The alarm clock incessantly beeped on the bedside table, seemingly in protest of the wake/snooze cycle that had been going on for the last 30 minutes. With a sigh, Carli turned off the alarm and got out of bed. Monday’s were always hard. To make matters worse, it was the first Monday of daylight saving time, also known as “Spring Forward”. Carli literally felt as if she was waking up in the middle of the night. As Carli got ready for work, a headache began pounding, becoming so severe that it delayed her normally quick morning routine.
She then began to worry about all of the things that might be in store for her that day; including a meeting where she would have to deliver difficult news to a client. To make matters worse, she would have to deliver the news to the client alone. She had just received a text from her coworker who was her key counterpart on the project saying that he would not be in today. It was a common scenario for him to miss work on Mondays. He traveled frequently to visit family that lived across the state on the weekends. As her anxiety increased, Carli’s husband began to irritate her with his upbeat whistling. She made a few angry remarks to him before heading out the door. Since she did not have time for breakfast at home, she stopped by the donut shop near the office for an extra-large coffee and several glazed donuts. As she strode into the office 15 minutes behind schedule, she failed to return the welcoming smiles of her coworkers and went directly to her office and closed her door so she could be alone.
To some degree, all of us can relate to this scenario in one form or another. At some time, we may have difficulty with our energy levels, a headache, lack of support at work, challenging situations, lack of connection at home, and craving for unhealthy foods. However, it is possible that these situations can be addressed with skillful means, applying basic stress management skills. What might have happened if Carli handled the situation differently? There are four skills that you can put into action to enhance your ability to notice signs of stress and more readily take action to reduce stress.
Skill #1: Bring your mindful awareness to stressors/early warning signs: Stress is a well-oiled feedback system. At all stages of stress, we can always know whether we are dealing with stress well or not. It is important to understand your unique stress warning signs as we each experience strain in different ways-physical, emotional, mental (cognitive), and social. Think about some stressful situations that you have experienced, and the ways that strain shows up for you. Is it physical symptoms-such as stomach problems? Is it emotional symptoms-do you get anxious or frustrated? Is it cognitive-do you lose your ability to concentrate or are you inattentive? Or is it social-do you become lonely, withdrawn, or grouchy? The way that strain shows up is unique to you and may be called your “strain signature”. Carli’s headache did not just come out of nowhere. Had she paid closer attention to her “early warning signs” or “strain signature” she would have noticed slight neck pains over the past two weeks and her use of coffee to hide some of the anxiety she was feeling about those pains.
Skill #2: Monitor your tolerance for strain: Our ability to put up with or tolerate stress differs across people, at certain times, and across situations. Just as we have our own unique “strain signature”, we also have our personal tolerance levels for stress. Do you tend to remain cool or heat up when under stress? Do you tolerate some stressors better than others? The important thing is finding a positive response. Instead of tolerating, we find a positive way to respond to the stressor. Carli had gotten into the coffee-donut habit as her way of dealing with the stress at work because it allowed her to tolerate challenges that might come up; especially on Monday mornings.
Skill #3: Know how to respond in healthy ways: If we are mindful about our strain reaction and our tolerance, we usually can handle stress by choosing a positive coping response. For example, some positive coping responses include planning a course of action rather than acting on impulse, looking on the bright side of things, seeing situations as challenges to overcome, and doing things to ground or center the body (deep breathing, yoga, QiGong, etc.) But sometimes we are not mindful because of our lifestyle (e.g., diet, exercise, sleep, relaxation) and can choose unhealthy coping responses. Examples of negative coping responses include taking frustration out on others, withdrawing from the situation, eating too much or too little, craving and eating junk food, and daydreaming about better times. After that tough meeting with the client, Carli realized that her caffeine habit was part of her sleep problem. As a result of her growing awareness, she learned about doing quiet reflection, journaling, and meditation before sleep. She also started avoiding coffee after lunch. She also developed a new healthy habit. Carli stopped evening activities for at least 30 minutes before sleep and used that time for quiet reflection or meditation.
Skill #4: Focus on the positive and thrive! Life is not only about stress, difficult situations, or negative factors. There are positive things that are happening around us all the time; even little things that we can be grateful for; opportunities for forgiveness; chances to be helpful. It makes a big difference in our life when we are able to tune in to these uplifts. Uplifts make you feel: hopeful, optimistic, effective, and resilient. As part of her journal exercise, Carli started writing down at least five new uplifts each day that had happened to her.
By using these four skills, we can not only manage stress but turn stress into a positive source of energy. Instead of being reactive to stress, we can be responsive to it and move beyond coping to thriving.