Many people wonder if the amount of stress they are experiencing is “normal”. They look to the person next to them and think “hmm, that guy looks pretty happy…am I happy enough? Should I be more worried about the fact that I’m not as happy as that guy?” Before they know it, they begin to stress about stress.
The truth is, stress is an inevitable part of human life. And it can indeed serve a healthy function when it motivates us to work toward important goals or avoid dangerous situations. The tricky thing is that this healthy stress (eustress) can turns to unhealthy stress (distress and suffering) almost imperceptibly. So how do we know when our stress is no longer “normal?”
The thing to remember is that distress occurs over a duration of time, when a continuous amount of stress is experienced with no periods of relaxation or reprieve. This negative stress builds and builds, eventually throwing our equilibrium into an out-of-sync state and causing a variety of emotional, mental and physical symptoms.
- Emotional signs of distress: decreased motivation, low frustration tolerance, feelings of hopelessness, short temper
- Mental signs of distress: decreased focus and concentration, racing thoughts, difficulty retaining or recalling information, feeling “out of it”
- Physical signs of distress: exhaustion, general muscle tension and pain (headache, stomachache, muscle pain), increased or decreased appetite, disrupted sleep
How to prevent emotional distress
Remember, experiencing some level of stress in your day-to-day life is inevitable and generally harmless. The important thing is monitoring symptoms and taking preemptive steps to manage that stress before it turns to burnout (once you’re in an emotionally exhausted state, it will be more difficult to bounce back.
Listed below are key strategies to implement today and continually practice:
- accept what you cannot control. Acknowledge negative experiences instead of avoiding or ruminating on them (read more here and here)
- manage time effectively by setting realistic goals and expectations (read more here)
- set boundaries by saying “no” to obligations that will create excess stress
- express feelings and opinions instead of holding them inside
- practice self-compassion (read more here)
An important take away is to remember that regardless of whether it’s “rational” or “irrational”, any stress or distress that you feel is valid. The last thing you want to do is compare yourself with others who seem (keyword: seem) to have things “more together” than you. In fact, worrying about how you stack up to others will likely create unnecessary anxiety that will just create distress, if it wasn’t already there to begin with.
Now more than ever, you serve to be light in spirit and mind. Similar to how staying physically healthy can help you better fight off illness, strengthening coping skills and mental well-being will foster your ability to tolerate distress and persevere though challenging times.
– Carolyn Moriarty, LPC
Sometimes, life can feel unfair—not just mildly inconvenient but, like, really unfair. We have all been there. Maybe your offer for an apartment didn’t get accepted. Or you got rejected from the job you really wanted. Or months of diet and exercise are “undone” by an unexpected injury or week of stress-eating. If several of these events happen close together, the unfairness of it all can feel overwhelming. You tried so hard! You prepared for so long! You replay the situation over and over again and think to yourself “this shouldn’t be happening to me!”
Even if you consider yourself an easy-going person who is an expert at “not sweating the small stuff,” it can be hard to shake the feelings of distress when something truly discouraging happens. But have you ever really thought about why “letting go” of these emotions is so difficult? If you’re like most people, your brain probably automatically reassures that it’s perfectly reasonable to get upset. Its helpful voice chimes in to say “you should be upset, anybody would be upset! Let me get rid of any lingering doubt by replaying the scene for you again. And again. And once more for good measure.” Sound familiar?
Listen, it’s totally okay to acknowledge your emotions and feel angry, or sad, or irritated. However, ruminating as a way of dealing with situations doesn’t usually feel too great. Replaying a situation in your head is the brain’s “helpful” way of giving you the perception of control over a situation that is causing anxiety or uncertainty. But the more tightly you hold on to these feelings, the tighter their grip becomes on you. This can leave you feeling constantly overworked and overwhelmed by anxiety, despair, distress and frustration. Who’s really in control now?
There are actions you can take to regain power and control over those overwhelming feelings. Here are a few general tips:
- Put distance between the situation and your anxious thoughts or feelings. Take a step back and acknowledge the circumstance from a neutral point of view by simply telling yourself “I’m getting myself worked up because I wish this wasn’t happening. This anxiety isn’t serving any purpose.”
- Accept what is happening instead of wishing for a different circumstance. Remember, avoiding feelings by thinking “this shouldn’t be happening to me” only feeds into your anxiety. By staying in the present moment, you gain power and control.
- To better handle frustration and stress, change your perception. Think of difficulties as challenges or opportunities instead of threats. “This happened because I took a risk instead of staying in my comfort zone. The outcome wasn’t ideal but I might have felt even worse if I had never tried at all.”
- Change what you can in the moment. Don’t just hope that the situation ends and that your feelings eventually go away. When you decide not to ruminate, you free up mental energy that can be spent focusing on action steps. Try to identify one simple step you can take in the moment to improve your situation, whether it be applying for a new job or meal-prepping for the week ahead.
If you still have difficulty avoiding the “emotional build-up” of stress and anxiety, you might consider seeking mental health counseling for assistance in problem-solving and letting go of past anger. Take comfort in knowing that with practice and little self-compassion, you can find relief from chronic voice that says “this shouldn’t be happening!”
– Carolyn Moriarty, LPC