Say Yes to the Stress

Jennie Steinberg, LMFT, LPCC

I spent the better part of 2016 planning my wedding, and in that process, I learned a lot. I learned how to negotiate a vendor contract to make sure my interests were protected. I learned how to delegate and then trust. I learned that it’s important for me to have a creative outlet. I even learned to have a healthier relationship with food.

But far and away the most important lesson I learned was how to handle stress. Or, more accurately, how to have a productive dialogue with it.

You see, unlike most people who are putting together a wedding, I loved wedding planning. In fact, if I weren’t a therapist, it’s likely I would be an event planner. Because I was so excited to put together this event, I knew I was heading down the wrong path any time I felt a lot of stress.

When I couldn’t get a color scheme to work, it meant that I needed to revisit my thought process. (I started with four different colors and then switched gears and made my wedding color “blue” — much easier!) When I had a gut feeling about a vendor, I learned to trust it. When I was exerting too much energy on finding the perfect cake topper, it meant I should probably just ask my florist to adorn it with a few sunflowers.

I did plenty of things that would have made other people feel stressed out, including hand-making my invitations and centerpieces. But I didn’t worry very much about any of these things, because they were aligned with my interests. Even though they were a lot of work, they put me quite in my element.

In short, here’s what I learned:

Stress Serves a Function.

I first learned this several years ago when my landlord decided to sell the apartment building where I was living and I had to move. I went to see my therapist and described my “symptoms” — I couldn’t stop checking Craigslist for listings, I felt fidgety and nervous, and my stress level was through the roof! She asked me to examine the purpose of that stress, and I told her that it was motivating me to keep working on the problem.

“Exactly,” she said.

Here’s what stress says:

  • “Do something.”
  • “Make a change, this isn’t working.”
  • “Keep brainstorming, keep working on this, you’ll figure it out.”
  • “Find a solution.”
  • “You made a wrong turn.”

Like all emotions, stress exists because it’s trying to communicate something to us. If we lean in and listen — if we work with stress rather than against it — we’re much more likely to resolve our issues quickly.

Being in the Habit of Stress.

But sometimes, stress isn’t productive.

If you set up a lifestyle where you’re constantly busy, constantly hurried, constantly under pressure, stress becomes a habit. In some social circles, stress can even be a status symbol. “Gosh, I’m so busy that I haven’t been to the gym in weeks.” And then the one-upmanship that follows: “Yeah, I know what you mean — I haven’t been to the gym in weeks either… and also I don’t have time to do my laundry!” “Me too — I haven’t done my laundry in like two months! And some days I can’t even find the time to shower… I just use extra deodorant!”

We live in a culture that tells us we have to be productive, we have to stay useful, we have to stay busy. And busy naturally leads to stress, and stress is a sign that you are capital-S Successful. Eventually your stress doesn’t even have an object anymore, and you just get into the habit of being busy and feeling stressed.

And that’s when stress gets unhealthy. Stress exists to alert us of a change that needs to be made. Evolutionarily, the adrenaline surge and cortisol spike that comes with something like a car accident or a confrontation serves us well. It readies us for action. But when we walk around with high levels of cortisol all the time, it makes us physically sick in the most literal sense. If you’re in the habit of stress, it might be time to question what that’s telling you about the lifestyle you’re living, and whether it’s something you’re satisfied with.

What About Stress Over Things You Can’t Control?

There are two categories of situations that you will encounter in your life:

1. Things you have control over
2. Things you do not have control over

We already talked about what to do with stress in category #1: use it to motivate you. But what about stress over things in category #2. Since you can’t change the situation, what you have to do instead is change your attitude. You have to come to a place where you can feel peaceful about your lack of control. Your ability to do that is likely to vary based on what the thing is — for example, it’s probably easier to find peace about traffic on the 101 than it is to find peace about the belief that you have wasted the best years of your life. But regardless, that’s where the work is.

What To Do With Stress When You Notice It.

When you notice you’re stressed out, ask yourself:

  • Is this a situation I can control or a situation I can’t control?
  • What is my stress trying to communicate to me?
  • Is it possible I made a wrong turn and that’s why I’m feeling so stressed out?
  • Is the best self-care in this moment to check the thing that’s making me stressed off of my to do list, or to take a deep breath and try to center myself in the here and now?

Sometimes, if there’s someone you’re close to in your life — whether a significant other, roommate, best friend, or parent, it’s also nice to engage a partner in helping you ask these questions. When you’re at peak stress level, you might not have the emotional wherewithal to tap into this yourself.

But in short, if you can work with stress, it will always be more effective than working against the stress.