What does it mean to ‘cope’ with stress? We accept that stress levels vary, that we all cope differently, and that something that ruins one’s day would not even be noticed by someone else – in other words, we accept that stress levels and how we experience them are personal.
Coping is personal as well. Going for a run works for some people, yoga for others, spending time with friends or family – but there are other ways in which we cope with stressful times: drinking a bit too much, shutting ourselves away, or overexerting ourselves, while neglecting our health. Some coping strategies help us, some harm us, and some do both – they get us through the stress and they do that at the expense of our sleep or waistlines.
We also know people in our lives who always seem harried or stressed, who are busy or always rushed, or some who seem overwhelmed at the enormity of it all. We see it around us and are personally affected by it. After all, life makes constant demands of us, positive or negative, and there are times when those demands outstrip the time we have in the day, or the energy we have left.
So how do we figure out our personal limit of just how much we can handle, and how do we find truly meaningful and effective ways to cope when the number of demands on us starts to climb? I want to offer a way to think about this in a broad sense that will help us see how we personally respond to stress, and with a visual representation: this is the foundation of our understanding of ourselves and our reactions at times of any kind of stress.
When you look at this ‘drawing’ below you will hopefully see a house: the attic (represented by the roof), the living room (the middle rectangle), and the basement (below the living room). Although it is a simplistic drawing it is representing a crucial understanding passed onto us from neuroscience and trauma literature.
The living room is where we feel good, where we feel we are coping with life, with relationships, with our jobs and families, with hobbies and friendships, with our thoughts, feelings, our tiredness and occasional illness – we are handling the demands of life and we feel like we are ok most of the time and handling things well. The living room is the space where we would like to spend most of our time. The attic and basement are states of being physiologically overwhelmed, beyond our capacity to function. In the attic we are anxious, panicked, irrational, reactive, aggressive, impulsive – we are at heightened arousal, or fight and flight. In the basement we are depressed, lethargic, suicidal, self-harming, or dissociated from ourselves – we are at hypoarousal, or freeze and submit response. It does not feel good to go into the attic or down into the basement. These two responses are an evolutionary necessity, but for some of us we find that arguably ‘minor’ things push us into these distressing and uncomfortable states. They are distressing because both states feel like we are out of control over the situation, or even our own lives. Some of us recognize that we have taken the stairs up or down, yet some of us don’t even know we are in those states and live for years or our whole lives going between the two, never really feeling like we are on top of things, like we are coping with the stresses in our lives.
To cope is to spend most of our time in the living room. However, this is not a space that gives a Zen-like acceptance and calm. Not at all. Being in the living room of our lives means something like this: waking up tired, realizing that we have overslept our alarm, getting burnt by the morning coffee, missing the bus or finding a parking ticket on our windshield, having an argument with our partner, finally getting to work and learning we have mixed up dates and missed an important meeting, getting through the day, and finally coming home tired and stressed, and –as a final act – burning our dinner – all of that in one day, AND not going into the attic or the basement. Despite the hellish day we have had, we are able to keep it in perspective and feel like we are still ok, and we are able to deal with the day’s events – perhaps after a chat with a friend, or a good long cry, or a good sleep – but we haven’t lost the knowledge that we can figure it out. In short, we feel like we can cope.
How do we do that?
The work of coping with stress is making the living room space as big and pleasurable and comfortable as possible, so that we dip our toes into the attic or the basement (as a result of our nightmarish day), but we are not pulled in by that current. We make the living room big and opulent full of favourite things, we populate the space by as many good things as we can.
We, ultimately, want to shore up ways that will keep us connected to and mostly within the living room, so that we can tolerate high levels of stress. We exercise, listen to music, see friends, eat well, read or watch things that make us laugh or entertain us, take time to enjoy our cup of coffee or tea, take a cool shower, swim, sit and watch the ocean, take a walk by the lake or in the forest, listen to birds, listen to our breath, help others in small and big ways, get a massage, seek intimacy with friends or loved ones, bake, have picnics, see plays, hug our children, play sports, paint, dance, and many others.