Lately I've been hearing clients, as well as friends, say things that go like this: "Since last November, I've been having trouble sleeping. Instead of my usual happy self, I wake up anxious about the day ahead. I'm getting behind on my work. I rarely get headaches, but I had two just this week. None of this is like me. I don't let life get to me. I don't know what's wrong. And the worst thing is I don't know how to stop it."
As a psychotherapist, I'm not surprised at the level of chronic stress I am encountering. In our country right now, it seems that every day brings a new crisis and news that many people find disturbing. In particular, this is happening at a level that young people have never experienced in their lifetimes.
Acute stress versus chronic stress
Psychologically, we make a distinction between acute stress and chronic stress. The former may be intense when it is happening, but it's over soon. For example, a major exam or a car accident or a brief health crisis. With chronic stress, however, there is no end in sight—at least not in the foreseeable future. For this reason, chronic stress holds the greatest threat to our health and well-being. I consider stress related to the current events experienced in our nation in 2017 to be chronic.
In a Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy® (PACT), we talk a lot about arousal regulation. This refers to our ability to calm ourselves down when our nervous system is in overdrive as well as to get ourselves going when we are in a slump. In couple relationships, partners can learn to help regulate each other, which in turn benefits their relationship. For example, if one partner is activated, the other knows what to do to soothe him or her. Similarly, if one is lethargic, the other knows how to energize him or her. Notably, we can also use these techniques as individuals in stressful times.
Here are three ways to deal with the chronic stress you may be experiencing in 2017:
1. Feel your feelings.
Recently I heard about a friend of a friend who was suffering symptoms of chest pain that worried her enough to go to her doctor. The doctor found nothing significant on exam, so she asked the woman if anything had been stressing her lately. At that point, the woman burst into tears. As she sobbed uncontrollably, she realized she hadn't cried since November 9 and that all her feelings had been bottled up inside. They were literally making her sick.
So, whatever you may be feeling sad or anxious or angry about, don't bottle it up! Allow yourself to feel those feelings. And if you are under chronic stress, do this in a regular, ongoing way. If you are in a committed relationship, you and your partner can help each other by becoming attuned to your respective needs to let emotion out and can be there to soothe and support.
2. Take action.
If you are activated by current events, the best antidote can be to take action. Become more engaged in your community. You might think that being too activated means you should just retreat and relax instead and maybe get a massage. But action can be the best remedy for chronic stress because it helps you to focus on what you can do rather than on your anxieties.
It allows you to regulate your level of arousal by channeling the energy that goes into worry or anger or other negative emotions. Moreover, participating in a group activity is known to be beneficial for mental health. So, for example, you might find a local group of like-minded individuals who are organizing around a cause that resonates with you.
3. Nurture yourself.
At the same time that you're becoming more engaged in your community, take time to nurture yourself. This doesn't mean sticking your head in the sand; it does mean taking the time to do activities that nurture your body and soul. In other words, in psychobiological terms, you want to strike a balance between high arousal and low arousal.
Take walks in nature. Do yoga. If you are in a committed relationship, you and your partner might join separate community action groups but then come together over a candlelit dinner to share what you are each doing and compare notes.