The human mind is a funny thing.
The stuff we get the most stressed about, often, are the least significant things… But it’s not obvious to us.
Why? Because we aren’t always obviously stressed in the moment. But these small stressors are buzzing away in the background, and over time, they grind away at our mental peace. It’s this low-level background stress that creates a feeling of discomfort, or even anxiety sometimes, that ultimately can surprise us when it comes bursting out.
It’s a well known (and much joked about) British behaviour to keep a stiff upper lip and not get emotional about things. But are we really unemotional, or are we just not expressing that emotion outwardly?
I’m going to be a bit controversial here. It’s not that I advocate complaining, but I really want you to vent. Our low-level stressors are like heat and we are the engines – if we don’t vent the heat, well, you know how that ends.
But kaboom is absolutely avoidable. So let’s start with the key differences between moaning and venting, so you can absolutely feel okay with not bottling it up. And then I’m going to tell you a little story about zebras and how they deal with stress.
Venting, not Moaning
If a moan was a cartoon-like character, then this character would be drawn as a grumpy, frowning person. They’ve had a hard life and they want everyone to know about it – and many of us know somebody like this! They are the person we avoid at a party because we don’t want to get stuck talking with them for fear they will bring us down with their bad vibes.
Nobody wants to be this person, and nobody wants to be with this person. This is why we so fear letting out what’s bothering us. We don’t want to scare our friends, colleagues or partner away when we need them most.
But you know, there are ways to share what’s bothering you without scaring everyone away. One way is to use what coaches call a “pre frame”. Basically, you give a little context before you introduce a new topic.
So if you wanted to vent to a friend, you might pre frame that venting by starting with, “Can I just tell you about something that’s stressing me, just to get it off my chest?”
You’ve done two good things here. Firstly, you’ve asked permission, so you don’t have to feel bad, and secondly your friend is now ready to hear you, which will make your venting experience so much more satisfying. It’s no fun talking to someone who isn’t really listening!
Venting can also be a solo activity if you prefer. If something stresses you, then you might prefer to take a short, brisk walk, letting yourself be annoyed for a little while, until the fresh air and endorphins kick in and course-correct you. You’ve probably heard the expression ‘to walk it off’ – it’s a really good technique.
An example from the animal kingdom
In his book, Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert M Sapolsky explains something that puts the modern human issues with stress into perspective brilliantly.
Not to belittle human suffering, but zebras have real problems too. They are prey animals that sometimes get chased by lions. During a chase, the zebra is stressed. Its brain triggers a chemical response that releases a hit of the stress hormones, adrenalin and cortisol, into the blood stream. This is to help the zebra with fleeing – it’s basically the same as our human flight, fight or flee response.
If the zebra survives, then after the lion is gone, the zebra is still pumped full of these stress hormones. So it shakes, stomps and runs about to work those chemicals out of its system, soon returning to grazing with the pack.
If it sounds a little like the expression ‘to walk something off’ – it is! This is absolutely the point. When things stress us, let’s say at work for example, then what typically happens is that we stay stuck with our stress hormones. In a meeting at work, or in the queue at the multi-storey car park, we can’t shake it off like a zebra. Not without attracting a big crowd and ending up as the star of a viral video on Facebook.
So instead, we keep it all in. That adrenalin and cortisol stays with us, and really isn’t great for our physical health or our peace of mind. So this is why I am advocating a healthy amount of venting, and yes, even the small stuff. Because the small stuff adds up. We may not consciously pay attention to it, but it’s there in its chemical form, adding to our sense of discomfort.
Where you can walk it off, it’s really worth doing so. When you can talk it out, without moaning of course, that’s great too. I’m not saying to focus on the small stuff, so please don’t dwell on it, but do acknowledge it so you can work it out of your system. Process those small stressors, and don’t let them build up.
If you would like a little more help to deal with stress, then take a look at my FREE TOOLS here.