Sunday, June 17, 2012

Stress response

It seems like most of the literature on stress management focuses primarily on ways a person can better tolerate stress or on how to relax when stress becomes overwhelming.  The implicit assumption is that the presence of multiple external stressors is inevitable.  Given its inevitable presence in our lives, we are best served by learning to respond to stress in a healthy and adaptive manner.

I agree that we can all benefit from learning to regulate our response to stress.  Many of us react to external stressors in ways that create more stress, thereby exacerbating the problem.  A lot of us fail to make time to relax or to engage in activities we enjoy.  When we neglect to care for ourselves, our ability to tolerate distress and anxiety decreases.  (In other words, we can tolerate higher levels of stress if we take care of ourselves physically and mentally). 

What appears to be missing from the literature is an acknowledgement that there are innate differences in how people react to stress (and in how much stress people can tolerate before becoming overwhelmed).

We all know people who perfrom best when under pressure.  Among these people are those who seem to have difficulty performing unless they are under pressure.  Often, these are the people who procrastinate until the last possible moment.  It is not until the deadline looms ominously before them that they are stirred to action.  The pressure seems to motivate them like nothing else can; they thrive on it.

Then there are those who fall apart when faced with even the smallest stressor.  A slight change of plans can ruin their day.  Interruptions in their normal routine create excessive anxiety.  These are people who become overwhelmed fairly easily. 

These are mostly innate differences, largely attributable to variations in temperament.  Those who thrive under pressure can learn to stop putting things off to the last minute.  Still, they will probably always have the urge to put things off, even if they push themselves to do otherwise.  Those who become anxious at the drop of a hat can learn to cope with stress more effectively.  Still, they will probably always experience some degree of anxiety under stress, even after they learn to manage it in healthy ways. 

I personally tend to have a strong, negative emotional response to stress.  Any kind of stress makes me anxious.  When I'm feeling stressed out, I often have trouble concentrating because I can't stop thinking about whatever it is that is stressing me out.  I devote a significant amount of emotional energy to feeling anxious and thus become irritable or frustrated with very little provocation.  My overall energy level plummets.  I've always had this reaction to stress, even as a child. 

Over time, I have learned to structure my life so that certain times are designated for carrying out various obligations.  This ensures that everything I need to do gets done in a timely manner.  It also means I don't have to spend additional time worrying about what needs to be done or about finding time to do it. I've learned to challenge the catastrophic (or otherwise unreasonable) thoughts that have a tendency to arise when I'm feeling stressed out.  I have improved my ability to tolerate stress and anxiety so that I can continue to function effectively when these feelings are present. 

While I can cope with my negative emotional response to stress [i.e., anxiety], I cannot seem to prevent myself from having the response; it happens automatically.  I could get angry at myself for this but that would only make things worse.  Instead, I've learned to accept myself as I am.  This means accepting my overly-anxious tendencies without judgment.  "Ok, so I'm anxious," I tell myself.  "I know I'll feel better once I'm not so stressed out.  I just need to do the best I can until then."

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