We've all heard it a million times, stress is terrible for us and has physical and psychological ramifications. There is a lot of hard science backing all of this up. But rather than talking about all the implications stress has on the mind and body, I think it's more important to understand and figure out what causes you stress and help you to figure out how you can go about changing your life to reduce stress.
There are some everyday life stressors that are common to a lot of people: arguments with a spouse, caretaking responsibilities, work stressors, financial troubles. There are some clear strategies for stress management we might implement for these types of examples such as: learning to communicate effectively when having disagreements with a loved one, approaching vs. avoiding conflict in relationships, asking for help when you need it, drawing boundaries at work, implementing better time management systems, and engaging in self-care.
External stressors are inevitable and part of being a human. I think what is often missed in the discussion of managing stressors is the deeper, more meaningful work in how we create unnecessary stress from within. There are certain themes I like to think about with clients when it comes to this: avoidance, perfectionism, and control. These are questions I like to use in therapy to start a conversation around how we might be unnecessarily creating more internal distress for ourselves.
What are the things that cause you emotional discomfort and what are the ways in which you might try to avoid discomfort?
Where are you hardest on yourself and what do you do to compensate for where you have perceived insecurities?
What's truly out of your control that you might be trying hard to control?
The antidote to your answers are likely going to be in the realm of: mindfulness, acceptance, building psychological flexibility, and taking committed action to do things differently. For instance, a lot of people will list "disappointing others," as something that causes them emotional discomfort. This can lead to saying "yes" too often to things you don't actually want to be doing. To avoid disappointing others, you might become overly accommodating, stretch yourself too thin, and book too many social events and obligations such that you are stressed, annoyed, and tired that your house is a mess by the end of the week. So in therapy we might explore what it would be like to accept that you're not going to make everyone happy, that you will disappoint some people sometimes, and we might work on committing to the practice of saying "no" to things to be able to have enough time to engage in the self-care of keeping your house organized and clean.
When it comes to being hard on yourself and perceived insecurities, I will often hear clients talk about body image and weight-related concerns. Sometimes the response to this to compensate is avoidance of the body at all costs, emotional eating, being preoccupied with food, obsessively exercising, feeling down, sad, and anxious when engaging in comparisons with others in social settings. We can see how these responses to insecurities and imperfections can actually create more distress internally. In therapy we might work on acceptance of any and all emotions that come with being with one's body and at one's current weight and sit with that discomfort. Instead of being reactive to the emotional experience of that in a way that helps you escape or make it all go away, can we work, instead, on making conscious, informed, values-aligned decisions about what would be most healing for us and cause the least harm to our minds and bodies?
The last question I posed earlier in this post is an important one: what is truly out of your control that you may be working very hard to control? This can be a major source of stress that you could be struggling with internally that is depleting you of your energy and well-being. An example of this might be worrying about how others perceive you. There's so much uncertainty in how others will perceive us and we can never, ever be in full control over other people. But too often in therapy, I see clients going to great lengths to edit themselves to be what they what they presume others want of them. The amount of work it takes to be inauthentic, to edit yourself, to cover up the parts of yourself that you think others might not like can add up to create a lot of unnecessary distress, ultimately for something that you have no control over. So, again, we might work on accepting the discomfort around not knowing how others feel about you, knowing that you cannot live to make everyone happy all the time, and shifting that energy back into yourself in a way that promotes healing. What is actually in your control when it comes to your relationship with yourself? What might you want to invest in there?
What are your answers to these questions? Jot some notes down and bring them to your therapy session. Our therapists would love to explore this together with you and figure out how you can improve stress management from within.