What does emotional stress look like anyways?

It happened again. Someone criticized your work, and now you’re wondering if you’re good enough for your job. Or maybe you came home to find that your significant other did that thing that really bothers you, and now you’ve started a fight that could’ve been a calm conversation. Or you had an important exam, and despite all your studying, all you could hear when you sat down to take the test was your inner critic telling you that you’re never going to pass.

Self-worth, anger issues, test anxiety… These are just a few of the many different manifestations of your stress patterns. But what if you don’t even realize you’re feeling stressed? Let’s break it down so you can better understand what stress looks like and when it’s not serving you.

Noticing your emotional patterns isn’t always easy.

You might say, “well, duh, I know when I’m stressed out,” or “I don’t really get stressed.” But I beg to differ. Stress is sneaky and manifests in complex ways we don’t always understand.

You see, from an evolutionary standpoint, we have created technological advances (smartphones, virtual assistants, and even smart appliances) that continue to develop faster than our brain can keep up. While the advent of technology has brought many luxuries to our life, they don’t come without their difficulties. It used to be that our most significant stressors were predators and war. Now, we’re constantly facing the 24-hour news cycle, a tangled web of social networks, and work days that can include multiple time zones (it’s not a 9-5 anymore). Not only do these things bring new stresses, but they also exacerbate those we’re already familiar with.

When we’re feeling stressed, our brains try to do what they do best: protect us from the pain of the outside world. But they’re not great at recognizing real danger, so we end up in overdrive. Believe it or not, being left on “read” can trigger the same fight-or-flight response as facing down a grizzly bear.

That’s why we do rREST, to help your brain distinguish between when something is a real threat and when something doesn’t need to be a source of stress. rREST can help us process our emotions and rewire those defense mechanisms to become action mechanisms, but first, we must recognize them.

Breaking it Down.

If I were to gather all the reasons for rREST sessions into a big pile, I’d split them into three categories: the things we know, the things we don’t know, and the things that we don’t know that we don’t know.

Stress can be defined as repeated patterns of negative emotional reactions that are activated in particular contexts. You might also know these contexts as “triggers.” Sometimes, a trigger can be obvious. For example, whenever I took a test, my mind would be filled with self-criticism and doubt even though I’d studied hard and knew the material like the back of my hand.

Other times, two events might be seemingly unrelated, but they actually have the same trigger. Once you see the pattern, it makes perfect sense but discovering it can take some serious self-investigation. For instance, I’d spend all my energy trying to fix my friends and offer advice to solve their problems, but I’d get so frustrated that they’d never listen to me and keep making the same mistakes. At the same time, I was always threatened when someone was better at something than me, and I’d do anything I could to be right about the situation.

It turns out those two situations were both driven by the way I attached my self-worth to what I could offer other people. Whether my advice wasn’t sticking or someone was better than me at something, I had the exact same emotional reaction: feeling faulty and not good enough, among other things. These days I don’t try to fix my friends unless they ask for help, and I don’t panic when someone is better than me at something, instead, I try to learn from them.

The Things We Know

This is the simplest category. We know these things bother us, and we wish they didn’t.

Some examples include thoughts like

  • I wish I didn’t always care what people think about me.
  • I wish I didn’t get so nervous during job interviews.
  • I know I shouldn’t freak out about (insert thing here), but I can’t help it.
  • I don’t really deserve the love I’m receiving, it’s probably not real.
  • It seems like everything is fine, so something bad must be about to happen.

Any time you recognize and articulate your self-sabotaging thought or habit, you can do a rREST session for it.

The Things We Don’t Know

These things are a little harder to pin down, so it usually takes an outside source of information. Oftentimes, the things we don’t know are not so much self-realized as they are reflected back at us when talking with friends or a therapist.

If you’ve ever had someone say to you, “You know when this kind of thing happens, you always do XYZ?” and it rings true to you, there’s a rREST session just waiting to happen.

Listen to the people you trust, they often can offer you insight into the things you don’t know about yourself and help you better understand your reactions.

