This time of the year is often called “the most wonderful time of the year” as the Christmas song goes, but it can also be the most stressful time as well. Some of us have performance or financial markers to hit by year’s end, there’s navigating plans with friends and family. Others of us experience heightened states of loneliness as it seems everyone is constantly getting together with friends and loved ones and more. I was recently reflecting on some of the challenges our current world offers that lead to stress. Dr. Gabor Mate a physician who specializes in childhood trauma was recently describing 4 key elements that lead to stress. And when he describes stress, he is talking about an emotional state that has physiological consequences, often times these consequences lead to negative health outcomes such as more frequent illness and shortened life spans, which is the case with loneliness.
Dr. Mate described 4 elements that lead to stress:
- loss of control
- lack of information
When we think about the past years with the COVID pandemic, it seems abundantly clear how all four of those factors were heightened for many of us on a chronic, consistent level. During that time, with so much unknown and changing constantly many felt unable to know what was real information, how seriously we should take this pandemic and what to do in order to mitigate it. On top of the uncertainty and lack of information at times, we had a loss of control, with lockdowns, transitions to online work, loss of jobs for many, and an inability to make choices as we had in the past. Then, to put a cherry on top of this stress sundae we had significant and ranging conflict over how to handle the pandemic and because of the social distancing and isolation, it became easier to villain the other side. Because our arguments played out behind a computer screen and not face to face with a neighbor, colleague or friend, many of us were less empathetic towards those we disagreed with. Add all that up, along with being more isolated and we have all had a chronic stressed out recent past.
And while most things have “gone back to normal” many of us are still experiencing the lasting consequences of a heightened state of stress for a chronic period of time. This had led to feeling less emotionally available for some, or less energy and motivation to connect with others. Still for others we struggle with how to reconnect with those around us. Connection and friendship rely on skills that we develop throughout our lifetime, but when those skills are not used and practiced, it does become more challenging to engage like we have previously. Ultimately being intentional about points of connection, honesty and vulnerability with others will be key to addressing these problems, however it can be a daunting task.
If you have noticed that the past few years of heightened stress have lead to habits that are unhelpful evaluate what you have been doing or not doing. Often times the things we think will help manage stress, like eating, drinking, and more offer temporary relief but lead to longer-term stress. It is often the things that we tend to avoid in these periods of life: human connection, regular physical activity, and eating healthy that will help us, not with momentary relief but long term stress management skills that equip us with the ability to handle future stressors. The reality is, that of those 4 things listed above, all of them are events that are in some ways outside of our control which makes taking ownership of your choices in that moment all the more critical for your ability to move forward. When we choose to act well despite our circumstances we grow in our self-confidence to handle challenges in our lives and gives us a sense that we are actors in our own life rather than passively allowing life to happen to us.