“Ugh, so much stress right now! Just need to get through x, y, or z to get a breather”
Cue the “life is supposed to be hard” speech from someone who, chances are, makes their life more stressful than it needs to be. You know the type. They complain about running out of money right before payday, every payday (their job pays just fine). Yet, they insist on doing lavish get togethers and spendy vacations anyway.
Life can certainly be hard, especially for those born with the deck stacked against them, but it doesn’t have to be as stressful as most people let it. A good portion of the stress in our lives comes from the choices we make. Choices exactly like the “life is supposed to be hard” party pooper. It may be that you choose to focus on today’s pleasure, which leaves you stressed about the times to come. Or perhaps you choose to keep doing activities or seeing people because that is what you have done, but that leaves you stressed because there is no time to grow – to follow your heart. You can’t magically have food on the table, but you can cut down the mental weeds a great deal.
Cortisol (the chemical produced by stress) gives us temporary superpowers. Our hearts quicken and our muscles tense, allowing us to react quickly to life-or-death situations. Or to a mean spirited e-mail with cortisol-induced clarity. The world has evolved faster than our biology. We overreact – from a physiological perspective – on a daily basis. Traffic. Work. Family drama. Stress is your body operating under a distress signal, an instantaneous reaction to stimuli. The distress signals allow us to put on our superpower cape and tackle the immediate – short term – stress. It was intended that we put away the cape after the immediate threat has passed, but we have so many stressors in our lives that we tend to leave the cape on all the time. It helps us get up the mountain we call “life”.
Like some medications, long term use creates a super drag on our health. Living in the 21st century and following general life advice WILL leave you stressed out constantly. No joke. I’ll save the scary long-term effects of chronic stress for another day. Right now, I want you to focus on recognizing stress when it slaps you in the face.
It’s 10:30 am on Tuesday morning. You get up to make a cup of the office coffee which resembles burnt plastic with a hint of stale coffee. While waiting for your cup to fill, your colleague drops his leftover coffee, drenching your nicest pair of shoes. The rest of your self-restraint just barely keeps a snide comment from escaping.
You ruminate on the crappy coffee and potentially ruined shoes on the trek back to your desk. Still amped up, you mistype your password twice, narrowly avoiding being locked out. By now your coworker is glancing over, wondering if the keyboard has broken in two. You avoid her eyes.
Pulling up your email, you see an inbox that looks like it will take all week to clear and your heart starts racing. You fire off a frustrated IM to your work bestie. Trying to focus on your inbox, your mind races from task to task – never more than a few seconds on each.
By the end of the day, you feel like worn-out crap. The first non-work person to see you gets the brunt of your frustrations – whether it’s the check out clerk at the grocery store or your spouse at home.
The background load of stress we all carry allows the little things to matter – or seem to matter – more than they should. The coffee spill goes from a small sigh to a major symbol about our life trajectory. Instead of wiping our shoes and moving on, we start thinking about the crappy coffee, the crappy job, being stuck inside and suddenly you are in that same office kitchen thirty years from now, drinking the same coffee.
We are constantly on edge, which causes us to overreact while at the same time overlooking the good – the very good which would help us get rid of the stress.
Being stressed causes more stress. It feeds off of itself by manifesting as emotions which trigger stressful events (by you interacting with others) or stress-inducing interpretations (by messing with your mind and interfering with how you perceive reality). The cycle is a strong one, designed to keep you safe in times of danger. It was well intention-ed – and still is, in the right place (can you imagine a firefighter going into a blazing house without the stress response?). It is up to us to take the signs and start to break the cycle.
And if you see someone acting that way, give them the benefit of the doubt. After all, it takes a lot of effort and conscious decision making to overcome the propensity for stress in our current world. The payout for going against the grain is a smoother internal ride.
Knowing is half of the battle. Once you are able to recognize your emotions for what they are – symptoms of your stress – you can start to take back control.
Remember, you are in control of your destiny. Channel your inner snark and let the stress roll off of you. Consider awareness your shiny new stress raincoat. Never leave the house without putting it on.
Stress Recognition Series: Part 2
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Katie calls Richmond, VA home with her husband and all the furry, four-legged creatures he and municipal code will allow. She has spent years bringing her anxiety under control, learning to trust her intuition, and dreaming of a world where people live in sustainable harmony. She is addicted to popcorn, avoids wearing shoes, should do yoga but doesn't, reads non-fiction for fun, and reluctantly gave up caffeine in search of peace. Just don’t ask her to give up sugar (read: ice cream).