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Managing the Chaos: Relieving Stress With Connection

By Katie Bendel, LMSW

For individuals with trauma, reconnecting with the world after the COVID-19 pandemic may be stressful. Learn more about social connection; find suggestions for overcoming stress by reaching out.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused many to reflect on the importance of social connection and the consequences of loneliness [1]. As we’ve started to reconnect with our coworkers, friends, family, and communities at large, the pressures of “business as usual” and “getting back to normal” have left many of us grappling with stress and looking for ways to manage it. For some of us, the connections that once helped us cope have been strained or distanced. Just as our world adapted and shifted to a “new normal” of life during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re now starting to rebuild a life “after.”

Stress is a normal reaction to the pressures we face daily. According to the American Psychological Association’s 2022 Stress in America survey, our current most common sources of stress are “the rise in prices of everyday items due to inflation (e.g., gas prices, energy bills, grocery costs, etc.), supply chain issues, and global uncertainty.” When it’s written out and lined up for us it makes sense -- there is a lot going on. Global uncertainty is no small burden to carry, so it’s no wonder we are stressed! Unfortunately, we know that prolonged, or chronic, stress can negatively impact our mental health, physical health, and overall well-being.

Chronic stress can contribute to the onset or worsening of mental and physical health concerns like depression, anxiety, type II diabetes, and heart disease. Learning how to manage stress is an important part of our own self-care – and our ability to effectively manage stress can vary widely. Those of us with a history of trauma may find it particularly difficult to manage stress. Understanding why can help us feel less alone and more compassionate toward ourselves as we’re learning and working toward mental wellness.

Trauma affects many aspects of our lives. When we have a history of trauma, we often have trouble identifying, expressing, and managing emotions. It’s not uncommon for us to struggle finding words that accurately describe what’s going on in our bodies and minds. It might seem like things are misaligned, like we are “weird” because we’re not experiencing or expressing things in the same way others around us might be. The way we view our world can become clouded or distorted, such as by typically seeing the glass as half empty, or often assuming others don’t like us, or believing nothing is within our control [2]. We might avoid others for fear of rejection or assume that we’re being a burden if we reach out for connection. 

Note: Negative thinking about the future and about the self, as well as feeling emotionally numb, can take place after a traumatic event or events. If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, get help right away by reaching out to a loved one, contacting a doctor, or calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).

When we’re experiencing impacts of chronic stress or trauma, being emotionally or physically present and with others can start to feel too challenging and overwhelming. Ironically, social support and connection to others are both important aspects of our overall health, ability to manage stress, and preventing or healing from trauma-related disorders [3]. You might be wondering how helpful social support can be, especially if it seems like social connection just increases your worries or negative thoughts.

Here is what we know about social connection:

  • Social connection is highly correlated with release of the “feel good” hormone oxytocin. This hormone and neurotransmitter has a calming effect and promotes trust. Consensual and desired physical touch, like a hug, can trigger release of oxytocin. And purely psychological experiences, like empathetic and supportive conversations, can also trigger release of oxytocin [4].
  • Social support helps us learn and practice problem solving skills. Having constructive friends or mentors to bounce ideas off or talk through concerns helps us identify and name what we’re struggling with and possible solutions [5].
  • Conversations with trusted and helpful health care providers, friends, and family can increase our confidence. All of us have strengths and innate resilience. Sometimes chronic stress, depression, anxiety, or trauma-related disorders can cloud the vision we have of ourselves. Those who care for us can reflect back or point out our strengths [5].

What if we want to have the benefits of social connection but we’re also fearful or avoidant of others?

First, is important to ask ourselves if our avoidance of connection or intimacy is impacting our ability to engage fully in life. Are you regularly avoiding work or school due to not wanting to be around others? Are you isolating yourself at home? Are you experiencing fear of being in public places like the grocery store or restaurants? If so, these are signs that an assessment with a mental health professional could be a helpful next step.

Second, it’s important to check the facts with ourselves. Is our avoidance due to fear, and is our fear justified? Marsha Linehan’s DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets can help us break this down. Fear fits the facts of a situation whenever there is a threat to (1) your life or that of someone you care about, (2) your health or that of someone you care about, or (3) your well-being or that of someone you care about. If your fears are not justified by the facts, or are not effective, practice doing the opposite --what Marsha Linehan calls “opposite action.” Examples of opposite actions are as follows:

  • Reaching out to others, even if you are worried you’re being a burden. Have a coffee date planned with a friend, but considering staying at home because it seems like you’re too stressed to be fun? Allow yourself to go and see what happens.
  • Approaching social activities that sound safe and fun, but that you’re socially afraid of. Maybe you are afraid that you’re going to embarrass yourself at the art class you’ve been wanting to try. Is there any evidence that this would happen? If not, try it out! What is the worst that can happen?
  • Keeping connection with people who leave you feeling replenished, not diminished. Did you have an encouraging conversation with a coworker outside of work or a positive experience at an event? Make plans to do it again! Engaging in these things over and over will help your brain and body recognize that you accomplished activities you didn’t think you could. This builds your confidence regarding your ability to connect well [6].

For those that listen to Brené Brown’s Unlocking Us podcast, you may remember that her episodes always end with “stay awkward, brave, and kind.” As we move into this “after” period and move toward reconnection with others, I hope we allow ourselves to be awkward and acknowledge that we’re relearning what it’s like to be in community. I hope we are brave -- taking opposite actions, away from our fears of being a burden for reaching out. And lastly, I hope we are kind -- especially to ourselves.

Sources

  1. Buecker, S., & Horstmann, K. T. (2021). Loneliness and social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic: A systematic review enriched with empirical evidence from a large-scale diary study. European Psychologist, 26(4), 272-284. 10.1027/1016-9040/a000453
  2. Brewerton, T. D., & Brady, K. (2014). The role of stress, trauma, and PTSD in the etiology and treatment of eating disorders, addictions, and substance use disorders. In T. D. Brewerton & A. Baker Dennis (Eds.), Eating disorders, addictions and substance use disorders: Research, clinical and treatment perspectives (pp. 379-404). Springer
  3. Ozbay, F., Johnson, D. C., Dimoulas, E., Morgan, C. A., Charney, D., & Southwick, S. (2007). Social support and resilience to stress: From neurobiology to clinical practice. Psychiatry (Edgmont), 4(5), 35-40
  4. Uvnas-Moberg, K., & Petersson, M. (2015). Oxytocin, a mediator of anti-stress, well-being, social interaction, growth and healing. Zeitschrift fur Psychosomatische Medizin und Psychotherapie, 51(1), 57-80. https://doi.org/10.13109/zptm.2005.51.1.57
  5. Heckman, J. J., & Mosso, S. (2014). The economics of human development and social mobility. Annual Review of Economics, 6, 689-733. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-economics-080213-040753
  6. Linehan, M. M. (2014). DBT skills training handouts and worksheets (2nd ed.). Guilford Press
Written by

Katie Bendel, LMSW

Katie believes that recovery and wellness are best developed and reinforced by community with others, and connection to core values such as authenticity, creativity, persistence, and trust. Her goal…