BY MEADOWLARK MONAGHAN
Stress is one of those fun Darwinisms that I really would rather do without. I get it – homo sapiens needed stress as a chemical reaction to perceived threats in order to out run prehistoric crocodiles or learn that fire, although an effective light source, will also burn the hell out of you.
You see - our bodies course with cortisol so that we can fight, flight, or freeze during these scary situations. However, prehistoric crocs aren’t really our concern anymore.
We’re more preoccupied about the planet burning, adult acne outbreaks, and the state of our Tinder relationships. Not to mention, the small stressors that are thrown our way without our brain creating them: racist micro-aggressions, Trump’s Twitter feed, and gaslighting bosses.
While cortisol, the stress hormone, was originally used for us to make this fight, flight, or freeze decision (aka the sympathetic nervous system). We would then either die or get over it (aka the parasympathetic nervous system). However, nowadays we have these smaller, drawn out, constant stressors, so our parasympathetic nervous system doesn’t react in the same way - causing our stress levels to bounce around, wreaking havoc on our minds and bodies.
Okay, while that’s kind of a bummer, I’m not here to stress you out even more because it’s not all bad news. Although exposed to stress levels vastly different than our sapient ancestors, we still can use stress to our advantage.
This is a little trick of mine I learned in college that is one of my favorite tools to enlighten people to the self-empowerment game of owning your stress levels.
The stress curve goes like this: think of a typical bell curve - otherwise known as a normal distribution - with the x axis being stress levels and the y axis being performance (or I like to say, productivity). For those who flunked statistics it looks something like this:
Now, this shows us that with too little or too much stress, our productivity is at its lowest. Which is basically saying: too little stress, like when you’re fun-employed, can not keep you on top of your game, like when that fun sneaks up into laziness and sleeping in until noon.
On the flip side, too much stress, like during finals week in college, can also keep your productivity levels down, like when you are so overwhelmed you curl into a ball and watch Queer Eye on repeat. Not that I’m speaking from personal experience or anything…
However, there is an optimal level of stress, right in the middle at the peak point of productivity, where there is just enough stress, a little fire under your ass, to keep you on top of that to do list, but not so much that you are overwhelmed and out of commission.
This, my friends, is the sweet spot.
And you can train yourself to stay in this sweet spot by utilizing your coping skills. Typically, I tend to lean to the right side of this curve leaning into too much stress, so it’s my coping mechanisms or self care days, that help bring me back to that optimal level so that I can keep slaying my day without too much burn out.
So, what are coping skills specifically? Coping skills are behaviors, thoughts, or emotions, that folks use to respond to change, stress, or trauma. Essentially, they are the skills we bring to combat negative experiences in our lives.
And when we say “skills” - this could be a whole plethora of things. There are as many coping skills as there are unique individuals in this world; simply put, coping skills will look different for everyone so we encourage folks to find what works for them!
What people are beginning to refer to as #selfcare are actually coping skills. What’s great about “self care” routines becoming so normalized is that it can spark some creative ideas to help us cope with stress.
When I’m feeling the need to dip into my coping skills, I typically like to utilize specific coping skills based upon what types of symptoms I’m feeling. For example, a lot of the times, my anxiety comes out pretty physically; we’re talking stomach aches, anxious energy, can’t sit still, headaches. So, when that happens, I lean into physical coping strategies to combat the physical symptoms. For me, that means high intensity interval training (I like looking up YouTube videos for a free at-home kick ass workout), going on walks around the park by my house, or deep breathing exercises.
When my anxiety presents itself more emotionally or mentally, like anxious thoughts, over-analyzing, or ruminating, I’ll go towards more emotional/mentally clearly coping skills like writing, listening to a podcast, meditating (I prefer Headspace), or cleaning! Although cleaning seems like a physical task, and it definitely is, when I clean up my immediate physical space around me, it also feels like I’m cleaning out my mental space too.
The part that always keeps me on my toes about coping skills is that although I have a routine that works for me now - that doesn’t mean they always will.
I have a friend whose main coping activities were drumming and surfing. Those worked like a charm for her. Then, one day - BAM, she ripped her ACL in half. Unfortunately, both drumming and surfing takes the use of your legs so she was left in a shitty situation without her main two activities that make her feel better.
So, I challenged her.
I told her to think of her current situation like a coping skills challenge. She will have to explore new ideas, ask friends what they do for self care, watch self care routines on Youtube, get inspired by other people’s coping, and try some on for herself.
Now, I’m happy to report, she is failing miserably at her first time with fantasy football and loving every minute of it.
The point being - whether you know what works for you or not, it’s important to be open and gentle with yourself when it comes to coping skills because sometimes we won’t be able to utilize the ones we want, or our bodies prevent us, or we wake up and they just don’t work anymore. Approaching self care and coping skills with a playful attitude, challenging yourself, trying new ones alone or with a friend - make the journey a lot more fun and a lot more bearable.
When trying new coping skills out, or analyzing the ones you use now, you can tell if they are working for you when – you feel better. As simple as that seems though, there is a caveat – there are some strategies we engage in that are not the healthiest like relying on our partner to make us feel better or drinking an extra glass (or three) of wine. The point isn't to diminish our emotions or block out our feelings, it’s to employ strategies that allow us to lean into our feelings, address them, label them, and then move on.
Some coping skills may look like hobbies: reading, drawing, painting, sudoku, the Times crossword puzzle. Hobbies are rad because they can put us in a state of “flow” - which some researchers believe is what brings true happiness. The flow state is that experience when you’re so enveloped in what you are doing, that it’s all you’re thinking about but simultaneously not thinking about it because you are so present. You hear about flow state a lot from top athletes as well, something called “being in the zone”... I’m not entirely sure, clearly I studied Psychology, I’m not an athlete.
But, speaking of which! Another important thing to note about sports and exercise is that there is tons of research backing up exercise as a treatment for depression. I wouldn’t treat exercise as a replacement for therapy or medication, but it can be taken very seriously as a coping skill - in fact, psychiatrists can prescribe it to treat depression. So if you’re like me and your mental health ties in to some physical symptoms, try getting physical in response and notice how your mind-body connection responds.
Other important coping skills I have in my arsenal include connecting to friends, opening up a conversation about my stress or mental health with others, and holding healthy boundaries in my relationships.
The conversation on coping skills is endless and definitely something we will continue to discuss on here! For now, if you want to dive deeper into the stress curve and good vs bad stress, you can check out a YouTube video I made on the subject here.
Take a quick quiz to find out your stress triggers so you can learn how to more effectively combat them!