Last week we were able to get a visual of our stressors in relation to the dimensions of our lives, which is quite helpful in showing us the areas in need of the greatest and least attention. It also helped us to identify where stressors overlap areas of our lives, such as loss of job (financial) also negatively impacting quality/quantity of sleep (physical) and feelings of self-confidence and self-worth (emotional). This week, we are going to shuffle things around and sort our stressors by type, which is a better way to organize when it comes to formulating actionable plans. Through this post and the accompanying worksheet, we’ll further separate stressors for steps to begin controlling or coping.
Each type of stressor has its own worksheet. Taking last week’s worksheet, copy over the stressors you listed by dimension, this time grouping them by type, and selecting the dimension(s) impacted. Then think about whether you have control over any portion of this stressor and/or the reaction you’re having to the stressor. Remember, often it’s not an event or situation itself that is the stressor, but rather the way we are reacting to it.
For example, loss of a job may not be our fault in the slightest, but the perseverance to continue looking for another job is something we have control over. We may also have portions of a stressor we can and cannot control; in this case, separate and list the portion of the stressor that is controllable and not. Using the job example again, the need to look for another job is out of our control and something we must do, which is an emotionally taxing process at best; we need to cope. On the flip side, we have control over the types of jobs we pursue, how we pursue them, and how we address the emotional roller coaster we may be on.
Productive coping methods are those that deal with the root of our health – emotional, mental, and physical – rather than coping by ignoring, deflecting, or self-destructive behaviors. Productive coping honors our bodies and minds, prioritizing how we feel over aesthetic.
Okay, let’s dive in:
Acute Time-Limited Stressors
- Goal: visualize the planned event and mentally prepare to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system at the time of the event to control adrenaline.
- Since we are talking about planned events, eliminating the stressor is not a feasible option; therefore, we should brainstorm steps to reduce the reaction to the stressor.
- Some reasonable steps would include visualizing the event, reframing the most anxiety-ridden aspects of the event, practicing breathing techniques, practicing methods of physical tension release, practice meditation and mind-clearing/calming techniques, etc.
- Goal: identify triggers and strengthen ability to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system when acute stressors arise unexpectedly.
- If you suffer from acute time-limited stressors in planned situations, you likely suffer in unplanned situations, as well. Fears and triggers exist whether we anticipate their arrival; however, expecting the arrival can certainly make riding out the storm a little easier when we can prepare appropriately.
- Some reasonable methods of coping would be breathing techniques, increased focus on identifying root causes of triggers to more quickly catch a reaction, exercise to train the body to better handle acute stress, reframe as body’s perception of excitement instead of anxiety, etc.
Brief Naturalistic Stressors
- Goal: When our stressors are chosen, the primary goal is to remind ourselves why this is happening and explore what we can do to help increase our physical, mental, and emotional energy reserves until we’ve hit the finish line.
- A few examples of this would be passing an important exam, moving to a new place, etc.
- Some reasonable methods to reduce stress are reframing and perspective-shifting, increase enjoyable physical activity, making time for socialization, increase nutrient-dense foods, etc.
- Goal: Like the controllable stressors, we must find ways to protect and increase mental, emotional, and physical reserves; however, this is often a bit harder since these stressors weren’t chosen in the first place.
- Think about taking forced high school standardized tests versus a certification exam for a chosen profession – it’s a lot harder to stay motivated and energized when not our choice.
- Some reasonable methods to cope with this type of stressor, in addition to what’s listed for the controllable section, are countdown systems (nothing like a good countdown), reward systems, and other methodical approaches to simplify the process of successfully getting past this stressor.
- Chronic stressors are, by definition, uncontrollable and without a specific end in sight; therefore, we’re going to eliminate the controllable section. The reality is that the only thing we can control here is how we handle this invasive and impactful type of stressor.
- Goal: Address and reduce the emotional, mental, and physical impacts of the chronic stressor through long-term productive coping methods.
- This is by far the most dangerous type of stressor due to its invasiveness into nearly every facet of life. If we don’t find long-term ways to cope, the chronic stress will eat us alive and wreak havoc on our health.
- Some reasonable methods to cope are physical activity, nutrient-dense foods, improve sleep cycles, therapy and emotional support, journaling, meditating, nature/quiet time, etc.
- Like chronic stressors, distance stressors are not by definition controllable because they already happened, so we’ve eliminated that category.
- Goal: Address and reduce the emotional, mental, and physical impacts of the distance stressor/trauma and through long-term productive coping methods including professional mental guidance.
- Distance stressors are the second most dangerous because, as chronic stressors do, the negative effects can infiltrate most parts of life leading to feelings of hopelessness of ever feeling better.
- The most important method of coping is seeking guidance from a mental health professional. If you aren’t sure if you should talk to someone, then that’s likely a “yes”. Some distance stressors can be addressed solely by doing the emotional work and through social support, but if there is any sort of trauma involved, it’s always best to seek a professional. And again, everyone can benefit from therapy, so it’s a ‘better safe than sorry’ type of situation. Outside of professional guidance and/or medication, other reasonable methods here are doing a lot of work on identifying triggers rooted in the trauma and finding ways to work through reducing heightened reactions to those triggers, physical activity/expressing grief through movement, journaling, role playing with an empty chair, positive self-affirmations/talk, etc.
Event Sequence Stressors
- Goal: identify small, reasonable steps to triage the most important situation at hand without losing sight of the full picture.
- When dealing with this type of stressor where one primary event leads to a cascading series of other stress-inducing events, the most important thing to do is break out the areas where steps can be taken to address the most important things related to regaining safety and security. It’s overwhelming; writing things down and seeing the actionable steps helps immensely, especially if looking to gain some control in a situation that feels very out of control.
- For example, if everything in a house were lost in a flood, the goal would be to identify the primary tasks to be handled for basic necessities (i.e., insurance claim, temporary housing, etc.) and list reasonable steps for each.
- Goal: Process emotions; appropriately address the trauma and/or grief resulting from the event sequence.
- Though not always easy, we must address the trauma and grief. It may be something we aren’t able or ready to do while working through getting basic human necessities under control; however, recognizing that it’s there and will need to be dealt with in the future allows us to acknowledge our feelings while also maintaining enough distance to triage the essentials.
- Some reasonable methods of coping in the short and long-term are therapy, connecting with simple pleasures like nature, expressing emotional grief through physical movement/music/etc., process anger through journaling and meditation, etc.
Next week, I’m taking a little planned detour to start diving into motivation so we can circle back to productive coping. There is far too much with coping to fit into one week, so I’m going to basically make it the entire month of June. I will connect the dots between boosting emotional intelligence to use feeling-based health behaviors as coping mechanisms and how to determine when a coping mechanism is actually good for us – all while maximizing energy and honoring the natural ebbs and flows we experience in *our* lives.
Remember, what works for me won’t work necessarily work for you or in the same ways. I’m not here to give you a specific, detailed plan. I’m here to guide; to help you formulate your own plan because no one is better equipped than you.