This time of year is normally defined by family, food and fun but let’s be honest, it’s not all Jingle Bells and Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree! Between the people you only want to see in small doses, must-attend events that cut into your personal time, and the added financial strain, stress and the holiday season often go hand in hand. And that was before 2020.
This year will be different for a lot of reasons. And while some of our sources of stress have gone away, others have been replaced in spades.
Stress can be an angry beast that wants to be soothed with instant gratification – and so we are delivered urges to do just that. Giving into urges generally gets us in to trouble – it’s almost like we’re not in our right minds when we eat the whole bag of chips, or hurl the frying pan at our partner.
As your personal vulnerability barometer increases so too does your fight or flight response (your amygdala) respond with commensurate intensity. That’s its job – to protect you. Think of your fight or flight response as a little caveman guarding all incoming information with the ferocity of a well-intentioned, if not intellectual, gremlin. As your vulnerabilities go up (lack of sleep, not working out, poor nutrition, too much alcohol, too many triggers), so too does the sensitivity of that fight or flight response, releasing adrenalin and cortisol into your body so you have the energy to outrun the buffalo when it senses danger. This is a life-saver when your physical being is in danger – but not so much when the trigger is your mother-in-law criticizing your child rearing skills (over Zoom no less), or the oven breaking down just as you’re rushing to get the turkey inside.
As our fight or flight response creeps up, so too does another part of the brain kick in to purge the excess energy created. The hypothalamus is the brain’s regulator, and it is here where urges are created. These urges allow you to purge the excess adrenalin and cortisol (which act like high-octane jet fuel for your body), so you can get back to normal.
The hypothalamus will deliver whatever urge it thinks one is likely to act on – eat two Big Macs; drink a bottle of red wine; go into your room and hide. In all cases – you might feel almost immediately better – but then worse as the smarter pre-frontal cortex kicks in and asks: “What the heck was THAT?!?” And then shame begins.
Fortunately, since we understand the science of urges and their purpose, we can also use that information to overcome impulse behavior that is presented by our brain as non-negotiable.
One skill from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), which is a therapy designed to help people recognize and overcome dysfunctional emotions, is a skill called STOP.
T: Take a step back
O: Observe what’s going on
P: Proceed mindfully
This strategy is basically to do nothing; step out of the situation metaphorically and watch from afar, like a reporter. If you’re paying attention to your body you will feel the anger roll over you like a wave and then it will pass. It is your choice to respond to that urge or not, and if you don’t, it will dissipate by itself. This means that you have to tolerate the feeling in the short term, so that you don’t make the situation worse with an over-response for the long term. Just STOP.
Understanding that urges are a response to your fight or flight system, and designed to protect you – allows you the space to intentionally intervene with a different behavior. The key to controlling behavior is noticing when you are going into fight or flight before you get to the point of melt-down. The best way to do this is to reduce your vulnerabilities altogether with self-care. Know when to say no. Save space for your routines like working out, getting enough sleep, and sticking to healthy foods. Treat yourself as a rare commodity to be doled out in precious exposure, and be aware when you are being drained.
Finally, try to see stress as an opportunity for growth. Working through these irritations in a positive way can be like teaching yourself a superpower, a life-changing one that you can carry throughout the year. Learning to deal with stress is a gift to yourself.