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  • Writer's pictureAli Brown

Managing Stress and Overwhelm with Two Habits

Stress Management Made Approachable

Does this sound familiar to you? You wake up with your to do list already rolling through your mind, you need to hit the ground running. You rush through your morning routine, maybe shower, coffee, who has time or a real breakfast anyway? You are rolling through that to do list over and over on your way in to work, trying to figure out how to get it all done. All day, it feels like everyone and everything are slowing you down while you try to just keep your head above water, attempting to cross at least a few items off your to do list before someone (family, coworkers, boss) starts adding more to the list. You look at the clock and realize the day is going by too quickly and you’re not getting as much done as you wanted. You start to feel more and more impatient, maybe even snippy with those around you, maybe you even have a few choice words for the folks driving around you on your commute home. You immediately plunge into home tasks, dinner, house management, and before you know it you are crashing, exhausted but unable to sleep, worrying about the next day.

For so many of us, stress is a daily companion in our lives. Now I won’t tell you that stress is entirely a bad thing, in fact some stress is needed in order to help us to grow. What ultimately makes the difference is the matching of our stress level and type to our coping skills. A good match will yield growth while a bad one while lead to breakdown or no challenge at all.

To illustrate what I mean here, think of your capacity for dealing with stress as a bucket, and the stressors you face as water filling that bucket. When you have the skills to cope with the stress in your life, your bucket may not be empty, but it can be managed and carried without spilling over onto innocent bystanders (we’ve all had one of those days when we take our stress out on someone who has nothing to do with what’s stressing us). When we start accumulating stress to the point where that bucket overflows, there are down- ‘stream’ impacts (see what I did there?). The current research has shown us that managing stress is one of the key factors to preserving long term health in our bodies and our brains. It turns out that spillover can really take a toll on both our physical and mental functioning.

So what do we do when stress starts filling up our bucket and we don’t have the ability or don’t want to remove the stressors? This is where the elusive term ‘stress management’ comes in. In this month’s blog, I’m hoping to make the elusive a bit more tangible, and explain the two types of stress management tools that I believe are most important to keeping that bucket under control and the bystanders dry.

Two types of tools vital to managing stress in our daily lives are 1. Immediate Response Tools, and 2. Stress Capacity Tools. I’ll go into more detail below on what each of these look like, but think of the immediate skills as a tool that pokes a hole in an almost full stress bucket, while the stress capacity tools work to build a larger container. Both of these tools relieve the pressure of a nearly full bucket, just in different ways and on different timelines. Ultimately though, both are needed for the long-term game of managing stress and promoting health and longevity.

Skill type #1: Immediate Response Tools

The first type of tool to invest in when growing your ability to manage stress is what you can think of as an immediate response stress skill. These are skills that are designed to help with the ‘fight or flight’ response so many have heard of. To back up, the fight or flight response is the biologically and neurologically programmed response we as humans have to a threat. It encompasses things like dilation of the pupils, reduced blood flow to the digestive track, increased heart rate and blood pressure, and increased blood flow to our muscles. All of these things are incredibly useful for the type of threat they evolved to address, facing a predator in the woods. The problem is that it has been a while since most of us have needed to escape a bear in the woods. Our daily stressors tend to look more like relationship problems, a failed project at work, or financial worries. These problems are not solved as effectively with stronger muscles and a faster heartbeat, in fact, those things may even hinder our ability to think clearly and solve the problem we face. So back to the immediate stress response skill. These skills are intended to help downshift us from ‘fight or flight’ to a more controlled state where we can process information more effectively. When use appropriately, these skills can help to shift our brains from the fear and emotion based response, to one of logic and reason, two things that can be very helpful in facing most of the modern day stressors I listed above. So to reiterate, these skills don’t solve your problem, they help you to think more clearly so that YOU can solve your problem, or at least identify the immediate solution to get you out of the threat situation and into a place where you have time and space to problem solve. Examples of this type of skill include calming breathing techniques and sensory grounding techniques. For instructions in how to use some specific immediate stress response skills, check out our social media channels this month here and here.

Skill Type #2: Stress Capacity Tools

The second type of tool that is vital to our ability to manage stress are habits that expand our capacity for dealing with stress by recharging us as individuals. As the old adage goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup, if you're going to deal with stressors without breaking down mentally and physically, you’ll need to have a full (or near full) tank yourself. What does this look like? Think of all the habits, hobbies and practices that make you feel more at peace, more energized and more content. Then, ask yourself how often you are engaging in one of these habits. When stressors are raining down, it can be very difficult to justify the time to yourself to be reading your favorite book or going for a run or whatever this looks like for you, but I assure you, it goes a long way toward your efficiency and effectiveness in coping with stress. These tools may not be an option in the moment that a stressor hits you the way the immediate response tools above are, but, when practiced regularly, they can really help expand the size of our stress containers and make us more able to weather the stress in our lives without breakdown. And if you don’t really have an answer for the ‘what do you do to recharge your battery’ question, fear not, there is no time like the present to start exploring things that might be a good fit for you. Start small, find 5-10 minutes in your day to try reading, walking, listening to music, or catching up with a friend. Take a mental note of how you feel after each of these activities and see if any of them leave you feeling a little lighter, and a little more hopeful. Do a mental inventory of times in your life when you felt particularly healthy and at peace, ask yourself what habits you had then that you looked forward to. Growing this tool box doesn’t have to be complicated, in fact if it’s becoming complicated, it’s probably adding stress instead of improving it. Start small and protect that time with a vengeance. Notice the changes that time makes for you and, slowly, begin to grow it where and how you can.

Stress management can feel like an elusive idea when you are facing a routine of overwhelm. But with just a few tools, you can start to find more peace in the storms you face. Stress management is a skill that each one of us has the power to build and improve on by investing some time and energy into our skillset. We are all works in progress, and, with a little effort, we can all continue to grow. As always, if you want a partner in your journey to grow and build your stress skills, Tailored Brain Health would love to help. Reach out to us by emailing or call 336-542-1800. And check out our social media for tips and ideas for activities that may help you to build your skills this month.

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