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Don’t let stress hold you back

by Mary Sauer

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A few weeks back, I completely dropped the ball. As the Matron of Honor in my sister’s wedding, I needed to find a location for her bridal shower so we could get the invitations in the mail. Not only was I feeling overwhelmed by the lack of options in our area, I was worried about the expense—my husband had recently become unemployed just a few months after learning I was unexpectedly expecting our third child.

Instead of tackling this task head on, I avoided it, and eventually, it caught up with me. Even though it was a relatively easy fix, and my husband was able to step in with a creative solution, my delay had caused conflict with another bridesmaid. Conflict is a part of having relationships, and this seems especially true during the high emotions of wedding planning. I wasn’t so surprised by the conflict as I was surprised by how much the conflict revealed about the way I was approaching the stress in my life.

At one point, during the conversation with the other bridesmaid, I heard myself saying, “I just have a lot of stress in my life, and I am having a hard time keeping up.” I immediately regretted it. It wasn’t that the statement was untrue, but that bridesmaid also had significant stress in her life and was seemingly handling her many tasks and to-dos way better than I was. At least, that’s the way I saw it. In the end, I was able to patch things up with her, but I was still frustrated by how poorly I was handling my responsibilities, compared to the people around me.

I didn’t understand why I felt so utterly paralyzed by a simple task. I probably didn’t have the skills or the ability to keep up, I thought, especially with the added stress of temporarily becoming the sole provider for our family and an unexpected pregnancy. I wondered if something was wrong with me, if I was incompetent.

I talked to Dr. Lindsay Bira, a licensed clinical health psychologist about handling stress and she had a lot to say about how our perception changes the way we approach the difficulties in our life.

“If we approach a task and have any kind of thought that we aren’t going to do well, we have….a hesitancy to approach a task because of the fear of all these catastrophic outcomes,” she explained. She shared how it was less important to understand why we have a tendency to forecast poor future performance and more important to recognize this pattern in ourselves and how it affects us, causing avoidance or anxiety when faced with certain tasks.

“So, if we are faced with a task, instead of connecting immediately with our thoughts and accepting them as truth, we should observe them as they go by, wondering how they might be bent in a certain pattern,” she explained. “We’re trying to create a buffer zone, space between the thing that happens and our reaction to it.”

Practically, she said this can be accomplished through a meditation practice or a conscious effort to slow down throughout the day and evaluate when we are experiencing those familiar thoughts about ourselves and our ability to handle the challenges in our life.

The next time that familiar feeling of being overwhelmed, of being certain I am completely incapable of handling what lies ahead, starts to creep up, I am taking her suggestion. I am slowing down. I am creating small spaces to examine these thoughts and exchange them for more a positive outlook. Nothing about my new approach to stress is changing the challenges in my life, but it is changing how I respond. With time, I am hoping to unravel some patterns of avoiding intimidating tasks or wasting time comparing myself to others before tackling a new task.

No matter what the next few months bring for my family, I am starting to see that going with my gut is not always the best approach. I might not be able to change the current circumstances in my life, but I can change how I react to them and that might just play a role in changing my future.

Mary Sauer

Mary is a writer living in the Midwest with her husband and two daughters. She writes about parenting, relationships, and mental health. You can find her on Twitter @MarySauer.