Stress is ubiquitous today. Our bodies are built for fight or flight, and when we can neither run nor directly attack what is bothering us, that stress builds and builds until it is unmanageable and we break. But we can be prepared for better outcomes if we know our stress triggers, which are those situations and feelings that flip a switch inside us. When we know what these are, then we can work to control the stress they bring on.
Like personality, a person’s triggers depend on his or her experiences. Past trauma, like some sort of psychic excavator, digs wells and trenches in our psyches. Neural pathways form around a traumatic event, and anytime a similar event occurs, the same feelings that surrounded the original event arise. Like water, stress pools inside these ditches instead of running off.
I once knew a man who had been in a pretty serious car accident. He was approaching a green light at an intersection that he had passed by a thousand times before. But before he could react, another driver ran a red light and pulled out in front of him from the right, unaware that he had run a red light. This man I knew crashed into the other driver and spun out. He was unhurt, but the other driver had to be taken to the hospital. For years after that, he would grow physically tense while driving anytime another motorist approached an intersection too quickly. His wells and trenches would overflow with stress. Eventually, he was able to recognize these triggers and prepare for the stress they brought on.
You can do the same, but first you have to find your stress triggers.
How to Find Your Stress Triggers
Listen to your body. Pay attention to how your body reacts to stress. Does your heart race? Do you perspire? Are you unable to think clearly? Knowing how your body reacts is the first step to managing stress.
Pay attention to your language. When we are stressed, we use certain words and phrases to describe what we are feeling. If someone is stressing you out, you might call them a pain in the neck. What you may not realize is that your neck has tensed up, the subconscious reason for your choice of words.
Write down what you are feeling. It can be helpful to keep a stress trigger journal. Keep a log of all the situations that cause you stress throughout the day and your reactions to them.
What You Can Do to Gain Control
Commit to change. It’s possible that your stress stems from a desire to change your patterns of behavior. If you’re a smoker and want to quit, stress can and will make you want a cigarette. Making a commitment to change your behavior as well as coming up with a plan to change that behavior will come in handy the next time you come up against a stress trigger. Setting a strong intention for change, followed by a physical action to initiate that change can help form new pathways in the brain to cement the new behavior.
Practice resilience. Resilience is your ability to bounce back from a stressful episode. When you feel stressed, take a moment to feel and understand that stress. But not for too long. The faster you regain control of your actions and emotions, the better you will be able to cope with future episodes. Don’t be ashamed of your stress. No matter what you’ve been through, your stress is valid. Resilient people tend to be proactive when they are searching for ways to handle their stress, so ask questions and don’t be afraid to ask for help if you encounter obstacles you can’t handle on your own.
Learn when things are not in your control. Life is full of things that are not yours to control. If your stress triggers are getting best of you, contemplate why and decide whether you have the power to change the circumstances. If you don’t, then there is no use being stressed. There is a wonderful quote from the Dalai Lama that illustrates this exact point: “If a problem is fixable…then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying…There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.”
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