Stress. It’s a feeling, a physiological response, a state of being, and a burden that often makes us feel powerless. Stress is the natural response generated by our body and brain when we feel overwhelmed by pressures, demands, or challenges. Stress itself is not all bad. In fact, in short bouts, stress helps the body upregulate and prepare to face or meet challenges. Overtime, however, chronic stress can negatively impact our minds and bodies. The way we respond and cope with stress also plays a role in our overall wellbeing.
We all handle stress differently. Whatever your coping strategies are, they likely speak to your perception of your ability to manage stress and your skill set for effectively responding to it. The actions we might take in response to stress are countless. Unless you have embarked a journey of self-improvement, your coping tool kit may look empty or be overrepresented by strategies that, while effective in the short run, yield problems down the road. These strategies include overuse of alcohol or other recreational substances, overeating or restricting food intake, sleeping too much or too little, procrastination and avoidance through over indulgence in TV, internet, and videogames. Even the much touted “healthy coping” strategies such as exercise, yoga, journaling – done to excess – can prove negative in the long run.
In our work with women and girls at THIRA Health, we often talk with individuals about the importance of mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotion regulation and how to regain control of our “whole” selves. Stress impacts the healing process because it activates our fight or flight response, temporarily taking us out of a mindful state and flooding the body with a “cocktail” of stress hormones that can impact sleep, learning and physical as well as emotional healing.
In honor of April being Stress Awareness Month, it is helpful to take an inventory of the coping strategies we lean on in times of stress and how we can replace our ineffective methods to shift into a place of adaptive living.
Coping mechanisms and strategies are tools that help us through moments of stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness, and a range of other experiences. Effectively coping with stress is essential for emotional wellbeing. As babies, we learn to seek comfort from our caregivers through crying, nursing, or chewing on things to console our splitting gums. As we grow older this can transition to comfort foods for toddlers and children. With these early experiences, It’s no wonder so many of us find comfort in food.
How we cope, for better or worse, can often be a product of what we’ve seen in our families or communities. For example, a person might have grown accustomed to alcohol being present in the home, thereby normalizing use as an adaptive way to manage stress. In some religious cultures, they may rely on the calming nature of prayer to alleviate stress through faith in a greater power. Others may use the power of music to find and focus a sense of calm. You might be able to trace your favored coping strategies back to the “family tradition.”
Our coping skills are foundational to our very survival. Take a moment to reflect on how you have coped to date. You have done your best with what you’ve had. Now its time to see if there are new or additional tools that can better serve us in the long-term.
Eat, Sleep, Cope, Repeat
We believe it is crucial to establish a coping plan that works for you, one that can fit into your work, school, and everyday life with an accessible variety of tools. Having this plan prepared before the stress hits will take the pressure off of attempting to think through what you need to do in the heat of the moment when clear thinking may not be at its highest point. The clinicians at THIRA Health teach clients skills rooted in Dialectal Behavior Therapy – a type of psychotherapy founded on mindfulness (living in the moment), emotional regulation, distress tolerance, and building meaningful relationships.
Some of the most helpful tips are the ones that we can do without much preparation, with resources that we already have on hand. Self-soothing with each of your five senses is a tool that feels innate and makes sense intuitively. To be successful, this approach requires that you enter into the activity, wholly and with complete attention: pause, focus, breathe.
Goon a reflective walk where you focus on the sights and sounds around you in order to distract yourself from your stressors can be powerfully grounding. Or it may be music or the sent of a favorite candle that helps to bring you out of the relentless attack of your anxious thoughts. You may find that taking a shower or warm bath is what you need to connect to your body in times of stress, or even the simple act of gifting your taste buds with a small treat.
(You can find more tips for staying grounded and centered here.)
Stress is everywhere – it exists in our minds, our bodies, and our emotional states. We hope that these techniques can be a starting point in helping you get back to your a place of peace and calm where your resilience lives.
If you or someone you know is struggling to cope with stressors that continue to escalate, please visit us to learn more about our DBT model for women and treatment program options at THIRA Health.