Retaining Your Present Stress Capacity
Think of this as a bank account. Your goal is to avoid overdraft fees.
Learn to acutely monitor and respond to your present stress load
Your present stress load will vary. You probably have a decent idea of what things increase your present stress load. Other things you have not yet identified can also do this. In any case, you can watch for the effect of these stressors, known and unknown, by being aware of:
- your sense of energy – generally, you will have less energy when stress load increases;
- your ability to respond with positive feelings when encountering things you normally enjoy – this normally decreases when stress load increases;
- your appetite – this may decrease or increase when your stress load increases;
- your stress reactivity – stress-loaded people typically become irritable, short tempered, and over-responsive to additional stress, when stress load increases.
If you’re already stressed, you simply will not be able to take much additional stress, without breakdown (overdraft fees!). But you won’t know about this vulnerability unless you monitory your present stress load. Should you experience a stress-overload breakdown, your stress resilience will automatically decrease, until you recover.
Minimize stress load through smart living
You already know what to do: sleep enough, take naps as needed, eat healthy food, avoid physical over-exertions, don’t get sick, take your medications (if any), avoid unpleasant people, associate with pleasant people. Just do it!
Act to avoid adding stress to your load when you already have plenty
This obvious tip nevertheless is too often not used because people think that avoiding additional stress demonstrates weakness, or that they might disappoint others by doing less, or that they just “should” push on, no matter what.
You may get away with ignoring your present stress load, but your body likely won’t. Emotional stress affects the body because we respond to stress by generating adaptive hormones which have a destructive effect on us while at the same time helping us to adapt to high stress load. They create an illusory stress-resilience. To avoid the costs of this illusion, you must be smarter than your body!
To avoid overload, and the real risk of stress-induced breakdown, (a) admit your limitations, (b) respond early rather than late, (c) respond decisively – this is no time for “baby steps”, (d) act to postpone or otherwise avoid any new stresses, until you’ve diminished your present stress load.
Increasing Your Present Stress Capacity
If you have PTSD or DID, the single most powerful way you can increase your stress resilience – your ability to withstand stress – is to get your disorder treated and resolved, as much as possible. However, this will take time, and while you’re working through the recovery process you can still do a number of things to increase your stress resilience.
Having lost stress resilience, regaining it IS increasing it
On a fixed income, if you keep overdrawing your account, you must decrease your expenditures. When you’ve overdrawn, you lose all ability to draw out further funds. You must make a deposit to restore your account.
When your capacity for adapting to additional stress is limited by the fact that you’re already carrying a lot, you must decrease your present stress load (expenditures), to increase your capacity to handle new stress. If, for example, you have to transport your kids to and from school, and you’re sick, you may need to spend the day in bed in order to have strength sufficient to accomplish the afternoon pickup. By decreasing present stress load, you effectively increase your functional stress resilience in the future.
Increasing your present maximum stress resilience – something we can all do
Consider what athletes do: Athletic training increases stress resilience by challenging their bodies with intentionally induced stress at levels that case an adaptive strengthening of whatever muscle/ligament/tendon/system you are interested in. Moderate levels of added stress, for limited periods of time, makes them stronger.
Consider what our cellular immune systems needs if it is to work properly and not turn on us (producing lupus, allergies, etc.): It must be “educated” or “tuned” by exposure in childhood to stressful, but not overwhelming, encounters with foreign proteins.
Consider the first stage of all effective trauma psychotherapy models: In order to tolerate the necessarily demanding (stressful) challenges of trauma memory desensitization, people go through a preliminary period in which their stress resilience is assessed, and then methodically increased to whatever level appears to be needed.
We do NOT all start at the same place, nor are we able to get to the same place after sustained efforts to increase our resilience. This is just part of our individuality. Still, we can all increase our stress resilience by getting as healthy as possible, deliberately taking on stress at moderate levels for moderate periods of time, then resting in order to allow recovery to occur.
This final step is critical: strength is gained NOT simply through encounters with stress, but through the adaptive response that occurs after such encounters. Just as we must do in our bodies, we must rest our brains in order to maximize this response. Follow this simple, proven plan, and you will improve your stress resilience.