I realized quite some time ago that I don't handle stress very well. This may seem strange coming from a psychotherapist. Isn't a significant part of my job to teach people how to deal with stress? Yes and no.
Learning to cope with stress effectively is certainly a goal for a lot of my patients. But I think this means different things for different people. For many people, effective coping involves limiting the amount of stress they expose themselves to (at least to whatever degree possible). For example, if I am in the middle of a major life transition it is probably not a good time for me to take on a new project (unless I have to).
Here's another example. Let's say I am someone who likes my home to be clean and tidy at all times. Now suppose my spouse invites a large group of extended family members to spend the week with us. Knowing this in advance, I might spend extra time cleaning up before they arrive and then give myself permission not to worry about trying to keep things tidy until after my guests leave. (Because I can either spend my week trying to clean up after everyone and make myself miserable or I can spend quality time with people I love and enjoy myself).
So because I know I have a low tolerance for stress I do my best to limit the amount of stress in my life at any given time. Historically, this has been a pretty effective strategy. Recently, however, there have been problems. This is due, in part, to the fact that my husband believes I should be able to handle more stress than I do. In making his case, he tells a story about how he used to worry about everything. One day, he realized how miserable this made him. He decided he no longer wanted to be miserable. From that day forward, he resolved to stop letting things bother him. He has been happy ever since. The end.
It's a great story. He makes a good point: excessive worrying does tend to make people miserable. I know this. And honestly, over the years I have learned to let a lot of things go. What I think my husband fails to understand is that his experience of stress and my experience of stress are fundamentally different. By nature, my husband is not easily exciteable. His disposition is cheerful by default. He likes to have fun and makes doing fun things a top priority. When forced to choose between fulfilling some obligation (which can of course always be put off until later) and doing something fun, nine times out of ten he will choose to do something fun.
I, on the other hand, have apparently always been discontent. My parents tell me I suffered from severe colic as an infant. As a result, I cried a lot and was frequently inconsolable. I can remember worrying about all sorts of random things as early as age four. By the age of five, I had developed so many compulsive behaviors that my kindergarten teacher called my parents to express concern. After a visit to a psychologist I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. At the age of five.
So in my view, the cards were stacked against me from the start. I have been dealing with anxiety for literally my entire life. To me, the fact that I've been able to find peace in my life is remarkable. And yet I do have peace. Not all the time. But I do have it, and I am grateful.
On the other hand, maybe it would be good to push myself harder. My husband says I need to spend more time outside of my comfort zone. I'll admit that I've been a little resistant to this. My comfort zone is where I have peace. What if I stray too far and am unable to find my way back? What if I upset the delicate balance I have worked so hard to achieve?
Then again, I believe we should never stop growing as individuals. I have grown a lot over the years but that does not mean I am finished. Who knows what I am missing out on while I stay here in my comfort zone?