Gary Gilles is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in private practice for over 20 years. He is also an adjunct faculty member at the University ...Read More
Some people cope remarkably well with the pressures in their lives. They know when to take time out, look at the situation differently or turn to others for support. Unfortunately, many more people cope with stress in ways that are actually self-destructive.
Even though you can’t completely eliminate stress from your life, you can learn sound ways to manage it and prevent much of the stress you experience. What most people don’t realize is that a lot of the stress we encounter is self-imposed. We contribute to our own stress when we don’t plan ahead, cheat ourselves on sleep, work too many hours, ignore relationship problems or procrastinate, among many other forms of behavior.
Two Types of Stressors
- Acute stressors are situations that come and go over relatively short periods of time. These might include getting your taxes completed by the due date, trying to meet a tight deadline at work, navigating traffic during rush hour, etc. Acute stressors are common and we tend to regain our physical and emotional balance shortly after encountering them.
- Chronic stressors affect us over an extended period of time. An example would be taking care of a family member who is disabled, being out of work for a prolonged period, experiencing an extended sickness or going through financial hardship, etc. Chronic stressors can wear us down and even make us sick if they go on long enough by compromising our immune system.
Reactions to Stress
When your mind identifies something that is a threat to you physically (a menacing-looking dog) or emotionally (a boss who threatens to fire you over a small mistake), you will physically and emotionally react to it. If it is a passing threat that quickly resolves itself (the dog turns out to be friendly) or a neutral one (your boss mistakenly sent you an email intended for another person), your reaction will be minimal. When the stressor is highly charged, you trigger what is called the stress response. This is your body’s way of mobilizing what happens next and where you ideally want to intervene in order to manage the stress response.
Unfortunately, many people have unhealthy responses that actually accentuate the stress reaction. Let’s look at a few of those unhelpful responses:
1) Denial: One very common coping mechanism used to inhibit the stress-response is denial. It’s very hard to release tension if you won’t admit it’s there. Denial says there is no problem. A person in denial might say: “I’m not tense” or “These issues don’t cause me a problem, I just let them roll off my back.” Yet these are statements that only try to minimize the mental, emotional, and physical tension that is mounting. This tension is both stored in your muscles and causing you to be preoccupied with emotion.
2) Avoidance: A close cousin to denial is avoidance. Avoidance attempts to side-step the problem by exchanging one thing for another. For instance, a person may acknowledge that they are upset about a particular situation but distracts themselves by funneling their energy away from the problematic person or situation.
Common avoidance behaviors include:
- Overwork: If you are stressed and unhappy with your marriage, work can be a convenient excuse for never being home. The workplace may provide the esteem and control that seems missing at home. It’s easy to immerse yourself in work while mentally justifying your choices as necessary to “provide for the family.”
- Busyness: Instead of facing the problematic patterns or behaviors in our lives, we can fill in all the spaces with incessant busyness. This is usually unconscious but ensures that we will have no idle time that might remind us of our unresolved issues. The more we push them to the side, the more stress accrues and the greater energy we put toward staying even busier. When we have free time, we distract ourselves with television or other entertainment to keep away from reflection.
- Passive entertainment: Avoidance through passive entertainment is probably the most prominent form of “stress-management” practiced my most people.
3) Substance use: This includes drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, caffeine and food, among others. The use and overuse of substances helps us cope by numbing us from the emotional distress we feel. It gives temporary relief, but doesn’t eliminate the root causes of the stress. It requires that we continue to return to the substance and behavior to cope. Repeated use sets in motion a compulsive pattern that creates a psychological (and in some cases physiological) dependency on these substances. This compounds stress and can easily lead to distortions in perceptions over time, clouding our ability to see clearly and undermining our motivation to find healthier ways to live.
These are just a few of the many ways we fool ourselves into thinking that we are actually managing our stress effectively. With sound, effective ways to manage the stress of everyday life, you can work toward resolving the issues rather than simply masking or pushing them aside.