by Kassandra Lamb
As the authors of misterio press deal with the “good” stressor of launching our new Readers’ Group, I’m re-running (and updating) my series of posts on stress management from a few years ago.
Last week, I talked about the three factors involved in how stressed we feel at any given time. These are (1) the stressors in our lives, (2) the body’s response to them, and (3) our cognitive/emotional interpretation of those stressors.
Last time, I drilled down some on the body’s response to stressors (the flight-or-fight response), and I talked about how stress is good, energizing even, up to a point—that point being the stress threshold that we all have and beyond which we have maxed out our coping ability.
If we want to avoid stress overload, we have to keep our stress level below our threshold, and in order to do that, we need to understand the stressors in our lives.
Happy Events Are Still Stressful.
Can I see a show of hands, folks? How many of you were in a bit of a daze on your wedding day? I know I was.
And it wasn’t a blissful, I’m-so-happy daze either. It wasn’t even an I’m-worried-about-what-can-go-wrong daze. It was more an I’m-so-overwhelmed-because-it-took-so-much-to-get-here daze.
I actually remember very little of the ceremony itself, mainly the bloopers: my father tripping over my train, the fly buzzing around our heads, and my husband forgetting the vows we had written together and supposedly memorized. And no, I’m not remembering those things because I was upset about them. I actually found them to be moments of comic relief that brought me out of my daze a bit.
I have a fairly clear memory of the reception, however, because that’s when the stress level finally got down below my threshold!
So yes, happy events still add to our stress level, because they use our resources: time, energy and emotional coping ability.
And here’s another thing about stressors that most people don’t realize.
Stressors Are Cumulative.
You don’t have to have some major stressor going on in your life in order to end up too close to or even past your threshold. If we’ve got too much little stuff going on, it can push us over the edge.
And we Americans tend to carry around way too big a stack of little stuff, sometimes without even realizing we’re doing it. Then stress overload can sneak up on us.
So one of the things we can do—indeed, we should do—when we realize we are too close to our stress threshold or have passed it, is to reduce the number of stressors. More on this in a moment.
Some Stressors Can Be Sneaky
Some things in our environment are stressful without our realizing it, because we are “used to them.” And/or we may like those things and therefore assume that they are not stressing us.
These stressors include sensory stimulation, noise, environmental temperature, etc.
I’ll use noise as an example. Even if you love the hustle and bustle of the city (85 dB), its noise level is still stressing your body. You may love listening to loud rock music (90+ dB) in order to “relax,” but its noise level is still stressing your body. (For comparison’s sake, the average conversation is about 50 decibels.)
Regardless of how you feel about the source, any noise above about 70 decibels is triggering that flight-or-fight response.
Again, our nervous systems are designed for more primitive times, to protect us from roaring lions and marauding enemy tribes. So when it registers loud noises, it assumes something threatening is going on. (For more on how noise is stressful, check out this article.)
Reducing Stressors — Hafta vs. Wanna
I used to teach a community education class on stress management. The first session, I’d give my students a homework assignment—to list everything they normally did on an average weekday, including minor tasks like loading the dishwasher or making the bed. Then they were to divide that list into two columns, labeled “hafta” and “wanna.”
The next class, I would ask them how many things were on their hafta list vs. their wanna list. Often there were more haftas than wannas; sometimes they were about even.
I would then point out that if they had more than 3-4 things on their hafta list, it was too long. They’d all look at me like I’d lost my mind – until I started going down some poor volunteer’s list asking, “Do you have to make the bed? …go to work? …pack your children’s lunches?” (Yes, I’d even challenge the premise that they had to feed their kids!)
The conversation would go something like this:
- “Why do you have to do that?” I’d ask.
- Usually the answer would boil down to some version of because they were responsible adults.
- “Do you have to be a responsible adult? What happens if you’re not a responsible adult?”
- They’d list a bunch of dire consequences, such as losing their house if they didn’t earn a living, or people looking down on them if their kids went to school in dirty clothes.
- “And you don’t like those things, right?”
- “So you choose to do this other thing (pointing to the item on their hafta list) to avoid those consequences?”
- “Well, yeah.”
- “So it’s a wanna. You want to do this to avoid that, because you don’t like that.”
- “Well, yeah.”
I highly recommend this little exercise. Make your two lists without thinking about it too much. Then go down the hafta list and ask yourself what the consequences would be if you didn’t do that thing, or if you did it differently, in a less stressful way.
One objective here is to take back your sense of power over your life. You are doing these things out of choice, not because you have to do them. Feeling in control of the stressors in your life has been scientifically proven to reduce the amount of stress experienced.
And you may identify some things that you really don’t hafta do, nor do you wanna do them. (Making my own spaghetti sauce from scratch got dumped the first time I did this exercise; why should I go through all that when store-bought sauce actually tastes better than mine.)
Through the years, I’ve gotten into the habit of asking myself if a task is a hafta or a wanna, and then I ask do I truly wanna be doing it. This habit has served me well. It’s kept me from tipping over into stress overload on more than a few occasions.
Dump, Delegate, Postpone and Pamper
When we find ourselves on the brink of, or actually in stress overload (i.e., we have exceeded our threshold and we aren’t coping with anything anymore), the first thing we need to do is reduce the number of stressors in our life.
The formula for this, that I developed years ago, is Dump, Delegate, Postpone and Pamper. “Just remember, DDPP,” I would tell my therapy clients.
One client jokingly said, “That sounds like a pesticide.” And thus DDPP was dubbed “Kass’s stressicide formula.”
DUMP: Is a particular task really necessary or can you simply stop doing it, temporarily at least?
When I’m stressed out, the first thing that goes is making the bed. I like a neat house and a bedroom with a made bed. But it’s not essential. I can let it go when other things are demanding my coping resources.
DELEGATE: Is there someone else who also legitimately shares responsibility for the task you are stressed about? Or is there someone you can trade off with to deal with some of the current stressors, and you’ll pay them back in kind later?
In the mid 1990’s I was getting burned out as a therapist, so I started teaching part-time and cutting back on my psychotherapy practice. My husband and I negotiated a little deal. During the last three crunchy weeks of the semester, when I had a gazillion papers to grade, final exams to write, etc., he would do pretty much all the household chores. Then during my winter and summer breaks, I would do pretty much all of them so he could have a break.
POSTPONE: I’m not advocating procrastination here. But if it’s something that can legitimately be put off without causing harm or making things more stressful, then do it!
After my husband retired from his long-term career, he began teaching part-time. He quickly came to appreciate just how bad that end of semester crunch can get. And in the fall semester, it came just as we were getting ready for the holidays.
One of his tasks was writing the Christmas cards. That year, he decided to adopt the European tradition of sending New Year’s cards instead—in January when he was on winter break. 🙂
PAMPER: Unfortunately when we’re stressed out, the first thing that goes is taking care of ourselves. But that’s when our bodies and minds need pampering the most.
We need to pay more attention, not less, to getting enough sleep and trying to eat a healthy diet. Because when we’re in stress overload we are past that health threshold I talked about last week. We are putting more wear and tear on our bodies than they can really handle.
A few minutes of relaxation, a few times a day, can do wonders. Stop, sit, put your feet up, close your eyes, take a deep breath. Read, take a bubble bath, or both, or just sit and daydream.
The time spent relaxing will be well invested, and not just from a health standpoint. You’ll find that you are more focused and productive when you go back to doing the tasks you need to get done.
More on relaxation next week!
How about you? What’s on your hafta list that’s probably really a wanna? And do you still wanna be doing it? What can you dump, delegate or postpone when you’re in or near stress overload?
Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.
We blog here at misterio press about twice a month, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.
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