Why You Don’t Take Better Care of Yourself When You’re Stressed


“You’ve got a lot going on.” Sound familiar? I’ve been hearing this a lot lately. The Missus and I were thrilled to welcome our first child into the world just over four months ago, and we couldn’t be happier. Of course, having a baby has been a significant and sometimes difficult adjustment for our family. I also recently began studying for the California MFT licensing exams, and I’m starting an intensive process to become trained in the treatment of sex addiction. Sometimes, seasons in life come along and create tornadoes of stress in our lives, and chances are you’ve experienced seasons like the one I’m going through now. So how might we respond to our stress in a helpful way?



A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to This Post


I’ve been trying to get back into the groove of regularly writing blog posts, and this post has been simmering in my mind for the better part of a week as my efforts to study for my exams and prepare for my trainings were intensifying. ‘I’ll write about how to manage stress in a healthy way,’ I thought, ‘I’ll share what I know about dealing with stress; that’ll be great.’ So for most of the week, as I began digging into my readings and study materials, guess what happened?


I didn’t do anything to manage my stress. Not a thing. I did none of the things I knew I should be doing to take care of myself.


When I realized that I hadn’t exercised, watched my diet, or taken steps to make sure I was getting enough rest—all of the things that most of us know to do when we’re stressed out—I had a talk with myself. ‘Self,’ I mused, ‘Care to share about what’s going on?’ After some reflection, I realized how anxious I’d been feeling and that in my anxiety, I hadn’t asked for the help and support I needed from those closest to me as I studied. I discovered that I had not consciously taken care of myself because I was managing my stress with my unconscious mind. What do I mean by this?



Our Unconscious “Rules” about Feelings Shape Our Experiences


Our earliest relationships have an enormous impact on us, whether we realize it or not. It’s there we learn the emotional convictions or “truths” about how we feel about ourselves and what it’s like for us to be in relationships. These emotional convictions are out of our awareness most of the time and shape or “organize” how we experience our emotional lives and our relationships with others.


To see how this works, let’s take a look at a clip from one of my favorite shows, Lost. The clip is a flashback scene with Jack, a main character on the show, and his father, a physician. The scene takes place early in the show when the adult Jack is wrestling with doubts about leading the group of survivors. “I don’t have what it takes,” he says just before we visit this episode from his childhood: After getting beaten up at school, Jack has to tell his father about it.


Watch the video here.


It’s a tough scene to watch because we can empathize with the boy Jack, who likely feels ashamed and inadequate. His father shames him and denounces his efforts to act with autonomy and agency,  telling him he doesn’t have what it takes. That he “doesn’t have what it takes” becomes Jack’s unshakeable emotional truth, his unconscious “rule” about himself in his adult life. So when he’s called upon to lead a group of hungry, thirsty, confused plane crash survivors, he “knows” that he doesn’t have what it takes, and he doubts himself and feels inadequate to the task. In other words, he unconsciously “organizes” or makes sense of his emotional experiences around the conviction that he doesn’t have what it takes.



Unconscious Organizing Principles and Stress


What does all of this have to do with stress? Stress is essentially an emotion, one that refers to a particular experience or flavor of anxiety. All of us have unconscious emotional convictions or organizing principles around feelings, including anxiety. When we feel anxiety, our unconscious organizing principles kick in, and without even realizing it, we may think:


  • “I’m all alone in this.”
  • “I can’t ask for the help I need.”
  • “I can’t trust others to meet my needs.”
  • “I can only rely on myself.”
  • “I’m not a lovable person.”
  • “I need to prove I’m worthy.”


Whatever the unconscious organizing principles that shape and contribute to your anxiety, the result is the same: If we don’t don’t find ways of talking about our stress, the anxiety only intensifies. The anxiety builds, and so does the anger and resentment at everyone around you who’s not helping. So what can you do?



How to Consciously Deal with Stress


1) Recognize your own anxiety. It sounds like a no-brainer, but when you’re stressed, it’s not exactly easy to consider your own feelings. All you’re thinking about is what’s on your to-do list. If you can slow down enough to recognize your anxiety, however, you can begin to purposely reflect on your feelings, which is the first step in trying to handle stress in an authentic, life-giving way.


2) Reflect on what you do in response to stress, as your actions are clues about how you’re organizing your anxiety. Do you push others away when you’re stressed? Work non-stop? Forget to care for others and yourself? If you’re like most people, chances are that one or more of the organizing principles listed in the bullet points above are at work. Try to reflect on what happens for you in your stress, e.g., “When I get anxious and stressed, I tend not to ask for help because I don’t trust that others will help me. I feel I have to trust myself to get it all done because I can’t trust anyone else.”


3) Go easy on yourself. I have a totally unproven theory that says that when we’re under stress, we turn up the volume on our organizing principles and say and do things that we don’t often do. It’s very understandable to go back to how we “know” how to deal with feelings, especially when we feel overwhelmed, even if our means of coping are self-destructive and hurtful to others.


4) Find someone you care about and can trust to talk with you about your stress. Talk to someone about how you’re feeling and, if you need to, ask for help. They may not be able to help you with what you’re working on, but they may be able to help in other ways. When you can find a way to share your feelings and ask for help, your loved one will respond to your vulnerability in ways that will turn the volume down on your anxiety more than getting your next project done will.

Jeremy Mast

Jeremy is a licensed marriage and family therapist (CA LMFT90961) in private practice in Ventura, California. He helps those struggling with drugs, alcohol, and out-of-control sexual behaviors awaken to new possibilities for their lives. He lives with his wife, son, and cat in beautiful southern California.

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