After Friday’s post about battle-fever and how you can overwork your body’s stress response even when you’re enjoying the hell out of yourself, I thought it was worth mentioning that your stress response operates on a threshold system.
The Stress Threshold
You’ve seen that at work when some previously incidental stimulus, say, a co-worker’s verbal tic, suddenly drives you absolutely ballistic. Not only is it a gradual accumulation, it can even be triggered by something else completely, and carry over to every part of your life. This is why when you have a bad day, you have a really bad day. Because you are stressed, everything stresses you.
The stress threshold is adjustable. Some people are imperturbable, and nothing triggers them. Some people are trigger happy, and it’s not so much what triggers them, as what doesn’t. But the rest of us fall somewhere in between the two extremes. You can manage stress in a number of ways.
Lengthening periods of time between stressors is ideal, but generally an idle dream for most of us. But, you can do several things that changes your perception of stressors and can lessen your stress response, or, in some cases, change it to eustress.
Omigod, it’s a tip post!
- Perceived control: This is perhaps the biggest one. If you don’t feel like you have any control over your stressor, you are at the mercy of your ever-dwindling self-control. That’s why traffic when you are late is so much more frustrating than traffic the rest of the time. You lack control over the situation and you worry about the consequences. perceived control over your life is the most enduring stress-busting tactic there is.
Beyond that, the feeling that you can handle anything that come your way is an effective way to channel stimuli into eustress. Again, this operates on the threshold system. Let’s say you can juggle a full-time job and a new relationship, but add health concerns into the mix and suddenly it’s hard to cope. But as soon as the new situation become more familiar, you might be back on track to positive reaction again.
- Ephemerality: Sometimes, it’s easier if you can focus on the end of this particular stressor. The end of winter. The end of tax season. Whatever. Just keep in mind that you don’t have to keep up the effort forever. This too shall pass. Conversely, you can take a page from Eckart Tolle and stay completely present, in a moment with no past and no future. I live a bit too much in my head to fully endorse that tactic, but it certainly works for a lot of people.
- Reframing: Sometimes it’s not the stimulus, but how we interpret it. My mom always interprets the smell of smoke to mean that the house is burning and we’re all going to die. When I smell smoke, I idly wonder if it’s the prelude to a seizure. (I’m not epileptic.)
But we’re all guilty of it. My husband jiggling his leg is not annoying of itself, but…. when I’m sitting on the couch beside him and the constant shifting forces me to stay tense in order to keep my balance, it’s akin to nails on a chalkboard. Often, people will tear their hair out imagining that a person with a verbal tic is doing it on purpose because they don’t respect you. (You think I kid? Next time someone’s pen-clicking gets to you after you’ve asked them to stop, notice your inner dialogue. Then report back to the comments)
- Focussing on your response: Admittedly, this won’t work for everyone, but I think it works a peach. Especially for people with a tendency to worry or over-plan. Whenever you’re off-balance, or anticipate being off-balance, what will be your response? What will you do if you’re pressured in a negotiation? What if so-and-so lies to your face? Call me a ghoul, but I imagine what I would do in a car accident (don’t try this at home). For me, feeling like I’ve rehearsed if a great stress reliever.
Think of it as a fire drill. What are you going to do if your house is demolished in a tornado? If you get cancer? If your relationship goes under? If you lost your job tomorrow? I guarantee you, if you looked at this stuff today and started taking steps to get it under control, even to articulate it, your stress will drop.You’ll heave a sigh of relief. Ok. Well, at least I’ve got that handled.
- Focussing on something else: This is my least favorite, because it relies a fair bit on self-control, rather than just addressing the problem. But if you find yourself grumpy and irritable, muttering a litany of slights and complaints and generally just creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, focus on the good stuff. Find three places where you don’t ache, and put your attention there. Find things to delight in, not find fault in. Do something nice for other people, or perhaps even for yourself.
- Check out: This is crucial. If you don’t check out, and spend rather significant amounts of time away from your stressors, over time, your threshold will be lowered and you will severely hamper your ability to cope. Have a bath, read, a book, spend time with loved ones.
What works for you? What doesn’t? What do you do when nothing works?