What We Need When Stress Levels Get Too High

What can you do for yourself when you are feeling stressed? Often, the habits of a healthy lifestyle are also good for keeping stress at bay. They include exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and eating in healthy ways. 

Sometimes, though, the usual ways of coping with stress are just not effective. They are especially likely to be inadequate when we are experiencing more than ordinarily levels of stress, sadness, or grief. What can we do then? 

Associate Professor Laurel Mellin of the University of California, San Francisco, addressed that question in the wake of the shootings at El Paso and Dayton that left so many people feeling unusually fearful. Based on research from neuroscience, Dr. Mellin believes that different brain circuits, more toxic ones, are activated under conditions of high stress than low stress; they require different coping strategies. “When you feel overwhelmed, lost, numb, depressed, or in a panic,” she said, “that is usually caused by the activation of one of these toxic stress circuits.”

Although specific events, such as sudden acts of violence, can activate faulty brain circuits, experiences we accrue over the course of our lives can exacerbate things, too. For example, if we have experienced periods of extreme stress at particular times in our lives, we may end up feeling stressed for prolonged periods of time even there are no real threats to our well-being. 

When you are feeling extra stressed, it may be tempting to try to distract yourself, but Dr. Mellin suggests that you do just the opposite. “Stop pretending you are not stressed,” she advises. Don’t tell yourself that you can’t do anything about your stress — you can. 

Have you heard that it is helpful to try to reinterpret your experience in a way that gives it meaning, or to focus on potentially positive aspects? It can be. But those kinds of cognitive strategies take more mental capacity and more effort than we can manage when we are feeling particularly stressed, research shows

Just talking about your experiences may be one of the best things you can do:

“Share your feelings with others who will not interrupt you or give you unasked-for advice. In other words, vent to a loving relative, friend or therapist. All the while, stay present to your own feelings.”

You don’t have to have another person around, though, to deal with high levels of stress effectively. Dr. Mellin also suggests that you “explore whether a deep emotional connection within, time for contemplation or meditation, can ease your stress.” 

Dr. Mellin has been treating people who have experienced trauma for many years. She has helped them to acknowledge their stress, rather than distracting themselves. She has guided them through the sharing of their feelings with others as well as the development of emotional connections from within. She believes that these brain-based stress tools represent “the next generation of coping techniques, or emotional brain training.” What she is training, she says, is resilience. That’s something we all need when life piles on the stressors. 

The mass shootings at El Paso and Dayton were also cause for concern for the American Psychological Association (APA). The organization commissioned a nationally-representative survey soon afterwards. The results attested to a widespread experience of stress among adults in the U.S. in the wake of those tragic events:

  • Nearly 4 out of 5 adults report that they are experiencing stress because of worrying about the possibility of a mass shooting.
  • 1 out of 3 report that because of their fear of mass shootings, they are avoiding specific kinds of places such as public events (53%), malls (50%), universities or schools (42%), or movie theaters (38%).
  • Nearly 1 in 4 (24%) said that they are changing how they live their lives because of their fear of mass shootings.
  • Only about 1 in 5 (21%) say they never experience stress as a result of any fear of mass shootings.

APA also offered tips for coping with the stress of mass shootings and other deeply troubling events. Some echo the advice from Laurel Mellin:

Talk about it

“Ask for support from people who care about you and who will listen to your concerns.”

Honor your feelings

“Remember that it is common to have a range of emotions after a traumatic incident. You may experience intense stress similar to the effects of a physical injury. For example, you may feel exhausted, sore or off balance.”

In addition, APA suggests a strategy that is focused on actions:

Help others or do something productive

“Locate resources in your community on ways that you can help people who have been affected by this incident, or have other needs. Helping someone else often has the benefit of making you feel better, too.”

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