Coping With Snowballing Stress

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Image of woman dealing with snowballing stressImagine this: you just dropped off your kids at school in the morning. On the way to work, you get a flat tire. “Ugh, what an awful start to the day!” you think as you wait for the tow truck to get your car. When you get home, the heat isn’t working; so instead of getting straight to your work, you’re on the phone calling someone to come fix it. “No worries – I pre-scheduled my emails to send for this afternoon” – or so you thought. When you check your work email, it turns out those urgent emails failed to go through. 

The thing is, most of us don’t have to stretch our imagination very far because we have been through one (or many) of these horrible days before. Our day starts out perfectly normal, only for everything that follows to go downhill. And before we know it, the mild annoyance we feel after a series of inconveniences snowballs into anxiety and a feeling of loss of control.

Even though we frequently deal with these situations, many of us have not been taught how to cope with the anxiety and stress we feel. We know that the stressors of modern life–from traffic jams to work, to caring for family–induce the same physiological response as the life-threatening stressors our ancestors had to deal with. But the truth of the matter is, the missed work email is not a lion trying to eat us even though sometimes it might feel that way! So how can we reduce our feelings of stress, while still being authentic about the fact that we are upset and anxious? It is a balancing act. Feeling your feelings genuinely is healthy but staying stuck in your anxiety is not. The good news is that there are lots of strategies you can use that are backed by science to improve the quality of your thought when you are stuck. Here are just a few ideas… 

Try this: Ask yourself, “Where do I want my brain to rest?” You can either let your brain sit and ruminate over the horrible day you’ve had, or you can take a deep breath, acknowledge the ordeal you’ve encountered, and find another place for your brain to rest.

Why it works: I’ve written before about the power of creating space between stimulus and response. There is also emerging research about how anxiety hides in our habits, and when we do not take the time to really acknowledge(/understand) our feelings, worrying about our stress can just create more stress! Image of woman coping with snowballing stress

Try this: Ask yourself, “What ‘should’ statements am I thinking of right now?” Sometimes we think, “I should be a better mom/employee/coworker/partner.” Then, find evidence against these “should” statements if they are inaccurate and unhealthy, which is typically the case in these situations! For example, “Missing one email does not make me a bad coworker; it just means I had a one-time emergency,” or “I have been reliable countless times in the past, and my coworkers will understand that this doesn’t reflect on my work ethic overall.”

Why it works: We often hold ourselves to impossible standards that create even more stress. When we reappraise “should” statements, we give ourselves grace and free up emotional space and energy.

Changing our habitual responses to stress does not happen overnight. Like changing any habit, learning new, productive coping strategies takes time and support – something that I am happy to provide as a professional coach for women and mothers who can help you make actionable plans while providing you with both support and challenges along the way. You can discover tools to cope with stress and you can actually have a little fun while doing so!

Contributor Statement: Melissa Santos (melissasantos@alumni.stanford.edu) contributed to the research and writing of this blog. Melissa currently works as a psychology lab manager and is preparing to apply for graduate programs in child development.