Living with Stress—What Helps, What Hurts

“The key to being happier is to stop trying to be “positive” all the time and instead to become better at handling adversity.” –Mark Manson

For most of us, we are well into our second month of social distancing. What was your initial reaction to this requirement? How has it changed?

For some, the initial reaction was one of at least mild panic—fear of the disease, and fear of how the major changes in our lives could and would be managed. For others, the reaction was one of at least mild pleasure — an opportunity to not have a commute to work, carpools, and other less than pleasant obligations. It was an opportunity to relax, to veg out, to watch movies and TV shows you hadn’t gotten around to seeing, to do that jigsaw puzzle you’ve been wanting to do.

At some point many people have moved from these stages to modified fear – we’ve learned more about it, made our accommodations, and hopefully so far, have avoided getting sick.For others who looked forward to vegging out, it may have become boring. What’s next?

We’re all in this together. Never before in our lifetimes has this happened. Even in times of war, our country was united—against the country who was our enemy. Now all countries are united against a common enemy, an invisible virus, that started out very small and has grown to gigantic proportions. It has forced us to make very large sacrifices that are bigger even than ones we had to make in times of war: they affect our daily lives, our emotional and financial security, our mental and physical health. Whatever individual stresses we may have had to confront in the past, this one is more invasive and more universal.

The first thing that helps is to know we have a commonality with everyone else. We are united in face of an invisible enemy that doesn’t discriminate. I notice how this reveals itself on my daily walks. Everyone is respectful of everyone else, keeping their social distance. At the same time, everyone is friendlier—there is a warmth and a smile to their “hello’s” that wasn’t there before, a sense of our shared stress. There are fewer people tethered to their phones, an indication I think, of wanting to be more connected to their environment, including both nature and people.

For all of us, stress is now a consistent and substantial part of our lives. When your life is turned on its side, and you need to make significant adjustments to what you were used to as a “normal” way of life—whether you were happy with that life or not, it’s stressful. You feel a loss of control. In normal times this can be minor or relatively minor, such as the stresses you have at work, at home or in your social life. And chances are, you have made some adjustments or adaptations to these stresses, they are now more familiar to you.

At a time like this, it’s important to visit or revisit your relationship with stress. We learn our coping mechanisms from our early life experiences, our family and other important people in our lives. Once in a while, we may even learn it from someone we don’t know very well, or from reading a story or article, or watching a movie or play. In this sense, some of what we learn is arbitrary, what helps someone else may or may not help you.

Have you stopped to think about how well the ways you handle stress are reducing your stress or even relieving it? How is your stress reaction or stress level different than before Covid-19? Are you using any new coping mechanisms – what are you doing differently? Are they working better—or worse for you? It will help to jot down everything you can think of, both major and minor. This is the first step in gaining control and easing some of your stress. Writing makes it more tangible and helps you become more aware of what you may be doing without realizing it.

One example: We’re well into our second month of “social distancing.” Is this the phrase you tend to use, or do you think and say, “social isolation.” Think for a moment how your mind and body react differently to the word “distancing” and “isolation.” There are many of these small ways we help or hurt our stress levels. And they can add up, to compound or relieve our levels of comfort or discomfort.

Two of the most common examples of COVID-related stress:

1. Not being able to see friends/family, and limiting your trips to the market or drug store.

2. Worry about getting sick, and what precautions to take (e.g. masks, sanitizing what comes into your house) as well as disagreements with family members.

What are your reactions? Some examples:
1. Masking your frustration by spending more time on social media, “escapist” movies or TV
shows.
2. Projecting your feelings of helplessness onto others by finding fault with them (maybe even more than before!),
3. Filling the void with compulsive house-cleaning, compulsive exercising, trying to do way more to please others, sleeping more or just tuning out.

It’s common for people to avoid feeling discomfort. It’s painful, sometimes to the point of pulling you into a tailspin of helplessness. What you may do instead is seek ways to distract yourself which may provide some temporary relief, but doesn’t do much to help you gain control over your stress. It’s a form of self-deception—but it can’t be successful because deep down, who are you fooling?

What also doesn’t help your stress is to get absorbed in your loss and not let go. You spend most or even all of your time lamenting your situation, fearful that it will never end, and seeing your life in ruins. When you acknowledge and allow your grief, you are being honest with yourself and can find some relief in order to move on.

