When You’ve Had Enough: Knowing Your Stress Threshold

Woman with marker leans head against whiteboardI just realized a few days ago that April is (or was—it’s almost over) Stress Awareness Month. This is fitting, considering just last week I wondered why the world seems to be piling one stressful situation after another upon my shoulders. It seems like just yesterday, yet also decades ago, it was April 1 and I was bummed I didn’t have time to plan any April Fools’ Day jokes, and now all of a sudden the month is nearly over and I’m wondering where the past several weeks went.

When things get busy and life gets hectic, our physical and mental health tend to pay the price. I’ve noticed a trend regarding coping with stress among several of the individuals I work with: when it rains, it pours, and when stress begins to pile up, it doesn’t just add up—it seems to multiply.

Over the past several weeks I’ve faced several situations that have generated various levels of stress: running a fundraiser, helping with a difficult move, dealing with sick kids, fielding crisis work calls, figuring out summer plans, and trying to maintain a good work-life balance. In and of themselves, each of these things would have been relatively easy to plan for and tackle, but it’s when we are pulled in a million directions and can’t seem to get a break that we become overwhelmed by stress.

I stopped at the pharmacy the other day, between leaving a meeting and picking up my daughter from school, only to find my sick dog’s prescriptions hadn’t been filled and I needed to contact the vet. I nearly had a meltdown. I got back in my car feeling like an utter wreck because I really wanted to just break down and cry.

So often I find that on top of the stress, people tend to pile on a load of guilt. They beat themselves up for feeling stressed, argue that their stressors are not “big deals,” claim they “should” be managing better, and talk about how other people are able to handle these things with “ease.” Along with the stress and feelings of guilt come engulfing feelings of “I suck” and “I’m weak.”

What people fail to realize is, while each thing may be relatively insignificant on its own, it’s the combination of a lot of little stressors at once that ends up getting the best of us. Sure, most people could handle a setback at the pharmacy, but when the car breaks down, your babysitter is late, you double book an appointment, and you can’t seem to fight off a cold all at the same time, many people would feel, at the very least, irritable.

During therapy sessions, I often put my hand out in front of me to demonstrate the threshold for stress of the person I’m working with. And as I list all the issues they are dealing with, I raise my hand up, up, and up. When you are dealing with stressors that fall under or meet the original threshold, you are able to cope, keep it together, and effectively manage your various tasks. But as you pile more and more stressors atop that threshold, you may become overwhelmed, run down, and irritable.

Sure, most people could handle a setback at the pharmacy, but when the car breaks down, your babysitter is late, you double book an appointment, and you can’t seem to fight off an irritating cold all at the same time, many people would feel, at the very least, irritable.

It doesn’t matter how minor or insignificant an event may be. Whether it’s a little aggravation or a major trauma, you can be pushed over your threshold and sent into a tailspin. Negative emotions, such as anger, frustration, depression, and despair, can become heightened, and for some people, physical symptoms such as stress headaches or muscle tension can set in.

Rather than beat yourself up for feeling like a complete basket case, take a step back and acknowledge you have a lot on your plate. Sometimes just bringing awareness to your stress can help keep it at bay. When you recognize you are overwhelmed and can let go of any feelings of guilt, you open yourself up to a greater capacity to face the challenges at hand and to more effectively organize a strategy to tackle everything on your agenda.

Take a step back. Breathe. Remember to take care of yourself—take breaks, eat, and get rest. It’s easy to forgo good self-care when we are stressed and overwhelmed, but doing these things will help you recharge and be better equipped to cope.

During my string of stressful weeks, I decided to put as much as I could on hold and get to the gym. As I ran, I listened to the song “Let It Go” from Disney’s Frozen (the only thing currently on my iPod; updating it has been on my long to-do list for months!). I heard the lyrics: “It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small. And the fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all!” Oddly, these words helped put everything into perspective. It made me realize I need to practice what I preach, take a step back, and acknowledge I was feeling overwhelmed.

The Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory is a scale originally used to determine whether stressful events may cause various illnesses. I like to encourage people to become familiar with this inventory because, sometimes, just being aware you’re dealing with one or more items on this list can help you recognize you’re nearing that stress threshold.

Once you are aware you’re facing stress, experiment with strategies that work for you. Many people find it useful to make to-do lists, break things down into smaller chunks, and cross things off as they go. Some people need to take a step back and put things into perspective, while others need a reminder to ask for help and support. Having a mantra or affirmation to connect to during times of stress, such as “this, too, shall pass,” can also help keep you grounded.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Megan MacCutcheon, LPC, therapist in Vienna, Virginia

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Russ

    April 28th, 2016 at 10:37 AM

    It always feels like it is those times when things start to just pile up one right after the other that I totally lose my cool and have to take a time out. It’s either feast or famine in my life, meaning that there are a million things to worry about or nothing at all.
    There are the times when I really enjoy the famine

  • Maggie

    April 28th, 2016 at 2:10 PM

    Isn’t it funny how the things that do not bother one person can be such a major stressor in another’s?

  • logan

    April 29th, 2016 at 7:07 AM

    And it is up to us to communicate to others just where that stress threshold is for us. They don’t have any way pf knowing that so you have to be in charge of what you are willing to accept and what you will have to move forward form.

  • tolly t

    April 29th, 2016 at 10:30 AM

    We neglect to care for ourselves in the way that we should

  • nate

    April 30th, 2016 at 9:13 AM

    There will always be those people who are determined to push your buttons.
    If you continue to show them what those are, then of course that is what they will do.
    How about trying to show them that these things don’t matter to you anymore?
    That they can try all they want, but you will not allow them to get a rise out of you so easily.
    Choose your battles wisely.

  • Lane

    May 2nd, 2016 at 9:38 AM

    Heck no I don’t want to be the one feeling guilty, I have problem in wanting the other people feel guilty. You know, I would just prefer to shirk those responsibilities.

  • lizz

    May 5th, 2016 at 1:27 PM

    I can take a whole lot but I am sure like everyone else it seems like the threshold for what upsets me and what does not can get smaller and shorter. You know, I just have those days when it feels like I am Superwomen and can conquer the worl d and then there are times when I can barely take a shower without thinking that it is all too much lol

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