True Story...It's early in the morning, I open the pantry to take out the cereal and there was a half-gallon container of ice cream sitting on the shelf. Technically, it was just the container sitting on the shelf; the ice cream (I use the word "ice" loosely) was dripping onto each shelf below forming a cascade of sticky, gooey liquid all the way down to the floor. Not a great way to start the day! As I cleaned the mess, I searched for an explanation of how this could have happened. I realized that while putting away the groceries the evening before, I was so preoccupied with the stressful issues in my life at the time (caring for my disabled husband, finances, applying for graduate school, working full time) that my body was performing one task and my mind was on a totally different wavelength. Does this sound familiar?
Or maybe you can relate to this story from a time several years later. I was finishing graduate school, starting an internship, and my house had flooded so I was in the middle of managing major home repairs. One day I woke to the realization that I didn't have any clean towels or clean forks. How does that happen? I felt as though I was failing in so many areas because I had too much responsibility for one person to manage and now I don't have any clean forks! The stress level was too high and I feel helpless to do anything about it. Now it seems comical, but at the time I was in tears. There are seasons in life that contain an inordinate amount of activity and/or problems which can deplete us of strength, both physical and emotional. Feeling overwhelmed with stress can be paralyzing.
Now couple that with the bigger picture of our world, the issues that seem to be beyond our influence. The three leading sources of stress for Americans right now are: 1) The Future of our Nation; 2) Money; and 3) Work. This according to a recently published study on the effects of stress on America, published by the American Psychological Association (Stress in America: The State of Our Nation. Stress in America Survey. November 2017).
Is there a way to function in a sea of this uncontrollable stress? The answer is yes, because stress is not uncontrollable. Lack of money, lack of time, loss of job, fear of flying, information overload, political news, teenager on drugs, etc. are the external factors that (most often legitimately) require a reaction. Stress is an internal (INTERNAL: of yourself) response to an external factor. It bears repeating: Stress is our internal reaction to the external factors.
Our reactions to these external stressors can change; they can be within our regulation. Awareness and intentional choices can lead us to a place of control over what feels uncontrollable. Here are some additional thoughts to consider about changing our response to external stressors:
Determine the Triggers
Take time to name the items, events, people or thoughts that are alerting your stress response. Note any specific relationship to time that might be present. If we can connect these dots, we are on our way to determining how to respond differently.
Determine What is Needed to Change
Once you have filtered through the triggers of your stress response, begin to imagine what life would be like without feeling stressed in each area you have noted. What would be necessary to make that change? How do you want to respond? How do you get to where you want to be? This may require a long hard look at your life, your priorities, your values, and your self-worth (don't rush over that word: self-worth, what is your worth to yourself). Recognizing what is keeping you from fulfilling your goal is a big step to achieving it.
Determine What Steps You Can Take Immediately
Are you practicing self-care? In this technologically driven world, it is easier than ever to connect to self-help options such as workout videos, yoga, meditation, grief groups, book clubs, meet-up groups to name only a few, and many without ever leaving your house (saves time for busy lives). The importance of self-care can be pivotal to less anxiety and worry in our lives. If you are a planner, perhaps you schedule time on your calendar for yourself. If you are more of a "winger," then take advantage of opportunities that come across your path without feeling guilty.
There are viable beginning options to controlling the stress response in life. If you find you need help in this process, please call our office. We can help you in any of these stages of change. We offer interventions such as relaxation techniques, talk therapy, or behavior modification for you to use as tools in managing your stress response. Invest in yourself so that you can be happy and healthy in your service to others.
As for my story, once I began considering stress relief as a responsibility to myself and my family. I was able to work toward a solution without guilt. Whatever that looks like for you, I hope that you come to a place where managing your stress is a deliberate effort. Don't wait until the stress inside of you pours out (ice cream in the pantry and no clean forks). Determine that you are going to manage it instead of it managing you!
Brenda Stutler, LMHC