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Don’t snap the donkey

I have been thinking recently about emotion and stress buckaroo. If you remember the 1980s board game, you will know that essentially you load up the donkey until he snaps!

Gemma Harris, ClinPsyD, is Director of Corporate Wellness at Solstice, and writes on Instagram as @theexdoctor

I find it is a helpful analogy at the moment because the pandemic is leaving a lot of us loaded with stress, with far less resilience for the other stressors in our life. Living with the pandemic is like spending every day looking at an angry grey cloud looming over us and wondering when the downpour or thunderstorm is coming. This draws our attention and puts us in threat mode — essentially standby for crisis.

Evolution-wise, this does have some function, but it also means we are on edge, sensitised and, because it is protracted, likely to be stressed, exhausted and less resilient.

Here comes the buckaroo ... so, most of people aren’t coming in to talk about the pandemic; they want to talk about conflict, setbacks, losses and relationship challenges — all the normal stressors of life that are now tipping them over the edge because, in the background, the pandemic has slowly been draining their resilience battery, leaving them feeling more vulnerable.

Like the management of a complex ecosystem, we are constantly juggling and recalibrating stress and our emotional world, and the interface between external stress and demands, our resilience, coping strategies and vulnerabilities. All of these are moving parts! When our external world is peaceful and undemanding, we might stand to experience internal wobbles, with fewer consequences, and vice versa. Although, again, think fragile ecosystem.

The reality is that our external and internal worlds influence one another and interact. Hence, when stress is activated, it can easily have a domino effect on how we interpret everything (our thoughts) and how we cope.

We often talk about coping strategies; the gist being that a, it’s good to have some; and b, coping strategies that kick the ball down the road (avoidance) tend to be less helpful than those that actually provide a rest and reset option to your sensitised emotional system.

Mindset is also important when it comes to stress because, as part of our stress ecosystem, we can be programmed to take external stress and ramp it up with internal distortions. These are thinking errors that might exaggerate the damage. Examples of these we need to look out for are;

Personalising: This is when you take the external stressful situation and you add a personalised meaning — you might interpret that situation to represent a failing in you, a lack of competency or skills, an error on your part, or that something in your personality invites these crises.

Generalising: This is when you interpret an incident of stress as likely to happen over and over because of some stable feature in you; for example, that you always get it wrong, you always struggle to cope. Essentially, it is the prediction that this is not a one-off mistake, but something that you are likely to experience again and again, and across settings.

Future predictions: Similar to above, but suggesting that this stress isn’t going anywhere — that it is likely to be stable over time, and you don’t have much control in that.

There are more, but one key bit of advice here is thoughts are not reality. Thoughts can be unreliable, especially when we are stressed. Think twice before you add them to your donkey!

Gemma Harris, ClinPsyD, is Director of Corporate Wellness at Solstice, and writes on Instagram as @theexdoctor

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Published June 14, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated June 13, 2021 at 1:37 am)

Don’t snap the donkey

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