Q & A with Martel Catalano
1) Why do you do what you do?
I have a rare disease myself, so it definitely started with seeing what the stress of an illness can do to one's self and one's family. I'd spent a lot of my life post-diagnosis in a very dark space of depression and anxiety, and after a while started finding relief through self-exploration... asking myself hard questions, and consciously shifting the lens I was looking at life through. It was a slow transformation, but it had an incredible ripple effect on the relationships with my family, friends, and my self. So one part of why I do what I do is because I know it is possible for anyone to make that shift. Then I began to realize how people's health depended on it. When I met BMB's co-founder, Nell, we realized that we had each explored spaces for our conditions. But what we individually found was that disease-specific groups have a tendency to focus on comparing notes, venting, and ultimately sinking further into the stress of it all. We noticed the prominence of that stress in its many forms – the inherent anxiety, sadness, fear, and anger that come with a diagnosis – yet we knew that stress is detrimental to our emotional and physical health. I personally could not bear the thought of people who are already struggling with sickness becoming sicker because they were putting themselves in stress-inducing "support" communities. The reason I do what I do then became giving people living with illness or disability a different kind of space to get support... and learn! One that focuses on navigating life with any kind of diagnosis, managing the stress, and becoming more aware (or mindful) of how we feel about it. The goal of BMB is not to learn about a specific condition. There's plenty of spaces that do that. It's to talk and educate about the deep emotional themes that come with illness/disability, either as the individual or the caregiver, in order to build resilience, acceptance, and compassion.
2) What is the biggest misconception about stress management?
To me, there seems to be a lot of Band-Aid solutions to stress. I see a lot of people offering helpful remedies to stress, many of which are effective and BMB encourages, too but what's missing is the exploration of why you are feeling stressed. We can manage stress only so much with remedies, but if we do not dig into the reasons behind the stress... well, that's when it becomes a Band-Aid. Those seeking real stress management solutions will have to do self-exploratory work.
3) What are the different types of stress that we generally deal with?
I use a framework called Self-Reg that places stressors into five domains. The five domains are Biological stress (i.e. being overly hot), Social stress (i.e. an awkward situation), Cognitive stress (i.e. multitasking or planning), Emotional stress (i.e. grief or insecurity), and Pro-Social stress (i.e. feeling the stress of another). Some stressors fit into multiple domains so it's not a rigid system, but having these categories transformed the way I have been able to interpret my own stress and, importantly, how I communicate it to others.
4) What tips do you have for someone feeling stressed about life challenges?
It would depend on the kind of life challenges that are at hand for them, but generally, I tell people to first tune into the kinds of stress being experienced, using the domains I just mentioned. Becoming aware, or recognizing, your stressors is step number one. Part of this process is the act of "reframing" our stress (or the stress of others involved in the challenging situation). Like shifting the lens we see through, reframing helps us see the situation for what it is – a stressful situation, not necessarily a "bad" situation. Being present with life challenges can be painful or emotional, but the more present we become the more we are able to see any situation as neutral. In turn, this helps us to become less reactive and more reflective about how we got there and what we can do to manage it. Even if it means learning from a reactive situation for the next time something stressful comes up.
5) I've seen a lot out there about meditation and how to get started. Do you have any tips for a first timer?
Yes. I think guided meditation is great. A tip I always tell people is simply to know that meditation is not having an empty or blank mind. That tends to stress people out or scare people away when really there is no such thing as an empty mind. Mindfulness meditation, the type that I'd recommend a first-timer specifically, is simply getting to know your mind. It's noticing the movements of your mind without judgment and with curiosity. There are great meditation recordings everywhere, and I'd say start with 10 minutes and do that every day for a few weeks. Beyond My Battle is working on an easy-to-use tool on our website all about the benefits and how-to's of meditation so keep an eye out for it!