Stress is an inevitable reality of being a person. We all face stressors of varying degrees or find ourselves in particularly stressful seasons of life at one time or another. Perhaps you’re heading into finals week or only have a few more rehearsals until opening night. Maybe the expectations of the holidays are starting to mount or you’re preparing to travel for a visit with family. Whatever the source of your stress it is important to take inventory and ask ourselves, “Is my stress temporary and situationally appropriate, or is my stress chronic and unrelenting?”
The PLEASE skills we have been discussing are not meant to solve the problems associated with our stress but are meant to be proactive tools for helping things go right. I don’t wait until I’m inundated with stress to start putting these strategies in place; I put these strategies in place so that when I am hit with stress I’m less emotionally vulnerable and more likely to respond effectively. We want to put our energy into helping things go right instead of feeling like all our resources are spent fixing things that have already gone wrong. The PLEASE skills help keep me out of being in a constant state of damage control and give me a sense of agency over my life. They can do the same for you, too.
Quick Review: The PLEASE Stress Management Skill of DBT
For reference, the adapted acronym is as follows:
P – Physical Health
L – Lather & Laundry
E– Balance Eating
A – Accept reality (Acknowledge addictive behaviors/Avoid mood-altering substances)
S– Balance Sleep
E – Get Exercise
Exercise is Good for You
Yoda, Luke Skywalker’s small, green training partner in the classic Star Wars movies is famous for giving young Skywalker the admonition “Do or do not, there is no try.” This message speaks to our commitment to the task at hand, and the warning to avoid giving ourselves an “out” when we face a challenge. This is where I would like to turn our focus for the final PLEASE stress management skill, “get exercise”.
Sure, we could talk about the numerous physical benefits of getting regular exercise and the importance of movement for basic body function and maintenance. However, I want to focus on the importance of exercise as a means for taking behavioral action as a way to gain access to our emotions.
Emotions, Thoughts, and Actions
As people, we do not have direct access to our emotions. There is no way to simply wish our feelings away, and no dial inside that allows us to set our mood. No, our emotions arise as a result of neurological and biological processes that often have some connection to survival—either our immediate survival or the overall survival of our species. All that to say, we typically can not directly change our emotions without going through the pathways of (1) thoughts or (2) behaviors.
Of the two, behaviors are typically the more impactful pathway. We can always choose a different behavior, we can’t always necessarily choose a different thought. The most important idea here is that mood follows action, if I choose a different behavior I will eventually develop a different emotion. If I wait for my emotion to change, if I wait until I’m “in the mood,” I will likely be waiting a very long time.
Taking Action, Creating Change
So what does all of this have to do with exercise? Well, exercise is an action I can choose to take regardless of how I feel or the mood I am in. Exercise then causes real physiological changes to the body and the mind. Those changes eventually lead to observable changes in neurological wiring and firing which, in time, greatly impact how we think and feel.
These changes don’t come from trying, they come from doing. They come as a result of making a decision to act regardless of our mental or emotional state.
To be clear, I am not talking about some incredible physical feat of strength and coordination. I’m talking about simply getting up and taking a walk. I often push back pretty hard when someone tells me “I’ll try” in response to the idea of taking a walk a couple of times a week. Taking a walk is not a matter of trying for most individuals. I say, “please don’t try, make a decision.” It’s my own little play on “do or do not.”
The Fallacy of “Try”
In the situation described above, the word “try” is a smokescreen that shields me from my true intention, to wait and see if I feel like it. Another way to describe this is mood-dependent behavior.
One of the problems with mood-dependent behavior is that our emotions love themselves and will often bend our behaviors toward keeping them around. So if my mood is down and unmotivated then my behavior becomes lethargic which reinforces feeling down and unmotivated which makes me feel even more lethargic.
However; if I feel down and unmotivated but take my regularly scheduled 4:30 pm walk regardless of how I feel, more often than not, by the time I’m done my mood has shifted, at least a little. The idea here is behavioral activation, I do through direct effort (taking a walk) what I can’t do directly otherwise (change how I feel) mood follows action.
Regularly Scheduled Maintenance
So there they are, our stress management checklist, our six-point inspection for taking inventory on how resilient or emotionally vulnerable we are at any given moment. Look at it one more time:
P–Physical Health – am I sick or injured; do I have a medical concern that I’m neglecting?
L–Lather & Laundry – am I taking care of my hygiene; is my living and working space clean?
E-Balance Eating – am I eating what my body needs to have the energy to regulate stress?
A–Accept reality – am I willing to accept what is or am I denying, rejecting, or numbing reality?
S-Balance Sleep – am I getting adequate sleep and daily recuperation or am I running on fumes?
E-Get Exercise – am I moving my body regularly for the physical, mental, and emotional payoff?
I think about my first truck, a little red ‘91 Mitsubishi Mighty Max—please contain your jealousy. Nevertheless, that little truck was mine which gave me the right to treat it however I wanted. I could change the oil or not. I could check the air filter and belts or not. I could put air in the tires or not. I could fill the windshield wiper fluid or not. I could put gas in the tank or not. I could top off the brake fluid or not. It was up to me and no one else could tell me what to do.
I remember driving home after work one day. The brakes were always a bit loose and nonresponsive but you know, it’s an old truck. Well, during this particular drive home the brakes required some real coaxing. That was until…nothing! I hit the brakes and didn’t slow down at all. I was in rush hour traffic and I suddenly had no brakes at all! Luckily it was a manual and I was able to downshift, rev the engine to the redline, and use the emergency brake to get stopped before I went careening into oncoming traffic. Crisis averted.
Once I was stopped and safe I started to investigate. I called my father-in-law who is a mechanic by training. His first question was “how’s your brake fluid look?” Well, I didn’t know because I had never checked it. Once I got over my humiliation and he told me where to find the brake fluid, I figured out what my problem was, it was completely empty. See, I didn’t have to check my brake fluid and no one could force me to do it; however, if I don’t fill my truck with the right amount of brake fluid, I don’t get to choose if my brakes work or not. The same is true for us as people. We don’t have to check our PLEASE skills and no one can force us; however, if we don’t keep our “tank” filled, we don’t get to decide how well we manage our stress.
The team at Awakened Path wants to help you manage the stress in your life, and deal with the challenges you face. Reach out to us today to learn more about how working with one of our individual therapists can help!