Not too long ago I was enjoying breakfast with my boyfriend at one of our favorite local diners. It had been a slow, roll-out-of-bed Saturday morning — Just what I needed after another busy week at the hospital. But somewhere between easy conversation & bottomless coffee, my mind suddenly shifted into high-gear. While going over our plans for the following weekend, I realized that I’d had the dates mixed up in my work schedule & wouldn’t be able to visit out-of-state family on those days (something we’d been looking forward to for weeks). I felt flustered & angry at myself for making things complicated — which, in turn, made me feel even more embarrassed. Sitting in that restaurant, my emotions got the best of me. I had a full-on freakout over something that was SO SMALL (& easily solvable!) in hindsight… Anyone else been here before?
For most people, a scheduling mishap isn’t the end of the world. But as someone who deals with chronic stress on a regular basis (& is still working on managing it in healthier ways), even a minor inconvenience can sometimes release a waterfall of disproportionate emotions. Stress triggers chemical changes in the body that send the central nervous system into fight-or-flight mode. Normally, this is a healthy response that prepares us for intense or dangerous situations, as it helps us to be more alert & focused. But when stress becomes chronic in nature, it leaves us regularly feeling tired, irritable, & anxious. The more time we spend suppressing what’s at the root of our stressors, the more likely they are to manifest in other, unexpected ways. It’s easy to forget to take care of ourselves when things get crazy-busy (because… LIFE.), but stress builds up even when we don’t realize it.
How do we deal?
1. BE IN THE KNOW
Recognize what you’re doing & why you’re doing it. Maybe you’re lashing out at coworkers, eating more, or spending less time with friends as a result of your stress. Addressing what’s at the root of your emotions can help you find healthier ways of coping with them.
2. WASH YOUR FACE
Seriously, just do it. Self-care is easy to push to the side when you’ve got other, more “important”, things to worry about. But, if being a nurse has taught me anything, it’s that we can’t put our best selves forward when we aren’t taking care of our own needs first. So go ahead — put on a face mask, grab a glass of wine, & light a few candles. Anything else can wait until tomorrow.
3. GET SOME SLEEP
Regular, quality sleep can help to offset cortisol imbalance caused by chronic stress. Having trouble hitting snooze? Start by reducing your caffeine intake, working out closer to bedtime, or downloading an app that blocks out blue-light while you’re using screen time. Working nights is killer on my sleep schedule, but I’ve found that a comfortable eye mask & black-out curtains work great for catching ZZZ’s any time of day.
4. LEAN INTO IT
Find ways to channel your stress into something positive. This can look different for everyone — some kick their workouts up a notch or spend more time outdoors, while others retreat in solitude with a good book or their favorite music album. Whatever you find brings you peace of mind, incorporate it into your routine a few times a week.
5. ASK FOR HELP
This step is usually the hardest. During my last two years of college, I’d been having palpitations & crying episodes, unable to get out of bed & attend class most days, for so long that my mind had tricked itself into believing that, not only was this okay, but that there was no alternative reality in which I could feel better. It’s important to recognize that while most of us are able to manage regular stress, sometimes it can feel like we’re drowning. Find alternative sources of support (i.e. talking to a friend or therapist, researching pharmaceutical or holistic options) if you think they might benefit you. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness — in fact, it’s the most courageous thing you can do.
While I don’t have all the answers, I can tell you this: Stress is normal. Having emotions is normal. Reacting to challenging situations (in ways we sometimes can’t control) is normal — But, it’s okay to step back & recognize when stress begins to overshadow other parts of our lives in a negative way. It’s easy to guilt ourselves into denying what we’re feeling inside, by telling ourselves that we’re being just being crazy or irrational. I’ve learned to silence those voices & trust my gut instead, because facing our worries head-on is the only way we can make peace with them.