How Do You Recognize and Respond to Stress?

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How do you recognize and respond to stress? That’s a question I’ve been puzzling over myself lately. I have to say, I feel more stress and anxiety now that we are in the process of “reopening” our communities, as compared to last winter when Coronavirus debuted in the world and closed everything down. I find it interesting that stress is different for everyone – both in terms of triggers and responses. Why is that, and how can we gain knowledge of our individual stress behaviors in order to better manage our experience?

“In times of stress, the best thing that we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers.”

Fred Rogers

What is Stress?

As defined by the U.S. National Library of Medicine:

“Stress is a feeling of emotional or physical tension. It can come from any event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, or nervous. Stress is your body’s reaction to a challenge or demand. In short bursts, stress can be positive, such as when it helps you avoid danger or meet a deadline. But when stress lasts for a long time, it may harm your health.”

Clearly, by this definition, stress is a universal human experience. Stress is guaranteed to crop up at some point (perhaps a lot of points!) in all of our lives. Although we cannot eliminate stress from our lives, we can learn to manage it and even use it to our advantage. But first, we must learn to recognize and respond to stress and its unique impact on each of us as individuals.

recognize and respond to stress, woman in red glasses snarling at white computer

Circumstances Are Not Stressful – It’s All in the Way You Respond

Circumstances are not, in and of themselves, stressful. 

Wait, what?

No circumstance, event, situation, or condition is inherently stress-inducing. It is our reaction – our response – our thoughts about the circumstance that creates our stress. Understanding this is essential to stress management, because it gives us some sense of control, not over the event, but over the way we respond to it.

A circumstance is just a circumstance. Our unique experience of that circumstance determines our stress reaction. Think about going to the dentist – for some people, a basic check-up is enough to send their stress levels through the roof. I, on the other hand, have been known to fall asleep in the exam chair! Same situation – vastly different reactions.

The first step in managing stress, then, has to be understanding what triggers your personal stress reactions.

“It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.”

Lou Holtz

How to Recognize Your Stress Triggers

It can be hard to clearly define your personal stress triggers – you may want to respond “everything does!” Take some time to think about, or better yet, make a list of, times or situations that cause you to feel stressed. If you are struggling, it can be helpful to compare yourself to a friend or family member. What do you react to that the other person does not, and vice versa?

As you think this through, look for any patterns that emerge. Is your stress based more on internal pressure, external demands, or time management? Is it based in things that are out of your control, or unrealistic expectations?

Here are just a few common situations that trigger stress:

  • Being on time for appointments, meetings, and other events
  • Medical appointments, visits, check-ups, illnesses
  • Everyone in your family wants your attention at the same time
  • The news is so negative!
  • Deadlines for work projects
  • Your routine has been turned on its head due to Coronavirus and you haven’t been out of the house in days
  • You pressure yourself to do everything perfectly

You may identify with some, all or none of these situations – the key is to get to know what types of circumstances trigger a stress reaction for you. Once you can identify your triggers, you can learn new ways to respond to them.

Understand How You Respond to Triggers

As I noted above, circumstances alone do not create stress.  Rather, stress is created by your response to those circumstances.  After you have gained a solid sense of your triggers, it’s time to take a good look at how you respond to them. Your stress responses may be internal or behavioral, or a combination of the two.

A few examples of internalized stress:

  • Moodiness, which may be extreme or rapid changing
  • Short temperedness, impatience, feeling angry
  • Feeling disconnected or withdrawn
  • Becoming unusually disorganized or forgetful

Behavioral signs of stress you may display:

  • Lack of self-care or basic hygiene
  • Changes in eating patterns
  • Buffering – using alcohol, drugs, or food to “bury” your feelings
  • Increased Exercising or Athletic Activity (an example of a positive stress response)

Understanding and recognizing how you’re expressing your stress is vital to helping you find which skills, tools, and techniques will best help you cope with it.

Please Note: This is NOT an exhaustive list of stress reactions, nor are these behaviors exclusively related to stress. They are only intended to provide ideas to launch your own analysis of your stress responses. I am not a medical doctor, psychologist, or licensed coach. Please seek professional help if appropriate.

How Your Attitude Impacts Your Stress

Because stress is caused by your reaction to circumstances, your attitude can play a huge role in managing your stress level.

Do your best to have a positive attitude about the circumstances you find yourself in. I don’t mean to imply that you must be cheerful when in stressful situations – that’s unrealistic. But try to reframe these situations into something more comfortable and beneficial to you.

For example, instead of thinking, “I have to go get tortured at the dentist’s office; she’ll probably find all kinds of problems”, reframe your thoughts to “I choose to be proactive about my dental care, so that I can have healthy teeth for years to come.” “I have to attend the family reunion” can become, “I choose to spend time with extended family.” When you see a situation as a choice, it immediately reduces the stress reaction you experience.

It’s time, too, to surrender your need for perfection – it’s simply not possible to give 100% all the time.  Sometimes good enough has to be enough.  Do the best you can in any situation, and don’t overdemand of yourself.

Another thing to surrender – your need to do it all, all by yourself. One of the best ways to manage stress is to accept assistance. Look outside of yourself. Don’t be shy about asking for help!

Accept that you cannot control everything in life, and gracefully release yourself from any responsibility for things that are beyond your control. Focus your energy where you can have an impact.

Finally, know that your current situation is temporary and will resolve in time.  Look to your past experiences and you will see that you have the strength to withstand whatever it is that is causing your stress, and the ability to make the appropriate choices to work through it to a better future.

“Your mindset matters. Viewing this challenging time-frame as an opportunity to learn and grow will promote your body’s natural ability to utilize stress hormones to your advantage.” 

Dr. Mia Bartoletti

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Final Thoughts on Understanding Your Stress

Stress will always exist in our modern lives – there really is no way to eliminate it completely. However, it is entirely possible to manage the stress you experience.

In order to do so, we must first learn to identify the circumstances, events, or situations that trigger our stress reactions. We look for patterns in these triggers to give us the knowledge of what tools we will need to manage our stress. Our typical responses may be healthy or unhealthy, so we must acknowledge them and work to change any ineffective reactions. Finally, we can work to adjust our attitude in order to help manage stress.

With an understanding of our triggers and responses, we can then put stress management tools to work. Be sure to check in next week as I present a post filled with stress management tools, tips, and techniques.

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recognize and respond to stress as this woman in grey shirt stretching arms behind back

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