6 Essential Practices for Hard-to-Reach Stressors

This summer we’ve decided not to go home. We’re here, in Tokyo, living out our sweltering summer amidst the asphalt and kakigoori (also known as the best thing made from ice ever invented).

My mom’s here visiting. That’s super nice. Occasionally she comes to see us and get a taste of our life between worlds. I’ve been talking to her quite a bit about the stress of this lifestyle. It feels particularly acute because we’re here and not in Austin. I always feel like the only place in the world I’m supposed to be in the summer is Austin. It makes the universe feel a bit off kilter to be here and not there.

I realize in talking with her that it’s not the everyday stressors of expat life that most get to me (although, of course, there are many), but rather what I think of as background stressors. The deeper, more intimate questions of – Will all this work out in the end? What does our retirement look like if we’ve never had a home? Will our kids wish they’d stayed in one place? Where will we be living this time next year? What does it mean to be an American overseas during times like these?

When we think about stress-management and self-care – we often think about the everyday skills and habits that help us deal with the surface stressors of life. Going for a nice long run, getting a massage or calling a friend largely helps us handle that sort of stress.

But background stress is different because it can be hard-to-reach and difficult to figure out what’s actually going on. It lurks under and behind everything we do. It nags – like losing your keys or forgetting the name of that girl you used to know in middle school, the one who moved to Hawaii. Those stressors are there whether we notice them or not and they pile up. Background stressors can leave us feeling unexpectedly down, lost, irritable or just plan weird.

While having positive self-care habits like exercise, sufficient sleep and healthy eating definitely help ease the intensity of background stressors, I’ve found that these stressors also take a separate and distinct type of engagement.

To deal with the challenges that hit at our egos, our values and our sense of purpose – it’s important to develop habits of self-reflection and insight. Taking the time to look more closely at who we are and how we fit in the world can be difficult. Sometimes the effort can feel daunting. We may not be sure we’ll like what we find there. On the other hand, deep down most of us know it’s important to do this type of inner work so that we can grow and develop into our full selves.

One way to cultivate a more reflective state is to develop practices that naturally foster paying attention to our experiences. These skills can help us turn towards what’s going on inside and around us, giving us more information about the source of background stress.

This can include practices like:

Attending to Judgment – Learning to become aware of our judgments and assumptions.

Attending to Emotions – Asking ourselves what we’re feeling.

Attending to Physical Sensation – Paying attention to our body and asking what it may be trying to tell us.

Cultivating Stillness – Spending time in “not doing” to see what insights might come.

Engaging Ambiguity – Learning to become more comfort with what we don’t or can’t know.

Aligning with Vision – Asking, “Who do I want to be in this situation?”

These practices (from the Personal Leadership model for intercultural communication) are great for those moments when you feel that nagging sense of uncertainty. Those times when you sense something’s not quite right, but you can’t put your finger on it or those times when you feel like you’re just floating along – neither completely engaged nor disengaged.

Sure, you’ll still go for a run, call a friend, write in your journal or enjoy a little “me time,” but for all the stress that just keeps on giving learning to turn your attention towards what’s going on, just might be the key.

To hear a bit more about these practices in detail, check out this blog post from my 7-Part Facebook Live video series – What Does It Take to Practice Mindfulness? To learn how you can apply these practices in your own life, consider joining the fall session of Finding Your Way: Everyday Mindfulness for Critical Moments.

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