If you remember from last week’s column we defined stress as the combination of three things: (1) a potential stressor, (2) what your mind tells you about it, especially the threat, harm, or loss it presents, and (3) a stress response that kicks in if your mind tells you that you can’t cope with the threat, harm, or loss.
Besides understanding the multi-dimensional nature of stress, the greatest thing to take away from last week’s column is how subjective and personal stress really is.
What stresses you might be totally different from what stresses your friend, your spouse, or a close family member. What you view as a threat, harm, or loss, might be totally benign to others. This is why you need to construct your own personal stress profile if you are serious about starting to manage your stress. Your Personal Stress Profile
Your personal stress profile combines your potential stressors, the unique way your mind views them, the physical and mental symptoms that kick in when you are stressed, and your personal repertoire of coping skills. Since no two people have the same stress profiles you can’t just use someone else’ data and expect it to work for you. You can’t get this information from reading a book, or having me or anyone else tell you what it is.
To construct your personal stress profile you have to start keeping a Stressor Journal and track this information for yourself. In essence, this is your personal stress database and is unique to you. You need to keep this journal for a minimum of five days a week for at least a month. This will give you the bare minimum of data to work with to start managing your stress. It will also give you enough time to start identifying patterns and trends in your stress. Stressor Journal Exercise Purpose: The following exercise, My Personal Stress Journal, is designed to help you identify your potential stressors, how your mind views them, your personal stress response, and the effectiveness of your coping. It will also clarify the mental and physical signs stress that your personal stress response triggers. Instructions: 1. Begin keeping this journal tomorrow. 2. Keep the journal at least five days a week for a minimum of one month. 3. Rotate the five days so both weekdays and weekends are accounted for. 4. Keep this in whatever format you desire; electronic, lined paper, bound journal etc. 5. Fill it in whenever it is convenient for you; as they occur, at the end of the day, first thing in the morning, etc. 6. Don’t let more than a day pass when recording a stressor. This will keep the details of it from blurring. Format: a. Day & Date: list the day of the week and the date. b. Potential Stressor: describe the potential stressor in one sentence. c. Thoughts about the threat, harm, loss: describe what your mind tells you about the potential stressor that is threatening, harmful, or loss producing. d. Intensity: on a scale of 1-10 (10 = greatest), rate the intensity of the threat, harm, or loss you feel in response to the potential stressor. e. Physical Response: describe the physical sensations in your body when exposed to the potential stressor. f. Emotional Response: describe the emotions you feel when exposed to the potential stressor. g. Perceived Ability to Cope: on a scale of 1-10 rate your ability to cope with the potential stressor. h. Coping Skill Used: describe what you did to cope with the potential stressor and whether or not it worked. Example: a. Day & Date : Wednesday, September 14th b. Potential Stressor: Going over the Jolley Bridge on your return home following Hurricane Irma. c. Thoughts about the threat, harm or loss: “I have no idea what I will face when we get to our house. I can’t stand this uncertainty. This is very threatening.” d. Intensity: 9 e. Physical Response: I felt tightness in my chest and had difficulty breathing. f. Emotional Response: I felt very anxious. I couldn’t stop my mind from thinking the worst. g. Perceived ability to cope : 3 h. Coping Skill Used: I tried to do some deep breathing and shift my attention off of what might be wrong with my house. This worked ok until I got home.
After keeping your stressor journal for at least a few weeks you can begin to look for patterns in: (1) your potential stressors, (2) your self-talk about threat, (3) you personal stress response, and (4) your coping effectiveness.
Armed with this information you can start to be more proactive in managing your stress. You can target any part of the stress response. Knowing what your most threatening potential stressors are you can learn strategies for reducing them or changing the way you think about them. You can use your mental and physical stress symptoms as red flags that show you that you are stressed and need to do something to relax and trigger a relaxation response. If you lack coping resources you can learn new ways to cope and build a more stress-resistant lifestyle.
What most people who work with me say is that in the beginning they tend to overestimate the threat, harm, and loss related to their personal stressors and underestimate their ability to cope.
By the end of our time together they look back at their journals and laugh at some of the things they rated 8’s, 9’s and 10’s that they now would label as 3’s, 4’s, and 5’s. Armed with this kind of insight and a host of new coping skills they learned from me they report that they now more accurately estimate how threatening their potential stressors are and their ability to cope with them.
So, start keeping your Stressor Journal. In my next column I’ll talk about time and how to start managing it better.
In the meantime try to stress less and live more.
Dr. Rich Blonna is an expert in understanding how the mind and body work together in creating and managing stress. He is the author of several stress self-help books and courses and the popular college textbook, Coping With Stress in a Changing World 5th Ed; McGraw- Hill Publishing. He is a retired Professor Emeritus from William Paterson University in New Jersey. For over 25 years he has devoted himself to helping people just like you stress less and live more. www.drrichblonna.com.