Stop Stress from Stopping You

Stress is a part of life, and it can derail you from your substance use and behavior change goals. Learn how to keep stress from stopping you.

When trying to make changes, such as starting a new diet, trying to quit smoking pot or introducing an exercise routine, it is important to consider how everyday stressors impact your ability to achieve your goals.

The first step of making behavior changes is to try and increase your awareness of yourself and your world. What are the internal reasons (“I want to feel better”) and external reasons (“my wife wants me to change”) that you want to make a change? What are the internal things that may make it hard (“I have a hard time tolerating cravings”) and the external things (“my friends will all ask me to go out for a drink”) that may create difficulties?

One thing everyone faces is stress of some sort. We all walk through our lives experiencing both the positive andnegative events of each day, as well as our own positive and negative reactions to these “stressors.” There is no getting around these daily stressors… whether they come from the world around us or from our own reactions to the world. The reason it is important to think through your relationship to these stressors is that they are likely to have an impact on your performance and your ability to reach your goals.

The interesting thing about stress is that at low to moderate levels it can actually improve performance. For example, a little external pressure (like a friendly wager with a friend to lose 5 pounds or a work deadline given by your boss) or internal pressure (like a desire to do things well) can increase the amount of concentration and effort you devote to reaching your goals.

Higher levels of stress however can have a negative impact on your ability to reach your goals. Ironically, many people react to stress by stopping the exact things that would help them better manage their stress, like eating right, exercising and limiting substance use!

As is true with everyone, your ability to cope with stress will vary from time to time. Sometimes you will be able to handle significant amounts and stay true to your goals… other times you will feel like you can’t handle anything more than going home and hiding under the covers and eating a bowl of ice cream (or smoking a ton of pot).

So, as you work toward attaining your behavioral goals, it is important to be aware of how you can identify when your stress level is becoming so high that it is putting you at risk for losing sight of your goals. It is important to know that stress looks different in different people, and affects each person differently. By being aware of your own signs of stress and levels of stress you have a better opportunity to cope with it instead of reacting to your first impulse, which usually is not the healthiest path to take (sleeping less, working harder, not seeing friends, drinking more).

So, how do I know when I’m getting stressed?

Stress can show up in a variety of ways, including:

  • Physical symptoms — stomach problems, back and neck pain, headaches etc.
  • Changes in your behavior — procrastination, disorganization, being more impulsive, losing touch with friends and things you like to do, working too much etc.
  • Thoughts and feelings — irritability, anxiousness, worry, low mood, pessimism, difficulty concentrating, indecisiveness, and apathy.

As you can imagine, all of these can be huge obstacles to accomplishing your goals. If you are depressed or feeling like you don’t care about anything, it can feel impossible to stick to a diet or resist smoking a cigarette for that little boost. If you are disorganized and feeling frantic it will be hard to find the 45 minutes you need to go to the gym. If you are sleep deprived and worried about work, it is going to be hard to resist that drink at the end of the day.

As you start to keep track of these signs of increasing stress (being aware), you may notice that you are under more stress than you thought and that it may in fact be contributing to your difficulty gaining traction in your behavioral goals. By starting to notice these signs, you are taking the first step toward realistically taking care of yourself andsetting yourself up to accomplish your goals.

Overall, it is important to be aware that stress makes it very difficult to keep your long-term goals in mind. Remember, most people respond to stress by doing the first thing that comes to mind (I’ll get 2 extra hours of work instead of going to the gym) rather than thinking through the consequences (I will feel more energized if I take a break and go to the gym and I will also meet my goal of physical activity 3 times a week). Awareness allows you to back away from these old, automatic ways of dealing with stress, and start to use new more productive ways of coping and succeeding.

The good thing about stress is that for every way it can be expressed there is a coping strategy that may help you manage it. Again, as with everything, different coping strategies work for different people. It is important that you experiment with several techniques as you try to find what will work for you. You may need to use different strategies at different times, and having a flexible approach is important to being more effective.

A couple of things to keep in mind as you decide what coping strategies work best for you:

  1. Identify the sources of your stress (work, family, etc.) and the ways they show up in your life (physical, behavioral or m
     ental/emotional symptoms).
  2. See if you can identify the ways these stressors knock you off course and away from your goals. Try to problem solve ways to reduce their impact on achieving your behavioral goals.
  3. Don’t do too much…after examining your priorities and where you want to focus in terms of becoming aware of stress and coping with it…do less!! Take on less in terms of coping with stressors and you’ll find you cope better…

Stress is a fact of life, but even after becoming more aware of how it expresses itself and learning great COPING strategies to manage it…stress may still at times set you back from your goals (skipping your workout for a week, eating a vending machine lunch 3 days in a row). At these times, it is very important to learn to accept that this will happen occasionally. Moments, hours or even days like this do not have to be reasons to abandon your goals. For example, if you get really critical of yourself for missing a week at the gym, you’ll be more likely to give up going entirely, than if you tolerate the “bump in the road,” pick yourself up, and get back on track.


Originally published at motivationandchange.com on May 15, 2017.

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