As a side note, we at rREST absolutely support the idea of finding a good therapist. Therapy is a great way to help you identify your self-sabotaging patterns, so you can walk into a rREST session knowing the who, what, when, where, and why of your stress response and get right to work.

The Things We Don’t Know That We Don’t Know

This group of things is easily the most difficult to identify but often the most important because they foster a false sense of control. They bring us stress and negative emotions, but we believe we’re completely justified in feeling the way we do. We don’t even recognize that these patterns negatively affect our lives, and no one can tell us otherwise.

You might feel like someone, or something wronged you unjustly, and you deserve retribution. Or maybe you don’t think you should let go of being right about something because the other person is obviously in the wrong. While this may feel vindicating and powerful, it’s actually taking up a lot of your energy that could be spent fostering healthy and productive relationships.

To bring these things to rREST sessions, we have to do the one thing our brain is screaming at us not to: surrender our egos. You might ask, “But if it’s so wrong, why does it feel so right?” It is because you’re in the “fight” mindset of your “fight-or-flight” response. Your brain is trying to protect your self-esteem, and while it may feel empowering to be proven right, it’s an irrational sense of power. You’re relying on someone or something else to let you feel good about yourself, and you’ll waste a lot of time and energy to get there.

The purpose of doing rREST sessions on these sorts of things is not to make you meek or a pushover; it’s to give you peace of mind about antagonizing situations. From there, you can still fight for what you believe in and stand up for yourself, but you’ll be doing it from a place of actual power and rationality rather than a knee-jerk response that usually has negative consequences.

For instance, you might have a very strong desire to be respected by those around you, particularly people who don’t know you. You think you deserve this because you do your best to respect people, and we all know the Golden Rule. So what happens when someone disrespects you? For a lot of people, turning to rage is an easy answer. Rage is defined as an uncontrollable and violent feeling of anger. There is an urge to fight that person into respecting you, whether with words or fists.

I can’t say this any plainer: fighting won’t make them respect you. We’ve all seen the movies, and the hero is rarely the angry one who makes people submit. Suppose you’re blaming the other person for why you’re so bothered. In that case, you’re putting the power in their hands to stop bothering you rather than taking accountability for your own feelings about the situation.

Rage is uncontrollable, so it’s irrational to think that you can use it to control other people. But again, understanding this means you must surrender your ego for a moment and think outside of your own perspective. It may feel vital to fix what they’re doing; they disrespected you and don’t even know you, right? Spoiler alert: you can’t change them.

Letting go of your defense is difficult. You’re essentially asking a cornered animal to stop fighting for its life, but that’s why we created rREST. It’s our “easy button” for regaining control of your brain, allowing you to move through the world with clarity.

Interestingly enough, when you change your perspective around an issue, you open up space for new possibilities rather than directing all your energy to the thing you don’t like. You might be surprised at what comes up. Like my dad always says, what you resist, persists.

Ask Yourself Questions

The easiest way to understand your stress responses is to understand your emotions. What makes you angry or frustrated? What makes you anxious or shy? What makes you feel like you’re not good enough?

When you’re feeling bent out of shape about something, ask yourself the following:

  • What is the emotion? Not sure? Take a look at an emotion wheel and see if you can figure it out.
  • Whose emotion is this? Is it mine or someone else’s? You don’t have to deal with it if it’s not yours. Let people own their own emotions.
  • When is the emotion? Is it a rumination about the past? Is it familiar? Do you worry about it happening again in the future?
  • If your emotion is related to the present, what is it telling you? Is it telling the truth? The answer to this question usually tells you more about your thoughts than about the environment that caused them, but it’s crucial to articulate your thoughts so you can better explain them in a session.

If you can identify the emotion, it’s yours, it’s more than a one-time occurrence (past, present, or future), and it’s telling you things you know don’t make sense, then you can bring it to a rREST session. We’ll take it from there.

Has reading this brought anything to mind for you? Schedule a complimentary consultation with one of our coaches, and let us help you clear out that mental clutter and find clarity.