How to Recognize Stress

It can be hard to know when you're stressed, when you've had to stay constantly busy.

How do you know when you're stressed? People talk about de-stressing all the time, but how do you know you're stressed to begin with? I defined stress in an earlier blog post as "pressured concern," and that's great, but how do you actually know when you're stressed and what you're stressed about?

Here's an exercise to practice so you can find out!

This is a kind of meditation that doesn't expect you to just be "blank" or super zen all of a sudden. It's called a "wheel of awareness" meditation, which you can learn more about in general here. The way I've come to understand it, however, is that it's a super flexible way of meditating that you can do wherever you are, whenever you have a minute or two to think, and without the pressure of being suddenly super blissed out somehow. You're going to get distracted while meditating, and this is just a way to focus and guide what you do.

I'm all about accessibility, and this brings that for me.

This is an inventory checklist of things to consider for yourself in the moment you're currently in. I've done this while trying to sleep, while sitting still with nothing going on around me, while in the middle of a meeting... you can usually find a way to check in with yourself like this. So here's what you do, taking a deep breath in between each section, and if you realize you got distracted just redirect to where you were:

  • Check in with your 5 senses. What is everything you see, hear, taste, hear and feel touching you from outside your body? Right now I see my computer screen and my desk in front of me. I hear someone talking on a video I have playing in the background. Taste-wise, I just ate so I have some leftover food tastes. I smell... just the air, and I can feel my fingers on the keys, my wrists on the desk, and the chair under me.
  • Check in with what you feel inside your body. If you're not sure what to look for, think about cold and warm, tense and relaxed, and any other sensations which come up for you. The back of my neck and shoulders are usually particularly tense and warm while my toes are always cold. Maybe I scan about whether I'm hungry, or thirsty, or if I have pain anywhere, or if I need to use the restroom.
  • Notice your thoughts and label what category they belong to. Work, specific people, home tasks, recent events.
  • Notice your feelings and label them too. Happy, anxious, worried, antsy, angry, calm, numb?
  • Check in with your sense of relationship and connectedness to others. How close do you consider yourself to others right now? What's the quality of those connections?

And that's it! Doing this regularly will give you a sense of what is on your mind and how much. Do you find yourself super distracted, jumping back and forth from topic to topic instead of deliberately focusing on each area? That distractibility could mean generalized stress and anxiousness right now. Do you find yourself stuck in one area with a lot to list? That could be an area stressing you. Does your mind keep going back to one thing, one person, one event, one thought? That could be the big concern and stress for you right now.

And over time, an awesome bonus might develop.

The more often I check in with myself like this, the more often I find my mind hanging in between topics. Hanging inside that deep breath space with nothing on my mind, a nice little treat and moment of clear peace. I don't expect it and I don't try for it, but it tends to grow all by itself.

In the meantime, when you find yourself distracted as you go about your normal tasks, I like the reminder of "Here. This. Now." This is where to redirect your attention, on the things happening right now. Even if it's something small like washing your hands, or brushing your hair, or putting away dishes. Be here, be present, and notice the little things around you.

These are things I love to work with my clients on, and things I continue to work on for myself. If you'd like to discuss whether we're a therapeutic match, definitely send me a message!

Stephanie Bloodworth, LMFT-A