Look, we all handle stress differently. Some of us silently punch pillows, some of us make lists, some of us spin in circles (figuratively and literally in our office chairs), and some of us stare blankly at our computers for 20 minutes trying to remember what we were going to do.
Can you tell that in this scenario “some of us” is a thinly veiled euphemism for “Samantha Citro”?
I’ve always thought of myself as someone with great stress management skills. Calm, cool & collected under pressure. To this day, I think very few civilians could rival my clarity and decisive action in a crisis situation. So I’d never really been worried about stress management… until I had a panic attack that landed me in the hospital.
One night, my first summer home from college, I was up late reading some trashy girly novel when I suddenly felt lightheaded and couldn’t catch my breath. Then, a piercing pain started in my chest and my vision blurred. I thought I was having a heart attack. I managed to crawl across the hall to my parents’ room, lie on the floor and croak out to call 9-1-1, and that’s pretty much all I remember until a wonderfully calm and pleasant female police officer grabbed my hand and asked me if I could hear her.
So I’d never really been worried about stress management… until I had a panic attack that landed me in the hospital.
I spent the night in the hospital, hooked up to monitors, trying to make sense of what had happened. I was young, healthy, ate a balanced mediterranean diet, exercised 4-5 days a week… it didn’t make sense. Around 4am, a doctor came in and said that all of my vitals were fine – he diagnosed the episode as a chronic panic attack and sent me home.
Honestly, it took me months to fully comprehend what had happened. Every muscle twinge or stomach rumble had me in a panic. Although I understood cognitively that I was in fine health, I couldn’t shake the feeling that my body had betrayed me. That my mind was sound, but my body was broken – when in fact if was the opposite.
I couldn’t shake the feeling that my body had betrayed me. That my mind was sound, but my body was broken – when in fact if was the opposite.
What I understand now is that my body kicked into “survival panic mode” from years of stress suppression. Similar to a food allergy, my body attacked itself because it perceived a threat to its survival. In my case, that threat was un-detected stress. My instinctual coping mechanism, like many others, is to bury stress below productivity. To “button up and busy yourself” during stress. What I learned the hard way is that, over time, burying stress is antithetical to productivity.
My instinctual coping mechanism, like many others’, is to bury stress below productivity.
Let’s pause here and just acknowledge who this article is for. I’m looking at you my fellow OCD stress cleaners, panic-planners, and “let’s all just take a breath and figure-this-out-ers”. You know who you are. Ok, back to the article.
You know what the real pickle was? I didn’t want to change my harmful coping mechanism. Navigating difficult and stressful situations with superhuman calm and common sense is one of my biggest assets, and I use it in both my personal and professional life. So what do you do when your biggest asset is also your biggest detriment? I don’t know, but I can tell you what I did. I created rules. I drew boundaries around my talent and taught myself how to use those skills to navigate my OWN problems in addition to everyone else’s.
We’ll talk about my rules – I now call them “Success Guidelines” – in a series of future posts, but the first and most important rule is this:
When you’re feeling stressed: acknowledge, don’t suppress.
Stress is an indicator that there is something threatening your ability to achieve your goals. The first step to finding the root cause of your stress is to acknowledge that you’re FEELING stressed. Instead of putting on a stoic smile and pretending everything’s ok, stop for a minute and acknowledge that everything is not ok. And you know what? Everything doesn’t have to be hunky dory all the time.
Sometimes you’re drowning under 10 projects that all have deadlines tomorrow. Sometimes your boss has asked you for the 20th time to do something that is NOT YOUR JOB. Sometimes you’re training your new pup, and you’ve woken up and stepped in pee for the past 5 MORNINGS which has made you late to meetings for the past 5 MORNINGS. Sometimes life is stressful. And when you’re feeling it, speak the hell up.
So, my fellow boss ass b*tches, let’s make a pact to stop pushing our stress below the surface. It’s time to own our silent-pillow-punching, obsessive-list-making, spinning-and-staring selves and stop fooling ourselves (and each other) into thinking we’re calm and collected all the time.
The next time you’re feeling the heat, I want you to stop, turn to the B.A.B. (boss ass b*tch) next to you, and say unabashedly “I’m stressed right now.”
Trust me, it will feel really f’ing good.