Functioning with Stress
Stress is a sneaky bastard. You often don’t even realize when things start to stress you out. Suddenly there it is. You have reached the tipping point. You become nervous, can’t focus properly anymore and everything just seems too much to handle. And you feel pushed and pulled into all sorts of directions. You can’t perform the way you want to, it becomes more difficult to keep on top of things and you feel like a hamster running in a wheel, not sure how to get out of that wheel. Stress is a sneaky bastard. And if you are not careful, it will catapult you into anxiety land in no time.
Stress and Anxiety
Peopl oftene seem unable to tell the difference between feeling stressed and feeling anxious. For me, these two emotions are on a spectrum. They display similar symptoms but they differ in severity. On the one end, you have stress. It can be very light stress. You feel a bit more tired, you feel like there is so much to take care of and sort, you feel nervous and worried.
On the other end, there is anxiety. You feel overwhelmed and panicking. You don’t know how to calm down anymore, things are blurry, you feel utterly exhausted and need a way out from everything. Here you also find panic attacks, anxiety disorders and flashbacks. But when stress turns into anxiety, that is hard to say. There is this grey zone where the symptoms of extreme stress and anxiety sort of overlap and it is hard to tell the difference. Stress exacerbates already existing anxiety issues. Anxiety can make you feel more stressed out.
Needing Stress to Function
I quite like the buzz of stress. That is if stress levels are not too high. I like to have a lot to do. Distractions, especially productive distractions, are a great way for me to cope with my anxiety and other mental health struggles. I need the pressure of deadlines, of to do lists, of lists of messages and emails to reply to, to get myself to do things. There is a buzz, an immediate need to do things. It makes me feel alive.
I function well under stress. I am a problem solver, I am someone who can multitask. There is no issue for me to guide others or check off items from my to do lists. I meet deadlines, I don’t disappoint. I assume I would probbaly be quite a productive worker bee. Buzz buzz buzz. I love feeling the pressure, the push to do things. It is during times when I am told to calm down and relax, when I struggle the most. Don’t leave me alone with my struggles and my crazy mind. It is when I have no distractions, nothing to do, that I am at my worst.
Unless, well, unless, the stressors become too many. And I really don’t see it coming. I have brilliant (well, ideas that I personally feel are brilliant!) ideas, my to do lists become longer and while I meet deadlines, I need to push very hard to get there. And then just let something small happen, a stressor, an inconvenience. Someone sending me a rude message, one of my physical health conditions acting up, seeing people fight, my laptop needing to restart. And it tips over. The helpful stress levels get elevated, and turn into real stress.
It is then I need a break. Only, I don’t do breaks well, at all. I need the productive distractions so I can keep my messed up mind occupied. So my options are either get stressed out more and more and eventually turn into an anxious mess. Or take a break and become an anxious mess right away. It is really hard for me to find a balance there, because I am also a perfectionist and I feel like I am letting people down if I don’t do things I have promised.
Balancing it all
My planning and my workload of responsibilties is sort of a balance act. I plan ahead in a way that it makes sense to me. But what I often miss to include is scenarios where I am maybe struggling more than usual with my mental and physical illnesses, and my focus is off. Or when other additional stressors come in. I mean, I couldn’t foresee the Corona crisis, nor my many months long IBS flare up, a mixed bipolar episode or conflict around me.
So I guess where I mess up is expecting stabiliy. It is like: in the best of worlds, this is what I can handle, so write all that down in a to do list. But then things go south and I still have the to do list, plus a whole bunch of other things to deal with, plus unstable mental and physical health. So I am stuck with stressors, lists and deadlines and evenually I just burn out.
So what do I do to handle stress? That is a very good question! I can’t do the usual stuff that others would suggest. We have all heard it: self-care, take a break, mindfulness, exercise, eat well, relax, yoga. I am not a Karen. And I don’t need a home spa day. It would make me nuts! But if you are an otherwise well-functioning human being, then doing things that would soothe you, and that give you a break from stressors, is definitly a good idea! Cut down on your workload, and think about what you really need to do.
Priorities work well for me, at times. I rearrange my lists, and focus on what really needs to be done. But not only so I meet deadlines and such, but also so I feel better. So a shower is more important than a blogpost. Eating and cooking meals is more important than taking pictures. Those sort of priorities. I am really bad at relaxing and doing “nothing” (because time with my head is not a good time, ever). But I am able to do some things that I find help but still seem like productive distractions to me: watch a movie while handwriting a long letter. Cooking dinner while listening to loud music.
I think one thing that I find important is to remove stressors that I didn’t choose to have in my life, or to walk away from situations that make me more vulnerable to stress because they are anxiety-inducing. So I walk away from conflict, from people who drain my energy, and I try to plan ahead as much as possible. So I have some sort of stability. In the end it is my own priorities that decide how much I let stress affect me.
It can be so difficult to know where your stress limits are. It depends on vulnerabilities, on the exact situation, on what life throws at you. I also don’t think that there is any general advice that would work for everyone. In the end it is all about self-awareness, priorities and your own expectations.