I have been involved in studying (and tackling) stress for decades. A number of things have stood out for me from my activity in this area. One important one is that there is a danger that, when pressures start to mount, people have a tendency to stop doing things that normally help them cope and keep pressures within manageable limits (and thereby avoid stress). Ironically, this then has the effect of making stress more likely: just as pressures are mounting, we start doing less of the things that counteract stress. For example, the person who really benefits from going to the gym regularly and is able to use that to keep pressures under control may reach the point, once pressures start to multiply, of not bothering to go to the gym – they don’t feel up to it. The person who gets a lot of benefit from talking over problems with trusted friends and colleagues may keep their own counsel and not say anything when the pressures reach a certain level – they don’t feel comfortable talking about it any more. People who cope with pressures through humour don’t think it is funny any more and withdraw into themselves, switching off the humour, thereby putting themselves in a situation where they feel the pressures more acutely.
Different people can experience this general trend in different ways. However, what my experience has taught me is that a recurring theme is the tendency to cut ourselves off from the people and places that matter to us. It is as if it is a self-protective mechanism. Once pressures start to bother us, we need to be spending more time with the people who matter to us, more time at the places that matter to us, but, in reality, what so often happens is that we do the opposite. Perhaps it is because we feel vulnerable and so want to withdraw into our shell, in the hope that we will feel safer that way. But, whatever the reason, the result is the same: at the very time we need the benefits of supportive people and the reassuring familiarity of places we know and love, we may choose to move away from them.
This has (at least) two sets of implications. First, it is important for ourselves. We need to be aware of this danger and be prepared to counteract it in any reasonable way we can. That is, we need to be prepared to fight the tendency to disconnect ourselves at the very time we would benefit from connecting. There is no set way of doing this, no guaranteed formula. However, there are plenty of options to explore. Think carefully about what might work for you. One possibility is to make two lists. List one: think about the people who matter to you. Who are the people whose company offers you something positive? Who are the people who help you recharge your batteries and feel good about yourself? List two: think about the places you have positive associations with. What are the places that give you a positive sense of well-being and comfort? Places can be important, because, if you are so tense that you can’t face spending time with people, there are still places that can have a renewing effect.
Second, we can – gently, sensitively, supportively – encourage others (without pressurising them) to connect more to their important people and places if we notice that this disempowering process is happening to them. We have to be very careful to make sure that this does not amount to kicking them when they are down – gently does it, and be prepared to back off quickly if it is clearly not what they want or is not something they are ready for yet.
So, connecting with people and places that matter to us is something we should not lose sight of, however much or little pressure we are under.