma. Before we learn to speak, as a child we simply feel everything with our whole body.
Even if all our material needs are fulfilled, if our main caregiver is depressed, (emotionally) unavailable, or misattuned to our emotions, we may never feel safe enough to
If the mother was stressed, the baby feels it too on the nervous system level, even in utero. If there is tension or anxiety in the family, a child who couldn’t escape such stressful situation would have to suppress his/her own fear by numbing.
All these are some examples of an early or developmental trauma, and they take a toll on the development of the nervous system. The grown-up child would be prone to stress later on. Unreleased stress tends to beget more stress.
How to become better at handling stress?
There are tools and skills to handle stress. But there’s no magic bullet. It’s in the trace of past experiences in our body and nervous system. Maybe you have learned all the techniques to master stress, but always seem to fall back to old patterns. Then you should start looking into your life story whether you’ve experienced any sort of trauma.
Be honest with yourself.
Mastering stress is often a life-long process of healing. Here’s what we look towards.
We are able to feel.
If we’ve been used to suppressing our feelings, we need to practice to feel again. And important to know, we feel actually through our body. What we perceive as emotions are our brain’s interpretation of our physical sensations.
We are aware of our emotions and impulses.
We acknowledge and can channel them in a healthy way. We’re not dictated by them. Instead, they can be our guidance and compass. Every emotion and impulse has a function. What is it telling us when we feel a certain emotion (even unpleasant ones, like anger or sadness). What do we actually need or want?
We’re able to put things in perspective and see the bigger picture.
When we’re able to self-regulate, we have the inner space to try to understand our own mental state and that of the others. This is the foundation of empathy. And empathy opens the way for seeing other perspectives than ours.
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