Coping with Stress
For better or worse, our human experience is full of ups and downs. We can feel intensely positive emotions like joy when winning a race and extremely negative ones like defeat or frustration when losing.
What are emotions?
We all intuitively get that there is a subjective experience, as well as a physiologic response in the body that may involve sweating, muscle tension or palpitations. Apart from what we experience internally, there is also an external expression of the emotion which is the behavioral response.
And of course our emotions are often nuanced and mixed. Think about attending your child’s high school graduation. There may have been pride and relief, mixed with sadness about having her grow up and move away for college. I wanted to show up for her proudly with smiles, but those bittersweet memories of my little girl kept me on the edge of tears as well.
We often think of “stress” as being a negative emotion, but it turns out that stress is really a basket of negative emotions that we feel in response to threats in our lives.
In their book Burnout, the Nagoski sisters point out that these threats can be external stressors like work, money, time, relationship expectations and so on. Or they may include internal stressors like self-criticism, body image, victim stories or worry about the future.
The body’s physiological response to threats involves activation of the primitive part of the brain that is all about survival. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) keeps our lungs breathing and hearts beating automatically without us having to be aware of it most of the time. When we perceive threats, our sympathetic or “fight-flight-freeze” nervous system is activated, pumping out stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, that are meant to help us get away or fight this threat.
Of course we have evolved this stress response in common with other animals over millennia, but in our modern daily lives we are not dealing with physical threats like saber-toothed tigers any more. And so when we are not running away like crazy, how does the body complete the stress cycle?
We have all kinds of coping mechanisms to help us manage stress. I wasn’t even aware of the stress cycle, nor even my coping mechanisms for decades. I thought it was normal to come home and “veg out” after a long day - eating, drinking, and watching TV as a way to avoid or escape. I thought I was treating myself to a well-deserved reward after a punishing day.
Stress is clearly inherent to living in the modern world
Through coaching I’ve learned that I was actually numbing out or buffering to escape my discomfort. Buffering is defined as relying on an external source of relief from discomfort that has negative consequences. And the problem is that those negative consequences then become their own source of stress for us as we beat up on ourselves for not being able to kick these habits.
I realized that my coping strategies were leading to the negative consequences of weight gain and procrastination. The short term pleasure or dopamine hits that I got were causing me to stay stuck in the stress cycle. They had become so habitual that I barely even noticed what I was doing, and kept me stuck in the stress cycle for decades.
Stress is clearly inherent to living in the modern world. And what I’ve learned is that we actually have so many different tools for managing stress.
We can certainly choose health habits involving physical movement to cope with stress, like going for a walk or run. I can also choose to complete the stress cycle by connecting with loved ones through laughter or even tears. I have even found ways to express myself creatively and to practice mindfulness.
And through coaching we can learn how to reframe our thoughts that may be causing more stress and to cultivate the kinds of emotions that move us forward, instead of holding us back.
You can learn more about these tools in the iHealing Academy Optimal Brain Performance (OBP) online course. Enrollment is limited, so sign up for the waitlist now to get notified as soon as we open for registration.
Book: Burnout by Emily and Amelia Nagoski