Stress is universal, and inevitable, no? It arises when life brings surprising challenges, or simply when the realities of life don’t quite match our expectations for it. Regardless of where it comes from, could it be how we handle stress that makes all the difference?
Illustration by Anushka van Huyssteen
It’s quite ironic that I am writing an article on stress management, because I am often forced to reexamine my own reactions to stress when faced with increasing responsibilities or fast-approaching deadlines. Take this article, for example — it had a deadline. And I certainly felt stress at various points. You see, none of us are immune to experiencing stress or anxiety, not even the clinicians who are asked to write articles on stress management. Stress is a universal, human experience that occurs frequently in our lives. What differentiates us from one another are our unique reactions to stress and the ways we cope with or manage our stressors.
Before we journey much further together, let’s define a few concepts. Merriam-Webster defines stress as “strain” or “pressure,” and elaborates that it is “a state of bodily or mental tension resulting from factors that tend to alter an existent equilibrium.” To translate, we experience tension when we experience change. This explains why even a joyful or exciting life event can cause significant stress, leaving feelings of frustration, anger, or anxiety in its wake. If you’ve ever vacationed with your family, you know exactly what I mean.
“We rarely see others authentically discuss stress because most of us have been encouraged to mask our feelings, hide our struggles, and present only our best professional (and always “put together”) selves to the world.”
Stress arises when the status quo of our lives or routines is challenged — when we are emotionally, cognitively, physically, or spiritually stretched beyond what we imagine possible. But we often forget that stress is a normal response to life strain or pressure. This is not unusual, and experiencing stress does not signal that something is inherently wrong with you.
In fact, quite the opposite is true. And, while stress can certainly be harmful, it does not always have to be. Stress can motivate us to meet a deadline or complete an important task. More importantly, stress can prompt us to make necessary changes in our lives, families, workplaces, and society. You see, growth occurs when we are pushed and challenged, not when we remain stagnant. Stress is often the catalyst for transformation. But, in order to grow from stress, we must first learn to identify our stressors and process them effectively. Now, I realize you may be thinking, She makes it sound so simple, but it doesn’t actually work that way. If this thought is crossing your mind, you are probably right! You see, herein lies one of the greatest stumbling blocks to our progress — the stigma often associated with stress or anxiety.
We rarely see others authentically discuss stress, because most of us have been encouraged to mask our feelings, hide our struggles, and present only our best professional (and always “put together”) selves to the world. When we believe our reaction in any situation is abnormal, we tend to criticize ourselves and others for experiencing it. This usually leads to comparing ourselves with those we perceive to handle things better. We may even begin to believe we are the only ones who have such a heightened response to a situation. This approach can stifle our productivity and spark unwarranted comparison or an undercurrent of competition in the workplace. So, what happens when we feel alone in our stress? How do we handle it?
You can read a plethora of books and articles on this subject offering stress management strategies from relaxation techniques to yoga to self-care. You know these tips. People have shared them for decades, so I will not bore you with more of the same. Instead, I hope to remind you of a few simple truths to refocus your hearts and minds, so you feel better prepared to respond to the stressors that come your way. As a professor, I am acutely aware that assigning a trendy acronym or mnemonic device might improve your ability to remember things. But, I’m not exactly a hashtag queen, so here’s the best I’ve got. I present to you the:
“Simplici-P’s”: Perspective, People, Purpose, Passion, Patience
When faced with stress, it is often helpful to reframe our focus. We must seek perspective. This requires us to move the stressor to its rightful place by recognizing that it is only one aspect of a much larger picture of our lives. A friend of mine spent a season of her life in Wales, which is notorious for its frequent precipitation. However, it is also famous for its abundantly lush landscape — a direct result of the persistent rain. When she and her family first arrived in the country, they were challenged to “see the green through the gray.” I’m sure it could feel quite dismal for someone from the Sunshine State to find herself surrounded by gloomy skies. In order for my friend to enjoy where she was placed — to bloom where she was planted — she needed to focus more on the beauty of her surroundings than the rainy days.
Pursuing light through the darkness in our own lives can help buffer the difficulties we face. As you know, life is made up of seasons. While some may be sun-drenched, others will be filled with squalls. It is in these challenging seasons, when the thunderstorms are upon us, that we must be intentional to set our sights on seeing the “green through the gray.”
People are created for connection. In a sense, we can wither when we become too isolated or feel alone in our struggles. When stress creeps upon us, it’s common to murmur grumblings like, “I don’t have time to go to lunch with him,” or we may even enter the land of workplace martyrdom by exclaiming, “It must be nice to have time to run for coffee when the rest of us are actually working!” Consider these and other sentiments your body’s way of saying, “Whoooaaaaa! Hold up!” because you are likely just a tad overwhelmed. Further, this illustrates that stress might be prompting you to disconnect from people during a time in which you likely need human connection the most. So, when these voices encourage you to run as far as you can from others, I challenge you to resist the urge to pull away and instead lean in.
