When we are overwhelmed by intolerable stress and have resolved to escape, we use powerful coping strategies: think of numbing boredom, putting on a happy face, or the pain relieving benefits of substance use. These approaches all make good sense, because each of us is hard-wired for survival and safety, and when we are in the strange situation of being threatened by feelings inside us it takes creativity to run away. We are very lucky to have these powerful coping mechanisms, and we are benefited tremendously by their ability to diminish our pain and fear. Unfortunately, unlike the gentler coping strategies, these powerful tools come at a cost of their own.
Maladaptive Coping Systems: There is a high cost to our powerful coping strategies, and this is why they often only work temporarily. At some point, the costs come to outweigh the benefits. When these coping systems exhaust their temporary efficacy, they start to progressively add more stress than they eliminate.
These lower quality coping strategies often leave people oscillating between a near-full and an overflowing stress container. The more we desperately search for feelings of relief and safety the more we rely on these once useful-strategies even as returns diminish. As the desperation rises, the effectiveness of these strategies fails. What are typically labelled mental health problems, and what we can instead think of as symptoms of “Affect Dysregulation” can onset at this time. For example, the use of pain relieving substances becomes “addiction” when relied upon too often. Ignoring internal calls to action against our stressors becomes the defeated melancholy of depression. Unfamiliarity with difficult emotions eventually becomes a fear of those unknowns, and when this becomes more common it can take the shape of general anxiety. (Though not every “mental illness” conforms to stress management in this way, clinical and therapeutic research demonstrates that this is a powerful re-conceptualization of once familiar categories).
Mental Health Symptoms: When “maladaptive coping strategies” become our only source of managing stress and then outlive their usefulness, a downward spiral of overwhelm can begin. Symptoms of depression, anxiety, emotional volatility, numbing, and substance use are common. Coping strategy and symptom become indistinguishable.
This is why The Stress Container is a helpful tool to assess if things are likely getting better or worse. On one hand we know that events that create severe distress can actually be well managed by proactive, high quality coping systems. And so the presence of hard times alone doesn’t necessitate the need for therapy. Births and deaths in the family, children growing up and moving out, moving houses and careers—many of these highly stressful events are also sources of love, growth, and connection. But we also know that less effective coping systems can be overwhelmed by more routine stressors and that low quality coping strategies can be sources of additional distress in their own right. Because of this, we can’t wait for “acute stress” before considering the usefulness of therapy. The Stress Container metaphor encourages us to look at both the level of distress and the capacity of the coping system to tolerate and manage that stress. This relationship between the two gives us a more accurate sense of whether help is needed for things to improve.
Getting Better or Getting Worse: The interactions between stressors, healthy and maladaptive coping, and symptoms of psychological distress determine if things are likely to get better or get worse, regardless of the amount or intensity of stressors.
In the following four posts, we will discuss how our understanding of the stress container informs our approach to healing.