Four Easy, Science-backed Ways to Rate your Stress Level

Life is never stress-free. Even good things – marriage, graduations, vacations – can bring on pressure and raise stress levels. Super challenging events have been linked to developing major health problems. For many reasons, keeping abreast of your stress – being proactive in managing stress peaks – is an excellent idea.

How you define stress – well that’s unique to each person. Generally, it’s when our “to do’s” exceed our abilities to handle them. Some thrive on levels of juggling that would leave the rest of us comatose. Others can have days when they’re sensitive and thrown off balance easily, by small things. Stress levels are mostly subjective. Also, as stress piles up – let’s say due to a number of challenges hitting at once, it’s easy to start to feel overwhelmed and lose perspective. That’ll kick your Fight-Flight-Freeze (fight or flight) response in – and that takes a toll on mind, body and spirit. There is no right or wrong here. It helps though to become aware of how your stress and coping skills play out.

I’ve been alongside clients suffering from anxiety, depression, health changes  and challenges for a couple of decades. It can help to rate your own stress. Remember, it is subjective, and it will change a bit from day to day. Yet several of these “stress tests” can be helpful to get an objective sense of where you are, and any progress you make over time. Don’t think too hard to rate these questions – just estimate or average your rating for now. Tomorrow’s a whole new day!


Book Review: Dying to be Free: A Survival Guide for Families after a Suicide

According to estimates, every 17 minutes someone commits suicide. Those left behind, called survivors of suicide, number forty each hour, almost one thousand per day, according to AAS[1]. The total of survivors of suicide today number ten million. Due to many factors, these huge numbers are thought to be under reported.

Beverly Cobain is a psychiatric nurse who is also Kurt Cobain’s cousin. A certified psychiatric nurse, she and social work colleague Jean Larch are experts in this field of suicide. Jean Larch has offered the workshop, Understanding Suicide, since 1989, training for mental health professionals. Their book is a boon to anyone who has been left behind by a suicidal loved one. It’s short, packed with important knowledge, and includes stories of other survivors. Stories + knowledge help a lot, especially when the subject is as painful as this.

For many, it’s impossible to fathom why anyone would end their life by their own hands. Continue reading

3 Myths about the 5 Stages of Grief: Time to update the grief map

The five stages of grief have become common knowledge. Some have even called these stages conventional wisdom. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance were first described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying. For today’s understanding of how grief works, it’s important to point out a few flaws of the five stages model.

Myth 1) The five stages describe what it’s like to grieve for a loved one. Actually, they were originally named the five stages of responding to catastrophic news from studying responses of terminal patients. The subjects Kubler Ross studied were told they were dying, and the five stages were common responses among those studied. She was not studying those who were grieving over a lost loved one. That could be quite different.

Myth 2) With these five stages, the idea came about that a person must go Continue reading

Grief Emotions – A Self-Healing Mechanism

This month I attended a Trauma Competency conference for two days. Grief was one of the topics. I heard a statement that impressed me, and that might be helpful if you’re dealing with grief.

Just like so many painful things, it’s natural to want to avoid grief. I have been known, for example, to stay busy, to play computer games or other mindless activities, to watch movies or read pulp mysteries, just to name a few options. These passive activities (it’s called “passive coping”) can provide some soothing, some comforting, it’s true. But more often than not for me, I finish that book and feel like I’ve been wasting time. Especially if I’m in avoidance.

So in the avoidance of grief, you may try to hold back tears, and think you have to hold yourself together for the world. Sometimes that is true – not only would a breakdown be inconvenient at Walmart, it would also not be the most supportive environment to let grief flow. That makes sense.

Yet when you go on for a long time successfully avoiding feelings of grief, you can get numb. This will shut down or curtail your life energy, your life force. It will inhibit your presence, your ability to respond to the moment. You might lose interest or motivation to do things you enjoy. Yes, there is a lot of emotional fall out to avoiding grief. Besides the fact that you’re usually stuck in place – which is again, natural for some time, but not if it lingers for years.

So here is the statement I heard last week, paraphrased: The emotions of grief work like a self-healing mechanism. So tears, anger, devastation, guilt – and particularly the physical emotions that come up – are part of your self-healing time. You just have to make room for it. And, what’s harder, relax with it.

When you are healing trauma, one of the main methods is to stay relaxed in the body while facing a memory or past pain. This is similar with working with grief. Whenever the emotional stress arises, there are a few things you can do to stay relaxed. These instant moves help switch you from fight or flight mode to more calmness. If you can stay with the calmness, you are moving through grief versus clenching against it – clenching will tend to keep it stuck.

How to switch out of fight or flight mode? For the ongoing help to cultivate your calm side in the face of a crazy world, it helps to have a regular meditation/relaxation practice. In a moment of grief, you can also try these quickies to stay somewhat calmer:

a) Put your hands behind your head and breathe (it goes to the belly zone, a signal to the body to calm down)
b) Switch your visual focus to peripheral vision (similar thing here)
c) Relax the muscles in your pelvis, specifically between your sitz bones and your front pelvic bones (It’s said  you can’t stay in fight or flight with a relaxed pelvis)

Note: The sitz bones are the bones you feel on the bottom of your butt against a chair when you are sitting.

It takes practice to be with strong emotions. These 3 instant stances can help you stay with the waves of emotion so they can express themselves. Yes, sometimes you’ll need to hold that deluge back. That’s normal. And when you want to support yourself in your grief, when you want to have some healing time, you can set it up in your schedule, by having some time with nothing at all scheduled. And there, you can play with these ways to not clench your body and mind, and let the self-healing mechanism of grief flow.

You can also try these three methods with any challenges that cause stress or kick in your fight or flight / clenching mode. You tend to make better decisions, and have awareness of more options, when you help your brain and body calm that fight or flight instinct.

I was able to test these instant stress busters on a plane ride. The pilot announced we’d need our seat belts for the turbulence ahead for the next twenty minutes. Yikes! I felt myself start to get a bit panicky as the bumpy ride and drop-outs began. Then I relaxed my pelvic muscles. I felt the stress drop – instant relief! And it stopped escalating. I was able to go back to my book.

Let me know how it goes if you try this, okay? Blessings.

Denise Barnes, MA, LPC
Sanity and Santuary for Grief, Medical Decisions and End of Life Prep
Consults: text 303.501.7402 

The Right Turn for Grief: Finding your Way through the Pain

Lion’s gulch, CO

Jack’s face was tight as he voiced his anger and resentment. It was all wrong how he lost his cousin, and how his relatives were handling things. This shouldn’t have happened. He would be staying in his room, or he might lose it on them. After a half hour of venting, finally he admitted, “I failed him”. The tears came. A different energy, more vulnerable. Yes, let that come. His face softened, though the sadness had its own heartbreak. And as the echo of “I failed him” sounded, it rang false. No, he didn’t fail his cousin. That’s the mind trying to make sense of things. Yes, he did regret the end of their connection; he wished he could have done more. He’ll miss him. Allowing the tears in the venting was more of the truth of the matter.

If you’ve had a loss, sudden or expected, whoa. Talk about disruption. Life stops. Time stops. Even work or other sacred routines suffer instant paralysis. You pull over to the sidelines, while the world keeps running on, keeps Continue reading