Engage in friendships. Spend time with the people you love. Invest in others. Shifting your focus externally, even if only for a few minutes, can help you maintain connection and gather the perspective that is essential for coping with stressors.
I have been blessed with an amazing tribe of friends who provide genuine support and encouragement during life’s ups and downs. Their frank transparency demonstrates that I am not alone in my challenging experiences. Today, one of them sent me the following message while she was inundated and overwhelmed: “People are driving me crazy. Work is insane. So, I’m at my desk taking deep breaths telling myself, ‘You’re a strong woman. You’ve already been to hell and back. You’ve got this! Bring it!’”
You see, by sharing her stressors and engaging in truthful dialogue, she removed the stigma of isolation and brought her experience out of the darkness and into the light. This decreased the power that stress attempted to reign over her, and freed her from its captivity. And, I could completely relate to the feelings she was conveying as I was also mustering through a particular challenge when her text arrived. Most importantly, her message made me laugh … out loud. It provided us both the levity and perspective we needed in a moment that seemed agonizing before we connected.
Most of us desire to live and love with a sense of purpose. We may feel called to our work or passionate about the things we pursue in this life. Because of this, we usually want to participate, engage, or make a difference. Living with intentionality requires a considerable amount of effort. For this reason, many of our stressors arise because we are asked or choose to take on responsibilities related to things or people we love or care for deeply. In a way, our passion is often the spark that ignites our eventual stressors. So, we must remind ourselves of these things when we become lost in the weeds of the work. There may be moments when the day-to-day business of your life seems both insurmountable and utterly exhausting. When this happens, it can be helpful to remind yourself of the why — why you are completing the particular assignment or task — and to reengage with your purpose and passion for the work.
Now, can I be real for a second? When my bathroom toilets need to be scrubbed, I do not find myself particularly passionate about the work. And we don’t always assume a new project or task because we desire to help our supervisor or others. In reality, we often take on an assignment because we are told to do so. So, how do you adapt to stressors that do not fulfill either your passion or your purpose? It can be both helpful and necessary to pursue your passions outside of your current stressors. For example, do you like to garden or listen to music or paint? Do you enjoy the beach or camping? I encourage you to carve out opportunities every now and then, even if in small segments, to engage in those pursuits. Momentarily shifting your energy from the stressor to one of your passions will help you gather the perspective necessary to reframe your outlook.
“Stress is often the catalyst for transformation. But, in order to grow from stress, we must first learn to identify our stressors and process them effectively.”
As a society, we tend to expect a lot of ourselves in a very short amount of time, and we don’t demonstrate much patience if we have to wait or if tasks don’t adhere to our anticipated time frames. If you don’t believe me, observe people’s (or your own) behavior in the airport security line next time you travel — enough said. We often desire for things to be accomplished at an impossibly fast rate of speed. In order to combat this societal expectation, it helps to take an occasional pause and allow yourself time to reflect. This requires considerable patience. To complicate the process further, we have a tendency to self-persecute. Demonstrating patience means that you might give yourself a break when an assignment takes longer than anticipated or when you are not as productive as you expected to be on a given day.
Change is slow and hard. It takes a sustained effort, so most of us do not particularly enjoy it. Like I mentioned before, stress occurs when our equilibrium is challenged or we are stretched beyond our perceived capacities. Yet, it is in these very moments of pressure that lasting change within occurs. These are the moments where you learn who you are and what you are truly capable of accomplishing. But, we will only gain this understanding to the extent that we are willing to be transparent and patient during the periods of unrest and stress. Practice patience with yourself and others as you learn to adapt to the unchartered waters of change.
You see, as much as we innately long for connection, we live in a society that encourages disconnection to an extent. Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say we learn to keep our connections safely at arm’s length, usually via social media where we edit ourselves to avoid presenting the authentic truth of our daily lives. In a way, this is connectivity fraud. We are led to believe we are connected, when in fact we may only be sharing or receiving half versions of our true selves. Perhaps this is where we learn to conceal our emotions and tell ourselves the lie that we are innately wrong for experiencing a normal, human feeling such as stress.
I often wonder what would happen if we, as a collective humanity, made the decision to stop masking our emotions and start openly discussing life’s challenges when they are thrust upon us. Would we demonstrate more compassion and patience to ourselves and others? Would we feel more connection to and empathy for those around us? Would isolation decrease and inclusion increase?
Ultimately, I wonder if we would cope better with stress if the “Simplici-P’s” were integrated into our lives. Maybe they would aid in the removal of barriers that often lead to our feelings of isolation. Perhaps they would encourage us to regain perspective, seek connection, engage with our purpose, follow our passions, and demonstrate greater patience with ourselves and others. I am not certain of the answer. But I hope you have the courage to embark upon this journey with me and give it a try.