Scene: It’s 3ish am and the husband is stirring with his mid-sleep brain strain that keeps him up five out of seven nights a week in his highest stress seasons. You’re awake because of his shifting and in the half-awake state of your mind the thoughts whisper in,  “Is my chest hurting from that crazy workout or am I finally having that heart attack I’ve been skirting since Dad passed of one?” “Am I praying for my kids enough? Their spouses? I heard I should pray for their spouses too.” “I’m selfish and people are going to find out that I am a really ugly person.” “If that fridge is going out and the breaker doesn’t trip, are the kids smart enough to escape the burning inferno that will ensue in seconds? What about the dogs?”  “There is really no time to prep the house for a showing tomorrow morning and we ALL know I won’t get up early to give myself more time and they will probably look in the cabinet with the hinge broken anyway and if I skip the gym to give myself more time to clean up the house I will most definitely be having THIS heart attack tomorrow night.”

During waking hours these thoughts might come and go in fleeting half thoughts dismissed easily without much effort. But the mind and body are frustratingly or amazingly (however you need to look at it) efficient memory banks. Our subconscious likes to store things up and our bodies like to hide trauma away in things like organs and reaction times and sensory responses. Have you ever walked into a building as an adult and at the first breath that passes your nostrils you are instantly at the middle school dance hearing Garth Brooks’ “The Dance” crackling through the over-used speakers, you’re swaying casually, nonchalantly, without care even, putting the I’m-available-to-be-asked-to-dance vibe right out there into the musty air wafting across the gym floor? Have you ever been driving your brand new baby girl home from dropping her sweet and also-new big brother off at school and you realize that you have not only failed him but also all of humanity because you forget his sippy cup at home and the world is now coming to an end? Or how about someone using verbiage that shoots your mind straight back to the exact moment you felt rejection or humiliation for the very first time? What about lying on the massage table and hearing the masseuse ask, “What type of work do you do? You’re carrying a lot of stress in this part of your body.” Memory bank ACCESSED! Now, what?

This feels like the best time for a disclaimer: Everything beyond (and before) this point comes solely from my personal perspective. These are things I have discovered through research and experience that work for me. What works for me may not work for everyone but hopefully the message that the work itself is where the help comes from stands out. Onward!

The first and biggest thing that comes to mind that has helped in managing stress is meeting with a trusted counselor regularly during the tougher times and consistently during the “regular” times. This makes a big impact on how well I know myself, what makes me tick, what triggers my body’s past stresses and how that affects my response/reactions to current and active stressors. Huge! Digging into my own personality, attachments, strengths, and areas to improve makes all the difference in my ability to sort through stress. Most of my tools in stress management have been refined within counseling. If you do not have a safe place to sort these things out, I highly recommend looking for one. This does not have to be a professional! A trusted friend will do the trick.

My favorite weapon in battling stress is exercise. For me it is the link between body and mind that I need to sustain sanity. Let’s just ignore all the scientific facts about the benefits of moving our bodies every day, shall we? Some roll their eyes at the feel good chemical messengers like serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine that flood our brains when we regularly exercise. Not me!  Let’s real talk here, working out or even just going on a walk, can simply serve as something else to think about. A distraction, if you will, from the strain around us. I personally love to exercise. It is my life force. It keeps things in perspective for me and helps me forget while I throw some heavy things around. Score!  If stressors can take a back seat for 45 minutes while I work out then they must not be as big as they feel.  Perspective gained!

I have found that stress has a tough time staying in the front of my mind when I am enjoying the teeniest things. Laugh-crying with a dear friend over something mundane.  Joy! Picking up the entire load of laundry without dropping ONE DUMB SOCK, joy! Freckles, joy! Getting my face painted and watching the kiddies think I’m silly, joy! Watching a dog try to capture a bug, all of the joy! Where are you, stress? I forgot about you with that little shot of joy.

Being a partner and a momma has unlocked what feels like a superpower for enduring stress. Sure, the unlocking came with a price and it shifts on the regular. High stress in the beginning stages of parenting and married life had me grasping, quietly, shamefully, for ways to feel sane. Some learning curves felt steeper than others but with every deep dive into the whys and hows of the things that feel strained in my life I discover different ways to find respite, sort it out, and remedy the big feelings that come with it. In short, for me, not much can beat a safe listening ear, a good sweat, or a dash of joy on any day.