I’m literally astounded by how often, when I say to patients “tell me about stress” – I get the response “oh I’m not stressed!” wide-eyed, eyebrows raised, fake-smile, knowing laughter, and then: “haha… well, my job’s a touch stress-y at times, and I’m not sleeping very well because my 2 year old is having nightmares… also we’re a bit concerned that we’ve been trying for a second for three cycles and it hasn’t happened… oh and my mother-in-law’s in town this weekend…” Riiiiight.
The thing is, we all have stress. Whether it’s financial, work, family, or relationships, we all have multiple triggers that get the cortisol flowing on the daily. But the bigger issue is that we’re so good at denying it! Women especially, when I see those deer-in-the-headlights eyes, I know there’s more to it. Lucky for me, it’s easy to recognize and I’m not afraid to challenge it with my patients. But while we’re all out in the real world, denying our stress and thinking that means we’re handling it, I’ve got some news: you may not want to deal with it, but your body is responding to it.
Our nervous system has two sides – the sympathetic (fight or flight) and the parasympathetic (rest and digest), that should ideally be kept in harmony with one another. Further, our bodies are incapable of discerning between external stressors (you’re being chased by a rabid dog) and internal stressors (your repressed feelings from your boss yelling at you last Tuesday). Regardless of the type of stress-trigger, your body responds the same way every time by releasing cortisol from your adrenal glands to stimulate the sympathetic side. That’s your body’s mechanism for dealing with stress – release cortisol, ramp up the sympathetic nervous system, and increase focus/acuity/alertness to allow the body to deal with the stressor. In the external case, your muscles are better able to run you quickly away from that rabid dog, and in the internal case you can focus your mental capacity to respond appropriately to your boss. Isn’t that great? Short-term, yes. Long-term, maybe not.
The issue arises when we continually stress out our bodies, calling on the sympathetic system to get us to focus and pay attention, but then refuse to actually deal with what’s making us stressed. Tomorrow we’re forced to add new stressors on top of the ones we didn’t deal with today. And here commences the snowball effect. Monday’s stressors weren’t dealt with on Monday. Neither were Tuesday’s. So by Friday we’re dealing with compounded stressors and we have to down a bottle of red wine just to get some sleep.
It might seem all doom-and-gloom, but stick with me for a sec. What if we dealt with Monday’s stressor on Monday? And Tuesday’s on Tuesday? By the time we got to Friday, we’d be only dealing with those things that Friday had to offer. Perhaps we could get by without that bottle of red wine, feeling less overwhelmed by the laundry list of stressors the week has offered up.
My point is, maybe we should sweat the small stuff – as it is presented to us.
Practically? I’ve been attempting to practice this in the last little while. Let me tell you, as a chronic deny-er it hasn’t been easy. But it sure feels good to accomplish something daily that takes care of a stressor, and know that it won’t be on my mental clipboard for tomorrow.
What do you think? Do you sweat your small stuff, or leave it for tomorrow?