Stress: Handle it, Or Get Rid of It?

Lisa Martens

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As someone who suffers from trauma, I used avoidance as a way to cope with stress. I still do.

This started to severely limit my life. Relationships were a source of stress. So was a career. So was moving—buying a house, making a plan, even taking a vacation. My avoidance created more problems: friends were angry that I couldn't commit to plans, I was unable to save, and I was unsure what I wanted to be good at. I didn't know what I wanted to do, and the idea of doing what I wanted—being a writer—was, well, stressful.

Writers have to pitch their ideas. They have to face rejection. They have to work for little payoff until they figure it out. In short, it's a stressful job!

I had always thought the best way to deal with stress was to get rid of it. I avoided problems because this seemed to be a good way to eliminate stress.

Likewise, the internet is full of advice on how to get rid of stress. We see stress as a terrible monster to obliterate. It causes disease. It causes our mental health to decay. Stress is bad for our hormonal levels. We know all the ways stress is bad for us, but as my life continued to fall apart, I began to wonder:

Is a stress-free life possible? And is a stress-free life something we should even chase?

I had tried to eliminate stress through avoidance. I didn't date, or have sex. I didn't have to confront intimacy issues if I cut out the issue entirely. I didn't have to worry about a mortgage if I never bought a house. I thought I had beaten the system somehow, but I had also ended up in a box. I didn't have anything I wanted. I didn't even know what I wanted.

So is eliminating all stress really the goal? Is it even possible?

I began to think it was not. Even if I eliminated all problems, my anxious mind would find other things to be anxious about. It was a void that could never be filled or satisfied. Even if I was completely safe, that little voice inside would tell me that something was wrong.

Eliminating stressful situations did nothing to my stress levels. In fact, having nothing to do and nothing to show for it raised my stress levels. I was stressed at my entry-level job because I didn't know what career I wanted. I was stressed because I was unsure if I could ever have relationships, and I wasn't even trying...so the question went unanswered. I didn't think I wanted to purchase a house, but I had also never even considered it an option. I had assumed that because of my student loans, I would simply never know or have any kind of financial success...so I didn't try.

Sometimes, eliminating stress is not the answer to relieving stress. I learned something important...If I wanted to do anything, I had to learn to manage my stress, not simply use avoidance.

Avoidance is a trap.

I have often written about my experiences with avoidance coping. To me, it is a monster, a trap. It is living in a house as vines cover the doors and windows. Avoidance comes disguised as self-care sometimes. Just drink a glass of wine! Just ignore your problem! Treat yourself! Sure you have money problems, but buy yourself something nice to feel better!

Avoidance will always give you a reason to not deal with the situation at hand. And there are a ton of excuses. So many things in life do cause stress.

But is the goal to...eliminate it?

Managing stress is just as useful as avoiding it.

I began to understand stress might not be as terrible as I thought it was when I took care of a relative who had cancer. If these doctors and nurses didn't deal with stress, then all these people would die. And they had to deal with a lot of stress—Some people don't even believe cancer is real, and think doctors are in on some evil scheme.

This is what those doctors had to deal with. The patients themselves have to take medication, undergo chemotherapy, and struggle to exercise to stay as healthy as possible. That's stressful, too.

And I had to deal with stress in order to help my relative. If I avoided the problem, she could die.

This was the first and clearest instance where I saw how damaging avoidance could be, and how powerful claiming my stress could be. I was not weak for having problems. I was brave for facing them, and so were all these doctors, nurses, and patients.

The trick was not to avoid all stress...it was to decide what was worth stressing over.

What was important to me?

In 2020, I journaled a lot. I took the time to try to figure out what was truly important to me.

I decided that I did want to be better with my finances. I did want to make enough writing to support myself, and I wanted to be able to stop jobs that I didn't feel fueled my creativity. I wanted to grow in a certain direction.

I wanted to be stressed about very specific things. I wanted to achieve things that I could not achieve unless I decided to undertake a certain amount of stress.

I had to manage my stress. This was easier when I had clear goals. Clear goals and looking back help to realize...sometimes the stress is truly worth it. Sometimes agreeing to take on stress doesn't mean you're shortening your life or agreeing to live a terrible life.

The stress we take on should be for ourselves. We can hide from it, but somehow, it will find us. We can take on more stress than we want, but that will leave us frazzled and confused.

What is worth stressing about to me? What is worth working toward? In a world treating stress as a bad word, is it possible to find some good in it? To use it, almost as a tool, to fuel my goals?

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