What Are Your Stress Responses?

As a therapist, I am often asked what one can do about stress. I have clients who are angry at themselves because they feel stress or because they don’t handle stress “well”. People want to eliminate stress and are frustrated with themselves when they can’t. 

We all want to eliminate stress, but let’s be real, that is impossible. I work with my clients to help them identify “stressors” that can be eliminated but I also work with them to understand that there are things in life that will always be stressful. 

I know this concept can be confusing in a world that throws incredibly stressful topics on top of our incredibly stressful lives and then tells us to not be stressed. It just doesn’t make sense. Life has been stressful since the caveman days. I’m not sure that is the accurate historical context but if you ask me those were stressful times. 

Today we know how stress can affect our health and disrupt our relationships. We are told that stress is bad and we should avoid it at all costs, which isn’t possible. If eliminating stress is impossible, how do we live with it? What do we do with it?

As I mentioned earlier I work with many people who are angry with themselves because they don’t handle stress well. This is something we can work with. Do you remember in the early days of COVID people were baking, gardening, starting YouTube channels, and buying Pelotons as if they would never see a bike again? For the record I was not one of those people, my stress response was crying and that’s ok the wallowing I did, not so much.  All of the above are stress responses. 

We all have stress responses. Some responses serve us and others don’t. The key to COPING with the stressors in our lives is to develop an understanding of our individual stress responses and identify those that don’t serve us and replace those with coping responses that do. We aren’t eliminating the stress, we are modifying our response to the stress. 

Identifying your stress responses can be painful because it requires you to revisit the most stressful times of your life mentally. The good news is you have already survived 100% of your hardest days so while this may be uncomfortable, you are doing this for a purpose. 

Think of the hardest times of your life. What did you do? I’ll go first. When my mom died suddenly when I was in my twenties I started writing, I read about grief, I drank too much and I bonded closer to family. When my marriage was in trouble I baked and baked and baked. When COVID struck I cried, watched too much TV, and ate my feelings. I could go on but for the purposes of this exercise, as I look at my list I see the stress responses that served me. Writing released my feelings, reading helped me feel less isolated in my grief, I created bonds with family that weren’t there before, and baking brought me close to my mom as she was a wonderful cook. The other side of my stress responses didn’t serve me. Crying was okay, but I actually wallowed which made it worse, drinking too much only made me more depressed, TV was an escape with no end, and eating my feelings resulted in weight gain and poor self-esteem. That is an abbreviated version of my list. 

Instead of berating yourself for being stressed, try this exercise. Stress is inevitable, how we cope with it is our choice. I challenge you to take some time and get to know your stress responses and list out those that serve you and those that don’t. We all have responses that don’t serve us. Take that list and when you catch yourself going there, switch to one of your healthy. responses. Warning to the reader, this takes practice. Promise to the reader, if you do this exercise over and over again you will see change.  

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