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How to Cope with Stress

When You Can't Afford Therapy

By Julia Washington

“I woke up from a stress dream and that happens at least once a week.” Marie, 39, says. Stress in her late thirties feels different from the stress she experienced a decade ago. Her parents are in their mid-seventies and in moderate health. Her child is in their first year of college and still needs support. Unsure of what to expect of this period in her life, Marie finds herself in a new career lacking the leverage she once had as a seasoned employee at her previous place of work, making it difficult to support her parents and child when needed.

For most women, stress around family caregiving, their career, and aging parents is not new, and for Marie, it’s all she’s known.

“I've always experienced stress in adulthood. It’s a given when you’re a single mom, but the dreams are new,” Marie explains. These dreams vary; in some, she’s battling post-apocalyptic conditions for survival; in others, she’s been abandoned by her family in a location where she can’t easily get home and conditions are unsafe. “I know now that these dreams are related to things that happen in my life, but it doesn’t change the fact I wake up cranky or sad or just wanting to lay in bed for hours after.”

In 2022, she could no longer take the strain, so she left a high-stress job working with her local public health and emergency response center. During the height of the pandemic, she felt a never-ending tightness in her chest. The dreams started shortly after she left her job, causing her to wonder if that period in her life made her more sensitive to stress.

“Generally, humans aren’t chemically made to maintain any significant levels of stress for long periods of time,”

Bonnie Scott says. She is a therapist and founder of Mindful Kindness Counseling. “We have the same stress response systems as all other animals, but for other animals a stress response is meant to keep them alive under duress.” She says this chronic response isn’t sustainable, and one’s body can react physically.

For Eunice, 44, this is true. She knows she’s experiencing stress when she feels tightness and heaviness throughout her body, which heightens her anxiety symptoms. “I have CPTSD, so that’s a complication too. Is this my trauma, or is the stress; am I stressed out because my trauma response has been activated?”

CPTSD is Complex-Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and is a condition where one experiences some symptoms of PTSD as well as additional symptoms. CPTSD may occur in response to ongoing trauma, which lasts for months or years. In contrast, PTSD may be caused by one single traumatic event. Symptoms of CPTSD are often more complex and may take longer to treat than PTSD. In Eunice’s case, she’s aware of her CPTSD and understands that, for her, the two co-exist. She is conscientious about taking steps to mitigate intense stress before she can't manage it herself. However, that doesn’t change the fact that Eunice questions where her stress comes from when it happens.

When asked about her first experiences with stress, she said it was in childhood. Like many Gen X and Xennials, Eunice experienced the demand for performance perfection. She remembers feeling concerned that her report card wasn’t filled with perfect grades in second grade, despite receiving several A’s. An expectation and demand such as this isn’t sustainable long-term. More adults in their mid-late thirties and forties are experiencing burnout at high rates. Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, countless articles have analyzed the current high rates of burnout.

But Shanaz, 44, says she realizes she’s experiencing stress when it’s probably too late or at least remarkably progressed. “I really just power through when I probably shouldn’t. I know I am experiencing stress when my body tells me before my mind tells me.” Her experience with stress began in her teens and, over time, has changed as her life changed. In her early twenties, she experienced extreme stress and anxiety, but now, she wouldn’t say she’s grown out of it; instead, it’s shifted. Now as a mother, she worries about the health and well-being of her children. As an example of how she experiences stress differently, she shared that when she used to fly alone, the experience was always stressful. Now as a mother, when flying with her son for the first time, she was so focused on him and his experience that her flight anxiety didn’t present in the same way.

Bonnie Scott says stress management isn’t a way to continue burning the candle at both ends; it’s a way to reconnect your body and mind with everything important to you. She also advises that stress reduction and management can mean rearranging life to be less stressful by saying no when one doesn’t have the capacity or mental space to handle it, not overcommitting, or allowing perfection to drive actions.

And we aren’t feeling guilty about that, because guilt is an emotion that causes a stress response.”

There is a multitude of studies across all continents that report women generally feel more guilt than men. One study reported that 95% of female participants experience guilt. For many women, guilt is a challenging hill to climb. Establishing boundaries and taking measures to reduce stress can feel selfish, leading to guilt. Many women feel they should be focused on their responsibilities, leaving very little room for their health and well-being.

“It’s not selfish to deeply care for yourself; it’s actually the most loving thing one can do,” says Tami Hackbarth, author of Essential Guide to the 100% Guilt-Free Self-Care. “Unless you’re doing active completion of the stress cycle on a daily basis, you’re building up a stress debt.” Tami explains that since we all live in this hyper-activated way post-pandemic, finding ways to quiet down the nervous system is essential.

Stress Management Techniques

A tipping point for Tami in managing her stress was reading the book, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle written by Emily Nagoski, Ph.D., and Amelia Nagoski, DMA. The authors offer several ways to complete the stress cycle, one of which is exercise. Exercising 20-60 minutes a day can calm the nervous system. When asked how they manage stress, both Eunice and Marie said some form of exercise. For Eunice, it’s dance; if she can’t attend her class, she’s created a playlist that she can turn on at home. Marie goes to Pilates two times a week, does weight training once a week, and walks daily. “Walking is really my best trick, especially if the weather’s nice. I like the sun and being in the sun. I’m always in a better mood after.” Marie says.

Another recommendation in the book and from therapist Bonnie Scott is meditation. Though Bonnie suggests that if you meditate when stressed, you will likely be unable to stop thinking about said stress.

Tami recommends exercising or doing yoga before meditating. While yoga increases strength and flexibility, and people see it as a workout, its origins are rooted in meditation and mind/body connectedness, quieting the nervous system so one can focus on meditation.

“Meditation is a regular practice so you can find peace in it.” Bonnie Scott.

When beginning the meditation journey, Tami recommends starting small, three minutes or less, and if exercise isn’t possible before meditating, do it first thing in the morning. While apps are available to guide meditation, it doesn’t have to be fancy or require equipment. The goal is to quiet the body.

“People believe they can be running on an 8 out of 10 level of stress, and if they do ‘stress management’ they will be able to maintain that level 8. But in reality, nobody can maintain an 8 for that long.” Bonnie Scott says.

Like Marie leaving her stressful job in 2022, it’s essential to evaluate what’s causing the stress and find ways to reduce this. A deeper look at what is causing the stress can help you determine what support is needed. “Since leaving my job, my life is far less stressful,” Marie said. Despite being a newer employee with her company, the demands of her work environment don’t leave her with a tightness in her chest, and she acknowledges that events in her personal life often trigger her stress dreams. As Bonnie mentioned, taking steps within your control is vital to reduce what’s causing your stress.

Eunice is now striving to complete projects over perfecting projects, giving herself grace, and realizing and accepting that perfection isn’t the goal.

Stress management through completing the stress cycle or setting boundaries can work for situational scenarios, for example, receiving help from a financial planner or a general health review from your physician. But when it comes to chronic high-level stress that results in trouble living day-to-day life, such as loss of sleep or appetite, depression, or self-harm, both Bonnie and Tami emphasize the need for professional help.

Tami recommends that when seeking out a coach or a higher level of support, find someone you feel safe with and try to get a feel for that person before you hire them.

If you or someone you know is experiencing high-stress levels such as those discussed in this article, contact a mental health professional or dial the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 for support.

Members of VirtuALZ experiencing situational or chronic stress can contact their Care Navigation Team to be connected to resources in their area.


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