I just finished my first graduate course called "Stress, Coping & Resilience". When I signed up for this course I thought I would walk away with a neat little package of of things to do to help reduce stress, like meditation and thinking positively. I also thought it would be great to apply to my everyday life, killing two birds with one stone. Instead, I walked away with an appreciation of how different every single person is on this planet and and realizing dealing with stress is messy!
But seriously, I learned a lot too!!
My goal today is to summarize what I learned for two reasons. First of all, I selfishly want to remember what I learned and secondly (and more importantly) I hope to share something that will be helpful for you.
What is stress? A stressor is something that disrupts the "status quo" of life. Simple, right? Let's break it down a little more. Things happen to us all of the time... we get stuck in traffic, we get asked on a date, someone yells at us, we get a promotion... All of these things are stressors. The stressor can be "good" or "bad" based on how we interpret the event. For one person, being asked on a date might be exciting, but for another person they might be dreading having to turn the other person down.
We need stress - without it we would never grow. For example, our muscles need stress or else they will atrophy away. We also need mental challenges to grow and thrive. The trick is not having too much stress based on our capabilities. For example, a marathon runner would barely get out of breath running 1 mile, but for a person new to exercise, running 1 mile might be impossible.
One of the main themes of this class is that things are relative. I was recently feeling stressed out at work and having a bit of a pity party for myself. I was having a conversation with my daughter who works as a server at a restaurant. She was telling me how frustrated she was about how understaffed they are, so she was having to work extra hours which was taking away from her ability to study. People were getting more rude to her throughout the pandemic and she felt really stuck. I had an "aha" moment! She and I were equally stressed out!!! Whether it's because the cook put the dressing IN the salad instead of ON THE SIDE and now she has to deal with a bunch of asshole customers, or because I'm about to miss a deadline on a 6 month project, it doesn't matter. We're both feeling the same level of stress.
When we are presented with a stressful situation, we evaluate it in a few ways:
Do we have the resources to deal with it?
What is the potential impact of the event?
Do we have control over what is going on?
For example, let's say you are riding your bike and you hit a pothole which bends your tire.
Situation 1: Let's say your bike is your only mode of transportation and you are now going to be late to work, which means you will lose out on pay and be put on a warning. You don't have anyone to pick you up and you now have to use the money you had saved to pay for a bus fare to see your mom to fix the tire instead.
Situation 2: Let's say you are on a leisurely bike ride with your friend over the weekend. You both laugh after it happens and your friend rides back to get the car to pick you up and take you to the bike shop where you pay cash to fix the tire from the bonus you got last week.
These scenarios are dramatically different to prove a point - stress depends!!!
But let's apply this to a less obvious situation - chronic stress. The grinding stress that happens day in and day out. While a bent tire is a one time event, chronic stress build up over time. This is where our health can be affected - both physically AND mentally. The same concepts can apply though - this time let's use the example of dealing with a high workload:
Situation 1: You are working late everyday at work to try to keep up with the workload and not getting enough sleep. You haven't spoken to anyone about it, but you see other people leaving work at normal hours and it makes you annoyed. It doesn't seem like there is an end in sight. At night you lay awake in bed thinking about all of the work you still have to do and sometimes drink a little to take the edge off. You think that if only you were more organized things wouldn't be so hectic.
Situation 2: You are working extra hours, but make sure to get enough sleep to start the day fresh. You have spoken to your manager about the workload and they can't reduce it, but they appreciate the extra effort you are putting in. You are trying to use this experience as a way to show that you are ready for a promotion by handling the extra responsibility. When you log off of work, you do your best to focus on other positive areas of your life like going outside on a walk, or spending quality time with family and friends. You know that your workload is too much and so you are doing the best you can with the time and resources you have, but it's unrealistic to expect everything to be done perfectly.
The differences here are more subtle. There are a few things to point out:
Rumination - when you replay something over and over in your mind, this doesn't allow your mind to relax and you are constantly reliving the state of stress.
SLEEP - This is one of the most underrated things out there! Sleep sets the stage for your day and has the biggest impact on your cognitive abilities. Lack of sleep increases your risk of heart disease, diabetes and obesity as well as reduces your memory, concentration and emotional control.
Social support - Having a support network to lean on, even if they can't change the situation is really beneficial to a persons health. As a matter of fact, social support is one of the biggest factors of longevity!
Internal vs. External causation - If you believe that a situation is caused by an internal inadequacy, an event will be more stressful to you rather than if you attribute it to an external source. (I failed the test because I'm stupid vs. I failed the test because I was sick last week and couldn't study)
Passive vs. Active coping - Distracting yourself with unhealthy things like drinking alcohol, Netflix binging and eating a bag of chips will not "fill your cup". And you know what, sometimes these things will get you through the day and that's perfectly fine! But when you can, try to find things that give you genuine joy and do them. For me it's going for a walk in the woods. But it could be drawing or journaling or cooking or a billion other things - whatever gives you energy!!
Grit - When you are willing to go through some hard things to get to a long term goal. In this example, the extra work might be a way for you to learn how to be a better leader, or to prove that you can handle larger work loads. The framing of a stressful event as a step on the path to meet a future goal is a great way to reduce the impact of a stressful situation.
So now you can say, thanks Janell for the list of obvious things to do which don't take into account my situation. I know, I know!!!! It really is messy. We all live in a world where there is uncertainty, and things aren't fair and you can't just "get better sleep" and "stop thinking over and over about something" because you read this post. Here is my practical advice:
If there is anything you can do to get more sleep - do it. (I will write about this more in the future). Getting more sleep will allow you to think better and faster. The extra hours of time you spend on work late at night may only take 30 minutes when you are well rested and your brain is working at capacity. I know it's not always possible, but try when you can!!
If you can eek out 5 minutes to have a conversation with someone, or spend quality time together, you will feel the difference. When was the last time you had a conversation with someone without the TV on or looking at your phone?
Be kind to yourself - it's a rough world out there. Give yourself credit for what you are doing.
Try to get those thoughts out of your mind. Write down your to-do list on paper so you know you won't forget it and those pesky thoughts won't be floating around in your brain.
If something is really bothering you, write down your thoughts on a piece of paper and throw it away or burn it if you want! Get those thoughts out of your mind so you can spend time thinking about other things.
Laugh and play! Sometimes we get so serious we forget to stop and smile. Watch a comedian, dance in your living room, try doing a cartwheel.... Do something silly for a minute!
We did three exercises in class which I will share here:
Write 3 things you are grateful for, for 5 days. If you miss a day or only write down 1 thing, who cares! Just spend a few minutes writing about something good that happened in your day. It's fun to go back and read it.
Spend a day taking pictures of things you enjoy. Just snap away! I laughed when I took pictures of my slippers and coffee maker.
Write a letter to someone who has made a difference in your life. You don't have to give it to them, but it's a nice exercise to do and think about the positive people in your life.
There are other more intensive things to do as well, like having a crucial conversation and setting boundaries. Also, even the basic things can be hard to do. This is where coaching can help because it helps to talk through the options and these things are scary to do sometimes!
To summarize, stress is like the wind because:
It can be like a summer breeze or a hurricane and we can't control which one it will be.
Trees need wind to grow stronger and grow their roots, just like we need a little bit of stress to help us grow.
A structure can be built stronger to stand against the wind, just like we can build up our resilience through a social network, getting good sleep and other strategies.
We can choose to live places where there is less likelihood of a hurricane, just like we can choose the things we associate with.
If I can leave you with anything, please be gentle with yourself. Stress is tough and you are not alone in this.
Up next I am taking a course on Culinary Psychology - I can't wait to share what I learn!