What you can do that might be a more effective way to reduce your stress:
1. Allow yourself to feel and grieve the loss of your freedom, your familiar way of life. See if you can sense when these feelings are coming on and let them come up to the surface. Acknowledge them by saying to yourself out loud—or a trusted friend or relative, or write
down how sad, mad, frustrated you feel, how you hate feeling helpless, etc. Doing this will release those feelings that can get bottled up inside, and you will find the feelings will start to dissipate—they will be less intense and come less often until they just fade
away. If you have difficulty letting go, force yourself to think about something positive when those feelings come up.
2. Some of your outlets (as in #3 above) can be moderated so you feel more relaxed and satisfied. Notice how much house-cleaning, exercising, and pleasing others is enough to reduce or ease the pressure. Set some limits for yourself and pay attention to when you have met those limits.

Here’s a list of some coping mechanisms people use for stress that are generally not as helpful as you would like . On a scale from 1-5, identify how often you use any of these:

___Pretending you’re only bothered a little when it’s actually much more
___Denial that you are bothered at all– but it doesn’t bring you the comfort you seek
___Suppressing the feelings that you are having, even to the point of acting more like a robot
___Shifting or Distracting your thoughts and feelings to something that’s not the source (e.g. social media video games, politics, a movie or TV show)–(OK in moderation)
___Over-compensating—taking more responsibility than is appropriate
___Blaming someone else for the cause of your stress
___Rationalizing –making excuses for yourself and/or the other person (e.g. I just don’t have the energy to exercise, keep up my friendships, etc. or I will tolerate the other person’s mean behavior because they are having a hard time.)
___Assumptions—about yourself and what you and others are or are not capable of or willing to do. You make the assumptions you do to feel a sense of control, real or imagined. It only helps when your assumptions are positive and accurate.
___Expectations—e.g perfectionism in yourself or unrealistically high standards for others. Another way you hope to feel more in control—at best with only temporary satisfaction.
___Beliefs—passed down by others that you hope will give you a sense of security but can create inner conflict if they aren’t true for you.
___Predicting the future—in a overly negative way, or overly positive way, both unrealistic
___Something else ___________________________________

Look at what you’ve identified as your strongest and most frequent coping mechanisms. How much does any of your responses increase or decrease your stress? You might recognize a decrease in your stress levels that is temporary but not long-lasting. Ask yourself, ”what can I do differently that will help ease my stress on a more regular basis?

List what you are currently doing that helps relieve your stress in a substantial way, and what else you can do that will help. It might be something simple like switching from mindless TV to playing a board game or some other activity that requires thought and planning. (The board game provides a kind of structure that has been temporarily lost in our lives.) Or it can be setting up a schedule for cleaning your home. Take regular walks outdoors and pay attention to the sights and sounds of nature. (With less traffic, it’s easier to hear the birds sing).

Bottom line: you will reduce your stress, the more you engage in activities that require:
using your mind, (think reading something new and different, asking more questions);
your creativity (think curiosity and expression by writing, art projects, cooking new dishes);
being proactive (think contributions of time and or other resources to give to your community);
moving your body (think exercise),
when you do this on a regular basis, you will see your stress levels go down.

Tara Parker-Pope (NY Times):
“Negative coping, includes “emotional withdrawal, or using substances a lot to manage discomfort,” or falling into bad habits such as eating “kind of crummy foods all the time, taking your phone to bed with you and just going down one rabbit hole after.”

Positive coping is “finding the kind of emotional support that works for you,” or “finding a happy distraction, a book, a game, taking incredibly good care of ourselves physically, getting more sleep, eating as well as we can, exercising and then being as decent to the people around us as possible,” because “we also feel much better when we’re treating people well.”

“Instead of focusing on the things that you don’t have, you can look at all of the new things that you do have right now,” “There’s a lot to be gained in the midst of loss, in the form of community and connection.”

On Another Note: With Mother’s Day approaching, consider a gift of my award-winning book: Your Living Legacy: How Your Parenting Style Shapes the Future for You and Your Child. It’s on Amazon or check out my website: www.ShelliChosak.com

Feel free to send me your comments and any questions you might have.

If you know someone who might be interested, please send this to them.

Best,
Shelli

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