We all experience stress in our lives. Jobs, home and family responsibilities, recreation, and hobbies vie for our time and attention. We settle into a routine of stress that keeps us going through our days. In the past six months, from the events in the world, to our country, to our communities, and to our personal lives, comfort zones have been challenged to maximum levels. We may ask, “How did we get here?” “What can we do?” “Where can we find solace? Our senses and sensibilities may be overwhelmed to the point of emotional shutdown.
For many years, I experienced myriad serious stressors—my family, school relationships, and expectations to excel, all of which contributed to self-doubt and a skewed sense of self. I have been in and out of therapy since my mid-twenties and, most recently, the past seven years. Twelve-Step groups and support groups helped along the way. The most powerful practice in my life has been, and is, journaling. I maintain a daily journaling practice and share my writing with my therapist. The two produce a synergy that enhances both. I have learned many ways to reduce my anxiety from stress. However, that does not mean my life is easy. I must revisit what works for me daily, sometimes several times a day. Despite my ability to de-escalate, calm, or self-advocate, I am vulnerable to the mental stress of feeling stunned, outraged, anxious, fearful, and frustrated. Experiences pile on top of an already enormous stack or my world falls apart one domino at a time. Either way, I am not in a peaceful personal place. I am then prone to slip into the groove of despair. My mind plays an endless loop of “Why…?” questions that lead nowhere. When I use de-stressing techniques, I feel more clear-headed and more able to make sound decisions.
What is Stress All About?
Stress is a catch-all term for a continuum of mental interpretation of a situation. It is a natural part of our human experience. Stress is varying degrees of response to situations or events that are contrary to your values, capabilities, or sensibilities. It may be what is called acute, episodic acute, or chronic. Acute stress lasts only a short time, such as when we back out of our driveway and see a child riding a bicycle on the sidewalk. However, we may replay the incident in our minds for a long time as we recall how we responded and how close we came to tragedy. Episodic acute stress comes about when worrying about the future or trying to juggle several projects. The stress reduces when we are done. We then move on to the next set of tasks or activities. Traumatic stress happens when we experience or witness a distressing event. This type of stress can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and may require the help of a mental health professional. Chronic stress can become background “noise” in our life and last a lifetime. This type of stress can result from recurrent uncontrollable events and situations. We may be unaware of this type of stress as it becomes a part of our overall life experience and bubbles under the surface of everything else in our life until a major event sets it off.
What Does Stress Do?
Stress can lead to feelings of helplessness. Prolonged, recurrent, or chronic stress can erode your mental and physical health and lead to self-destructive behaviors. You may experience confusion, self-doubt, fear, frustration, drinking, smoking, use of illicit drugs or prescriptions, ignoring or abandoning daily needs of self-care, extensive time on social media, or firing off inappropriate emails, texts, or phone calls. Stress can also be a good thing, helping you navigate heavy traffic on an interstate highway or learn a new skill. It can motivate you to find employment, finish writing your book, or send that email you have procrastinated for three weeks. And, yes, even extreme situations of joy—winning the lottery, a new baby, accepting a plum job—can cause stress.
Stress and COVID-19
The effects of COVID-19 have taken a huge toll on people worldwide. The disease seemed to emerge from nowhere, and then spread at a dizzying speed with no pattern. Like other natural disasters, we had little time to prepare for a global emergency. Many of us, for the first time in our lives, face a paralyzing reality that uncertainty will become the norm. Stunned, we had to reassure our children or aging parents that they were safe even as we felt unsafe, uncertain, and terrified. As the pandemic continues, we experience mental and physical fatigue. Other life stressors have either intensified or compounded. We have had to deal with an inordinate amount of grief in every area of our lifestyles—deaths of friends, family and the sheer number of people taken by the disease; loss of income; loss of daily routine; loss of separating work from home; loss of dining out and recreational activities; loss of gathering with friends, loss of stability, loss of sense of wellbeing as we wonder if the disease will find us, and much more.
