TLDR: For those who don’t want to read this long post: Stress is like physical pain–it hurts, sometimes too much for our existing coping mechanisms. We can’t always avoid this type of stress. Knowing this, what is the best (i.e., healthiest and most sustainable) response?
Recently, I had the privilege of weathering a brutally unfair, chaotic, and unexpected roll-out of a new, academic testing format. It was one of those situations in which my intuition (born from working in 4 different degree programs over the last several years) told me that something terrible was going to happen. Regardless, I dug deep to access my depleted-but-still-present reserves of optimism. I proactively thought about the worst possible scenario (failing this last test and getting kicked out of my program only 3 months from completion) and how to guard against it (studying as if I’d already failed so that I could anticipate any weird curve balls the new test might throw at me). I looked straight at this scenario and decided it wouldn’t happen. I studied my brains out, using every available resource that my mentors recommended: student resource center, calls with my course mentor, calls with my academic mentor, 1500 + practice questions, etc. I ranted/vented/complained to sympathetic friends and family. Still, I felt like something was missing, but neither I nor any of the people I went to for advice could think of what it was. I practiced remaining calm and approaching each test question as if it was my first, reading carefully, answering mindfully, and researching my mistakes to ensure that I didn’t make them again. I worked to the point of burnout, exhausted and sick of the material.
Finally, it was time to take the real test. I took it and did NOT pass, missing it by just a few questions. While I’d anticipated this, it was still devastating. I only had one more chance to pass it, or risk not graduating and rendering all of the sacrifices of the last 3 years invalid.
The stress of this knowledge took a heavy toll on every aspect of my health. My skin went dull. My body, already struggling to recover from Grave’s disease and thyroid issues, bloated with inflammation and water weight, making my clothes feel tight and uncomfortable. I had trouble regulating my body temperature, finding it difficult to warm up no matter how much I bundled or heated my home. I had dreams where all I did was toil. I woke up every morning feeling exhausted not matter how early I went to bed. I got sick, a terrible cold, that dragged my fatigue into a whole new level of misery. My stomach cramped and delayed emptying, making it hard to eat healthy, fiber-and-protein-rich meals without feeling uncomfortably full for hours. My muscles spontaneously tensed and spasmed, even in the middle of supposedly relaxing stretches and movement. Yoga class was wonderful in the moment, but I still felt heavy and brain-fogged from the stress. Worse yet, the exertion of even gentle, restorative yoga left me too fatigued to study effectively, meaning I couldn’t start my day with classes like I normally would. My creativity and problem solving abilities noticeably diminished. It felt like my brain was a computer infected with malware that slowed down every essential process.
Looking back at this, I know all of these things came from the stress of failing and having to retake such a high stakes test. (I did retake it and pass with flying colors, btw). :) And now, gazing back at the past couple of months from the vantage point of having survived, I had an epiphany: stress is like pain. It can sometimes reach unbearable levels that overwhelm my existing coping mechanisms.
It helps to think about stress like a bad headache or like severe back pain. As a migraine sufferer, when I feel a headache coming on, I quickly head it off with medication (usually Excedrin and several glasses of water). I’ve learned to do this because if I don’t, I end up curled up in a ball with that miserable, extreme photo-sensitivity plus a pounding/vice grip sensation around my entire skull that only migraines can bring. Likewise, if my back muscles get too achy, I go to a chiropractor or get a massage, or do some extra stretches to work out the tension.
In contrast, when I feel my stress levels creeping up, there’s no quick way to derail that process. I can do yoga, create positive visualizations, eat healthy, and meditate. I can talk with friends, pray, sing, and prepare for the upcoming difficulties as best as possible; but there are times when stress becomes unbearable. If my physical pain becomes unbearable, I can always go to a hospital for help. But what about when stress becomes overwhelming? What happens when a stressful situation is the only thing I can think about, kind of like the emotional version of a distractingly awful toothache? Is there some sort of stress-banishing version of Excedrin that I’m missing out on?
The most helpful part of this thought experiment has been to embrace the idea that it’s not a failure on my part if my stress levels exceed my ability to process them. Sometimes, through no fault of our own, life ends up being overwhelming, emotionally painful, and psychologically draining. The key to staying sane seems to be to make whatever changes I can to ensure that a state of overwhelm and exhaustion doesn’t become my norm (and to accept that making those changes doesn’t always guarantee that the overwhelm will vanish quickly).
If you think about it, we caretakers regularly grapple with this dilemma–sometimes our children, parents, or partners need extraordinary amounts of care. Is it our fault that our loved ones get sick or need long term, intensive care? No, of course not.
Concomitantly, is it our fault if caring for a sick loved one (or dealing with any other difficult situation) becomes stressful and overwhelming? I’d argue that it’s not. However, the prevailing attitude toward stress always seems skewed toward blaming the stressed out person for his or her own situation. Stressed? Oh, don’t let outside circumstances dictate your emotions! Feeling overwhelmed? Remember that we can’t control what happens, but we can control our response to it. Well, sure…I can control my response to the point of not raging or hurting myself or someone else. But living with high levels of stress is like living near a massive building fire—no matter how much I try not to breathe in the smoke-filled, polluted air, I still have to breathe and my available filtration masks can only filter out so much. What happens when that building fire 1) requires my involvement but is not something I can put out myself and/or 2) already has professionals working to extinguish it, but won’t be extinguished for several weeks or months?
I wish I had a solution for this. I know from direct experience that too much stress is toxic and destructive on every level: emotionally, psychologically, and physically. I’m also a believer in the power of love and positivity to redeem even the most dire situation. Is the best way to cope with overwhelming stress to ask for help while proactively and systematically trying everything I can think of to remedy the situation? Or is it to find ways to endure just an hour longer, living minute by minute and looking for the next actionable item? Is it to attend therapy to seek expert advice on dealing with an extraordinarily difficult situation? Is it to delegate/offload less urgent tasks so that I have more energy for the stress inducing ones? If I compare stress to a raging toothache, it looks like my priority should be to resolve the issue ASAP, because how will I possibly be able to focus on anything else when coping with it is devouring all of my resources?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on stress and on dealing with high levels of stress for long periods of time. Much love to you , and thanks for being here for this journey.