Stress is like fire. Our attitudes, thinking, feeling, and the sensations in our body, can feel like a fire out of control. The analogy gets more solid when we think about what is happening under stress: our fight or flight system gets cooking; our emotions crank up; our body dumps stress-related hormones into our blood and our brain releases alerting neurochemicals. Everything feels sped up or at least tense.
We know from experience that fires range in intensity, size, and speed of growth, among other factors. Our stress levels follow the same terms.
A Fiery Explosion – Stressful conditions can come at us like a: Boom! Something happens and in a split second we are under stress; someone pushes one of our major “hot buttons”; we are forced to stand up and introduce ourselves; someone robs us. Our limbic system takes over the show and has us reacting much faster than our conscious mind can piece together what is happening. We instantly become loaded with stress hormones and off the fire goes.
A Three-Alarm Fire – This one comes at us more slowly (i.e. we know we have a meeting with problematic people coming up at 3 PM) but soon the fire of stress is raging. This is a more powerful fire and is growing quickly pushing our ability to handle it. If this was a real fire, we would be signalling for more fire-fighting help by using the multiple alarm system. Here we use the popular level of alarm, three-alarm, but the system can go all the way up to ten alarms. Send more help now! Got to get this thing under control.
A Simmering Fire – Simmering is slow cooking: steady heat applied for a long time. We still get burned but it just doesn’t happen all at once. A perfect example of this is rumination or having some issue hanging around that we can resolve or even look at. The fire is there, sometimes off to the side of our vision as we work or try to relax but other times it flares up and blocks our sight for anything else. Always there, cooking us.
Firefighting – Using the Right Stress Management Technique for the Job – Just as firefighters use different tactics and tools based upon the type of fire, we must know which tools and tactics we need for our three fires. A real disservice provided by the medical, stress management, and psychology communities is the marketing of stress techniques as one size fits all situations. This is simply not the case. A slow method that requires months of practice (i.e. mediation) is going to be of no or very limited help to some in a crisis situation that is a total shock. What is needed there is something very fast, simple, and powerful.
– Fiery Explosions require fast-action and fast-acting stress management. We have to have a well-practiced routine we can jump right into. Something like this routine would work: 1. Say “Stop!” forcefully to ourselves the moment the stressor occurs (this starts to put our mind into the situation and holds off automatic reactions such as anger for at least a few seconds) 2. Center in your body by doing a head to toe scanning with the purpose of drawing attention into the solidity and certainty of one’s body in this hectic moment; 3. Take several abdominal breaths to induce a calming into the body to bring stress arousal down a few notches; 4. Listen for the three sounds (mindfulness); 5. Say “Stay Centered” to remind oneself that we have the ability to control ourselves. 5. Repeat steps 1 through 5 as many times as needed to create some distance between what is happening
– Simmering Fires respond well to slow methods applied consistently (everyday or nearly everyday) such as: mediation, guided imagery, breath training, biofeedback. These methods bring about a cumulative effect to counter the simmering negative experience and negative side-effects.
– Three-Alarm Fires require fast methods (not as fast as Fiery Explosion methods) but ones that can be applied to moderate depth. Especially helpful is: abdominal breathing, referring to already practice imagery of places of comfortable and stability; mindfulness (simple observations of the sounds, sights, etc. in the area); and passive muscle relaxation.