Raise your hand if you’re stressed. Okay, so all of us. At least we know we’re not alone. This past year came with a tremendous amount of stress for so many people across our country and our world. As a licensed counselor, I’ve seen more people come for counseling in 2020 than in any previous year. And it makes sense. As human beings, we have a baseline amount of underlying stress we can handle. It bubbles underneath the surface, like hot magma underneath the volcano. But just like a volcano, we can only take so much pressure, until eventually. . . we explode.
When we continue to ignore, repress, avoid, or stuff what’s going on underneath the surface, we create a natural buildup of pressure. Emotions aren’t meant to be stuffed. They’re meant to be expressed and shared and dealt with. They’re meant to be experienced and used as a compass to guide us and a signal to warn us. But the more we ignore what’s actually going on underneath and avoid dealing with the things we’re feeling, the more we allow the pressure to build until we can’t hold it any longer. The emotions find the point of least resistance and start to impact us on the surface. Our volcano explodes.
That “explosion” could take the form of uncontrolled anger, depression, anxiety, addictions, panic attacks, or even physical illness. It can impact our marriage, our relationships, our career, and our families. And the truth is, stress is one of the emotions that can cause the most damage if we let it build up. So how can we deal with our stress before it deals with us?
Acknowledge how you’re feeling
Out of all the phrases I hear as a professional counselor, there’s one that I hear come out of people’s mouth more than any other phrase: “I don’t know.” When I ask people to tell me how they’re feeling about a certain subject or situation, most people don’t really know. This is why it’s important to learn to go underneath the surface.
Being in tune with your emotions isn’t something you’re born knowing how to do. It’s something you have to learn and then practice. Take some time every day to check in with your emotions and put words to how you’re feeling and why. Anger, stress, sadness, joy, frustration, fear, anxiety, worry – these are just a handful of feelings that can happen in your body in one given day. If you don’t learn to identify and acknowledge them, they begin to build up. Acknowledging your feelings is the first step to learning how to deal with them.
Express how you’re feeling
Once you’ve put words to how you’re feeling, the next step is to actually open up about it. Expressing your feelings to others serves as a sort of “release valve,” allowing some of that emotional pressure to be released in a healthy and meaningful way.
Research has shown that when we become aware of our emotions and start talking about them, our awareness begins to produce positive emotional change in our body. One specific study measured the emotional response of people who were angry. When the subjects were asked about their emotions and responded by processing their emotions, their anger response showed a significant decrease.* Awareness matters because it requires us to dig deep and find out what’s really going on underneath the surface. It shifts the power from our emotions to ourselves. They are no longer in control — we are.
Who are the people in your life to whom you’re able to express how you’re really feeling and what you’re going through? Do you have a trusted friend, partner, or family member you can reach out to? Better yet, have you allowed yourself to engage in the process of therapy, allowing a professional to help you identify, process, and express those important emotions? Emotional expression is a huge part of dealing with underlying stress, and it’s something you’ve got to learn how to do if you want to take back control.
Do something about your feelings
Your feelings are real, but that doesn’t mean you’re enslaved to them. The last step to dealing with underlying stress and difficult emotions is to change what you can. There are clearly some things in life we can’t control – but there are many things we can. And that’s where we’ve got to focus. If you’re finding yourself dealing with overwhelming stress, it’s time to stop and ask what you can do to change that. Do you need to set boundaries in your life? Clear out your schedule? Build in more time for rest? Get better sleep? Spend less money? Make better friends? Start counseling? Ask for help? The list goes on and on of the things you can actually change.
Your underlying emotions and your stress response are a sign that something is not as it should be. They’re a signal to your body that something needs to change, and you have the chance to either respond to that signal or ignore it. Continuing to do the same things without change is going to lead to more stress and, eventually, burn out. This is your chance to stop and make the change. This is your chance to make a difference.
Your emotions may impact you, but don’t let them control you. Let this year be the year of change, of growth, of healing, and of taking control of what we can. Starting from the inside out.
*K.S. Kassam and W.B. Mendes, “The Effects of Measuring Emotion: Physiological Reactions to Emotional Situations Depend on Whether Someone Is Asking,” PLoS One 8, no. 7 (June 5, 2013): doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0064959.
This article was adapted from the concepts in the book Are You Really OK? and used with permission. For more on dealing with difficult emotions and fighting burn out, check out Debra’s new book: Are You Really OK? Getting real about who you are, how you’re doing, and
Debra Fileta is a licensed professional counselor, bestselling author, speaker, and host of the Love + Relationships podcast