Dealing with Stress: 5 Terrible Ideas ~ By Christine Hill
Stress: popular science tells us it’s the specter that haunts our steps and brings death to our door. However, as we learned with Kelly McGonigal’s TED talk, we’re recently learning that stress itself isn’t the killer. Rather, the way that we deal with stress can determine our mental and physical health in the wake of life’s ups and downs.
Everyone has a go-to response to stress, deliberate or not. One of us might wander to the kitchen for a spoonful of rocky road. Another may go for a jog, or burn off steam at a party. Maybe you haven’t really landed on your “thing” yet, and you’re always looking for better ways to respond to stress. But how can you know which responses are healthy and effective?
Bad Idea #1: Buy Stuff
Who cares what your life really looks like when you can pair your favorite pencil skirt with the perfect pair of pumps? For many of us, a new purchase provides a high that imitates the effects of a drug. This might be well and good when it’s within your budget, but it’s easy for things to spin out of control. If your stress response habits cost money, and then money troubles become a major reason for your stress, it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.
Bad Idea #2: Drink Up
Decompressing with a beer or a glass of wine after a long day at the office is such a common coping mechanism that few of us even realize that it’s actually a response to stress. Alcohol is a depressant, so it can quell our adrenal response to stress immediately, slowing heart rate and relaxing our body. However, any time we’re using a mind-altering substance to treat a stress response, we’re flirting with addiction.
In fact, this pattern is characteristic of Type I Alcoholism, wherein an addiction develops as a coping mechanism to deal with stress, and gradually the body and mind become dependent. If you ever get to the point where you find yourself unable to deal with the trials of our life without a drink, check your behavior and evaluate your relationship with alcohol.
Bad Idea #3: Eat Your Feelings
Eating as a response to stress is a completely rational biological reaction. When our body is confronted with chronic stress, it calls out for energy that can be quickly consumed, stored, and accessed in need. Your body feels safer knowing that it has energy reserves to fuel the need for sudden action. Thus, your craving for fatty, sugary foods.
Of course, unchecked, this behavior will actually lower your ability to respond to danger, your ability to deal with stress, and your personal self-image and productivity.
Bad Idea #4: Put It Off
Okay, so if you can’t reach out for any of your favorite vices in answer to the stresses of your life, all that’s left is to trick your mind, right? You convince yourself to barrel through the stress like a battering ram and ignore the toll that it takes.
That’s a really bad idea. It’s important to listen to the signals that our body sends us. Sometimes, your stress response is a call to action. Either it can enable us to move forward strongly, rising to the challenge before us, or it can signal to us that something is wrong with our life. If your stress is a positive thing in your life, be proactive and handle those stressful situations as they come with confidence, knowing that your body is mobilized to help you take care of it. However, if your stress is an unnecessary drain on your resources, re-evaluate your priorities, your time, and your goals.
Bad Idea #5: Lash Out
This coping technique is seldom one that we do on purpose. Instead, it’s an unconscious side effect of frayed nerves. However, the tendency towards aggression when we’re stressed can be counteracted with mindfulness.
Many of us, in response to stress, draw ourselves in and act “tough,” which can often cause harmful behavior towards our loved ones. Another interesting lesson from Kelly McGonigal’s TED talk was that one of our stress hormones is oxytocin–sometimes known as the cuddle hormone.
Oxytocin is a signal from our body that in response to stress, we need to reach out and act in ways that strengthen and enable close relationships with others. It pushes us to reach out for physical touch, confidences, and confessions. Our biology knows (often better than we do) that during stressful times, we need to be surrounded by social support, not isolating ourselves and putting up a strong front.
One Hard-and-Fast Rule
Distinguishing between a healthy and an unhealthy stress coping mechanism can be difficult. We’ve all defaulted to at least one of the above terrible ideas in response to stress. But there are plenty more terrible ideas out there. Set your boundaries by asking one simple question: “Will this behavior contribute more or less to my stress tomorrow?” If it’s something that sucks you into a harmful cycle of stress and unhealthy coping, find a way to break out of the pattern.
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