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Stress Dumping

How do you dump your stress?

When life gets stressful, which it often does–what causes it and what do you do with it? How do you cope?

I found myself answering these questions a few month ago when I felt that things were really creeping up on me. Work seemed more demanding than usual, kids were finishing up the school year and struggling with their feelings about ending and anticipation for the summer, my spouse had a sports injury, was home bound and had too many things for me to take care of. So now seemed a good time to examine why things seemed to be falling apart (at least for the time being). As a therapist, I try and think about that every now and then. Not, why is this happening to me? But, why now? What’s different about now? Step one.

Our unique way of experiencing and reacting to stress is often influenced by our thoughts, experiences and struggles. For some of us this may mean growing an awareness of our experience of stress. Our body may be speaking to us when we find ourselves grinding our teeth, experiencing more headaches than usual, dry mouth, or gastrointestinal issues. A friend recently complained of having knots of pain in her chest and stomach all day, only to later realize that she was not looking forward to a birthday dinner for her ex. We also need to be aware of our thoughts and feelings–noticing when we are feeling irritable, worrying more, feeling more tearful. For me, an indicator of stress is being more forgetful than usual. I knew that things were not ok when I was leaving my phone at home, missing doctors appointments,  and other important dates.
With some help, I figured out that my weekdays were jam-packed with things, weekends were about errands, and taking care of other odds and ends- leaving little room to unwind. All of a sudden, my seemingly balanced life did not seem so balanced. As a psychologist, I am used to prioritizing others (within reasonable limits), but I realized that I was leaving little room for contingencies and perhaps taking on more things than I could manage.
As a parent, alone time is next to impossible, so I had to come up with creative ways to get some head space at the end of each day and disconnect from everyone and everything.
Step two was figuring out how I was dumping my stress.
I wish I could say that I did something positive like biking or yoga or travel to find inner balance. Strangely enough, when I feel really stressed out, exercise is the last thing on my mind. It seems like more work and I feel tired just thinking about it.
My (maladaptive) method of stress dumping (or coping, to put it mildly) is to add more control and structure in my day and schedule. The thought process being that the more control I can exert on my life, the less helpless I would feel about what was out of control (follow my logic?) And although at the time, it feels comforting for me to do so, in other ways it also stressed out because I end up adding more places to go and things to do. And because life rarely goes according to plan and it becomes yet another thing to manage… and feel frustrated by.
And so I learned that in moments like that, it is more helpful to pull back, and let go of the need for control and things to go a certain way. To allow myself some time and space to sit back, take it all in, acknowledge my discomfort and make room for it.  Acknowledging my limitations as a person, mother, spouse and therapist (who at the end of the day is also a human being). Knowing that as I would advise others, I may need to also think and reflect about my restlessness and discomfort and sit with the anxiety, acknowledging that things are difficult and I’m feeling like I’m swimming upstream.
So where does your stress come from? Work? High expectations and unreasonable demands of yourself?  Family or parenting issues? Perfectionism?  And how does this play out for you?  Do you amp things up or slow things down? Do you find yourself hitting the gym more, or smoking or eating more? Or having more arguments and conflict or withdrawing from others?
Being aware of the source and our pattern of coping (whatever it may be) are important areas of introspection so we are not caught out in the rain without an umbrella.
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