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Short- versus Long-term Stress


To become more resilient, you’ll want to think about stress differently, starting with recognizing that not all stress is created equal. If we treat every stressor as major, we’ll either spend our lives being anxious or burn out (or both) If we view stress in a more nuanced way, we have a chance to maintain our sanity while moving through it.

Think of stress as either short- or long-term and accept that we have both in our lives. During the same week, as my client Taylor’s parents were visiting from out of town, her car suddenly needed new brakes and she chipped a tooth. She expected she’d be stressed by her parents’ desire to be catered to and feel like they were on vacation, but when the brakes on her car went after she’d made a dental appointment, she felt as if she’d lost any and all control of her life. 

Short-term stress like the above is fixable and finite, a problem with a solution. You’ll recover from the flu; get where you’re headed when your plane is delayed or return home; find your lost phone or buy a new one; use a friend’s washer when yours breaks down or wash your clothes by hand.

One way to deal with short-term stress is to imagine life when it’s over. Picture the stressful event as past and life instantly improves. Tell yourself, “By the end of today/tomorrow/next week/next month all this will be a memory.” Repeat as needed.

Long-term stress is another story—such as chronic or ongoing mental or physical illness, especially when it’s progressive or terminal, poverty, living in substandard housing, having to take care of family members who are old or disabled, or being in a loveless marriage and believing you have no way out financially. Moreover, not being of a dominant race, ethnicity, religion or sexual persuasion in a narrow-minded country or community can be a chronic stress. Not to mention weight stigma.

If you’re stressed about long-term stressors, it’s time to ask yourself how you will manage them and develop a stress reduction plan. Have you done all you can to resolve the problem(s)? What plans do you have to make things even a bit better? How can you reduce your stress through exercise, hobbies, other people, asking for help, meditation, relaxation or letting go of things which add additional stress to your life.

The place to start with all of this is to identify which stressors are short-term and not worth worrying about because they’re finite and which ones need a more thoughtful approach because you need to learn to cope and live with them.