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5 Steps to Process a Stressor

Updated: Mar 24, 2023

Too often, we allow stress to sit unprocessed and we end up carrying it, which has disastrous results for our mental/physical health. Most of us don't even know what it means to process a stressor, much less how to do it. What even is a stressor?

Let's take a moment to define a stressor, learn how to process stressors, and understand why our health depends on it.

Unprocessed stressors take a toll.

It's understandable if you're not yet aware of the latest science on the importance of the body when it comes to our mental health. Only nerds like me get off on this stuff. However, it's vital that you learn how the nervous system (the body) and the mind work together when it comes to feeling well (or feeling shitty). We once believed our mental health was determined by the mind/thoughts. We now know that our thoughts depend on the state of our nervous system, and the state of the nervous system depends on how effectively we manage our stress.

A stressor is any event, comment, conversation, or experience that sparks a 'negative' emotion. A stressor can be very serious, or seem like it's not a big deal.

The bad driver in traffic (or traffic itself). Your partner criticizing you. Bills. Deadlines. An argument. Memories. A meeting at work. Expectations. Relationships. Work.

I'd like to note, that my opinion is that no stressor is too small to process. Even a small unprocessed misunderstanding with our partner can be a building block leading to full-blown resentment.

We can use the analogy of a glass of ice water. Let's say the glass is about 70% full of water. This is your nervous system. Along comes a cube of ice (this is the stressor). A cube of ice can be big or small, but the more ice we add to the glass, the more the water fills the glass, eventually pouring over the edge and making a mess. Similarly, when we experience stressors, each one must be processed (melted away) which makes room for future stressors. If we aren't in the habit of doing this, we literally carry the stressors in our body (tissues, muscles, fascia, etc.). This is called our stress physiology, and it can take a real toll, in the forms of anxiety, burnout, digestion issues, chronic pain, sleep problems, fatigue, and even depression. When we process the stressor (cubes) as they arise, we make room for the inevitable future stressors that will come. When there is no room for new stressors to enter and move through, we become a mess.

Now that you know what a stressor is, now let's look at why it's important to process stress. Stress is much more than just a mental state. As Dr. Nicole LePera notes, when we experience a stressor, the body shifts it's resources away from it's homeostasis (our safe and social state) and toward protecting itself. The flight/fight response gets activated, and here's something fascinating: the brain of the person whose system has been wired to process stress effectively recognizes that the difficult colleague isn't the same thing as a tiger chasing us in the wild. Therefore the disruption in homeostasis isn't long-lasting, nor does it have adverse effects. With relative ease, this person can navigate their way from dys-regulation back to a regulated state with some self-soothing tools. However, for those of us without the hard wiring to process stressors, the body & mind don't know that the difficult colleague isn't life threatening! The body continues to release cortisol and adrenaline (stress hormones) until the stressor has been processed. If we aren't processing stressors, the sense of safety never fully returns. We go through the rest of the day (and life) with an activated flight/fight response, on guard, vigilant, and without much sense of ease or safety. This is a huge problem and leads to actual physical illness and mental health issues.

We call this our stress physiology. It's normal to become dys-regulated (tense, vigilant, sad, angry, confused, etc.) when we experience a stressor. What we want to do is use tools to get back to a regulated system (homeostasis). Those of us who have these tools are healthier, physically and mentally. Those of us who don't come back to regulation experience anything from Irritable Bowel Syndrom (IBS) to anxiety to even ADHD, cancer, and depression, as noted by the infamous Dr. Gabor Mate.

Bottom line, as Irene Lyon notes: When you learn to listen to your nervous system, you learn how to release stress immediately.

Let's get into the simple (but not easy) tools, keeping in mind this very important concept: Bringing yourself into your body sensations is key.

Tip #1 - Slow Down (Pause).

This sounds so simple and even silly, but it's so necessary. Stop. Pause. Notice.

If the story (thoughts) kick in that you don't have time to pause, try to notice that as 'the story.' Sometimes it's true, we are engaged in a conversation, or an intense moment at work, and it's really hard to pause and process. That's ok. There's a 24 hour window. Make sure you come back to it when you have a moment, maybe on your break at work, or when you get home. The important piece here is PAUSE.

Tip #2 - "Name it to tame it." - Dan Siegel

What is the emotion connected to the experience? Disappointment? Confusion? Uncertainty? Frustration? Are you pissed off? When we label it, by taking the time to give the emotion a name, the neuroscience shows the brain activity goes from being lit up in the limbic (flight/fight) area to lighting up the prefrontal cortex, the most evolved part of the brain which is responsible for executive functioning: planning, organizing and problem solving, as well as compassion and connection. The key piece here: Name the emotion!

Tip #3 - Feel The Body. Notice your breath.

This is the hugely important piece involving the body. Can you bring awareness into the body? What do you notice? Are you holding tension in your jaw (like I do)? How is your stomach? Is there a sense of holding? Is anything tight and knotted? Is the breathing slow and long or shallow and rapid? How about your shoulders and chest? What can be noticed there?

Whatever is felt, can you allow it to be there? Whatever is here, practice giving it space, and room to do what it needs to do. Kind of like that glass of water, we want to learn to create enough emotional space in our cup to hold whatever is present. What's here right now? Is it ok (and human) for it to be here? The answer to that is yes. Is this feeling temporary? The answer to that is also yes.

Part of bringing awareness to your body includes noticing the breath. Don't change it, just notice it, for now. If you do anything with the breath, see if you can lengthen those exhales. That lets the system know that everything is ok, because we don't exhale deeply if something is truly not ok.

The important piece here is actually sensing the physical impact the stressor is having. This could be a felt energy, tightness, heat, heartrate, breath, etc.. Remember, become less identified with the story, and more attuned to the body.

Tip #4 - Express and/or Release.

Talking about it what happened with someone who feels safe can provide relief. Using your support system to vent can be helpful. Many people find journaling useful.

A single tear is an energetic release of sadness. Can you soften or release any tension or tightness? Can you open up your chest and let your shoulders fall back and down, away from your ears? Punching your pillow or squeezing a towel in anger is a healthy energetic release of anger. Screaming. Did you see that scene in the Joaquin Phoenix movie C'mon C'mon? He and his nephew are in the park screaming obscenities at the top of their lungs, just letting that shit out that has been building and building. I loved that.

Tip #5 - Self-Compassion

Practice talking to yourself the same way you'd talk to a close friend: 'I know that sucked, but keep going.' To that part of you that's hurting: 'I see you, keep going. I love you, keep going. This is universal, this is temporary, this too shall pass. Whatever happens here, I'm going to be ok.'

Look around and notice what's in front of you. The plant. The window. The tree. Another lengthy exhale. Orienting to our surroundings in this way let's the system know that it's safe to return to presence and engage with the world. Take a step forward with self-compassion, tenderness, and acceptance. You've just successfully processed a stressor.

Thank you!

My name is Robert Oleskevich, and I'm the primary psychotherapist at Hero's Journey Therapy in both California and Vietnam. A licensed therapist is similar to a psychologist.

Feel free to reach out and thank you for being part of this community.

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