How to Handle Emotional Stress

It’s Monday and you’re on your way in to work after a particularly enjoyable weekend.   That is until you tried to fall asleep on Sunday evening.  See, you absolutely hate your job.  It’s not just the job, it’s your boss, the lack of upward mobility, the rampant politics and of course co-workers that continually brag about all of their trips and possessions (“Oh yes, we’re going on our annual cruise next month.  And we just spent another weekend at our lake house.  Don’t you guys ever take vacations?”). 

After drifting off around midnight, you wake at 5 AM to shower, dress, and head to work.  You are physically and emotionally tired this morning and not feeling well.  The only thing that could make this morning worse is traffic, and, wait for it, here comes the traffic.  And, as we all have to merge into one lane to make room for some joker who rear-ended another car (probably texting behind the wheel), there is one guy next to you who INSISTS on cutting in ahead of you.  But you’re not going to let that happen are you?  You inch up to close the gap.  He inches closer.  You shoot him a glare.  He gives you the finger.

….and now it’s on.  After breaking free of the jam, both of you take turns cutting each other off, blowing the horn, and screaming insults until mercifully he exits and you continue on.

Can you feel your pulse racing?  I can.  Everything we just read is what happens when emotion rages unchecked.  The result is stress.  Followed by bad decisions.  How can we break the cycle?

This week’s stress topic is emotional stress.  Stress as we’ve defined it is a response that comes when we are threatened with a demand for change.  We’ve already talked about work stress, family stress, and physical stress.  Emotional stress is a bit more squishy but there are steps we can take to keep in in check.

We learned last time that the body’s computer is the brain.  The brain’s job is to make rational decisions.  Sometimes though, being too rational can cause us to overthink something resulting in a bad outcome.  If a big dog is running at you, it’s better to run away or run at it to fight it, but standing still pondering your options will result in a mauling of Jezebellian proportions. (Just google Jezebel to get what I mean by this).  In this case, your emotions might be your best friend.

What triggers raw emotion in the brain is the presence of Cortisol, the stress hormone.  This gets regulated by our Amygdala, an almond-shaped gland that acts like a thermostat.  When a threat presents itself, the Amygdala signals the production of Cortisol which numbs the analytical part of the brain.  What we get is that fight-or-flight reaction.  It can save you from a dog attack, but in the case of the rude commuter, it might result in one or both of you getting in a wreck or possibly even assaulted.  The key to managing emotional stress then is to develop strategies to de-escalate the threat or your reaction to the threat.  Here are some strategies:

  1. Identify your triggers.  Is it traffic?  A song?  Some repressed memories?  One of my greatest stressors when we lived in Maryland was the Gaithersburg Costco.  It was dirty, crowded, and I absolutely detested shopping there.  Once I was so frustrated that I ran over a lady with my shopping cart.  She was blocking the aisle waiting for samples of mini-hot dogs or something.  I learned after that to avoid that Costco and drive 30 miles further to go to the less stressful Frederick Costco.  What are your triggers?
  2. Identify your peak positive and natural negative times.  If you tend to be more optimistic in the morning, then do your toughest tasks then.  If your negative time is in the evening, realize the evening rush hour will really challenge you.  Mentally gear up for those pessimistic times and force yourself to be more rational.
  3. Practice deep breathing.  This increases the blood flow to your brain.  This works to knock back that Cortisol and get you into a more rational state.

Take steps to avoid situations that stress you out.  Maybe think about quitting that horrid job.  Shop at the Frederick Costco.  Reboot your schedule to take advantage of your optimistic hours.

Remember, stress can do us physical harm if not managed.  Don’t let your emotional stress hasten the process.  Take some steps this week to identify and manage your emotional stress.