The first step in relieving stress is to recognize you need help, either from deep within yourself or from someone else. There are ways to de-escalate so you can bring yourself to a place of peace. De-escalating stress is a conscious decision.
- Be kind and gentle with yourself. Allow yourself to rest, to feel your grief, to reset your equilibrium, to recharge your energy. Pamper yourself with a hot bubble bath complete with music and candles, dress up in your favorite outfit and prepare a special meal, get a massage or manicure or pedicure.
- Journaling is one of the most powerful tools you can use to de-escalate stress. It helps you access your inner wisdom, reduce your stress symptoms, gain perspective, and develop self-care and action strategies. You regain a sense of personal possibility and self-reliance. Open your journal to a blank page. Without censoring, write your feelings in two-word sentences: I’m worried.; I’m scared.; I’m angry (use whatever expletive works for you. Identify the source of your stress. This is not always as easy as it sounds. Example: You are running late for an important appointment which you attribute to all the red lights or the heavy traffic when the real reason is you stayed up watching late-night television—again—and overslept which makes you angry with yourself because you cannot seem to break the habit, and you feel embarrassed when people check the clock as you walk in.
- Keep moving, not to the point of exhaustion, but at a relaxed pace that slows your frenetic thoughts. Exercise with the television. Practice yoga videos. If you have been to a physical therapist, pull out those exercises.
- Listen to music that uplifts and soothes you. Spend time in contemplation, reflection, and introspection. Write about your discoveries, insights, and epiphanies.
- Develop a strategy for getting out of a stressful situation. This may have the affect of producing additional distress. The thought of selling your home and moving into a retirement community may trigger fear of loss of independence. The pursuit of a new career may be frightening as you consider leaving your support system of family and friends. The desire to leave an abusive relationship may bring on thoughts of your circumstances as a whole, including the possibility of retaliation. When planning to leave a stressful situation, your personal safety comes first, always. Get as much help from safe people as possible.
- Plan something. Anything. It could be an exotic vacation or what you want to do with the stack of magazines you have been saving. Make your plan as elaborate or as simple as you choose. Outline what must happen for the project to be completed. Include the names of people who can help you, if necessary. Constructive distraction helps put distance between you and the problem and helps clear your mind. You can return to the situation with a renewed perspective.
- Consider ways for minimizing feelings of loneliness and isolation, so critical as we quarantine without knowing how much longer it will last. Call people you know just to check up on them. Open a free video conferencing account. Some offer unlimited meeting time if attendees are fewer than a certain number. This is ideal for connecting with family and friends one-on-one or in groups. Some families have held their annual reunion on a video conferencing platform. Go for a drive, if possible, to change your view and feel fresh air.
- Engage your spiritual or religious practices. Consult a religious leader or spiritual director.
- Remember, you do not have to endure your stress alone. Seek help from a mental health professional, if necessary. Most clinicians are conducting sessions via telehealth which is covered by Medicare and many insurance companies. For Medicaid coverage, check eligibility requirements of your state or Medicaid provider and find additional information on https://www.medicaid.gov/medicaid/benefits/telemedicine/index.html
- Limit exposure to news sources which only add to confusion and frustration. Decide how much time you want to spend catching up on the news each day, then try some of the techniques above to distract yourself.
Stress comes to us in many forms and we juggle several stressors simultaneously. If we are already stretched thin, a new or major stressor can flatten us. Most people can benefit from de-stressing activities. Stress de-escalation helps us relax and slows and resets physical responses. It protects us and other people from the aftermath of outbursts.
You can de-escalate. You can reset. You can recharge. It takes practice and patience. It can be done.
Billie Wade, a lifelong journaler, believes people are precious, sacred, resilient, and stronger than they know. She created Journaling to Heal, LLC which helps people discover the power of writing in their process of recovery from emotional stress and trauma. Visit her at www.billiewade.com and find more of her writing on www.dmpcc.org/billie where she writes a monthly newsletter column for Des Moines Pastoral Counseling Center.
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