Match Your Coping Tools To Your Symptoms

By: Jamie Bussin and Tracey Soghrati  

You eat too much pizza and it sits in your stomach. You feel bloated. If you’ve sprinkled on the chili peppers you might have acid reflux. And you feel yucky. According to mindfulness expert Tracey Soghrati, it’s the same thing with your stress hormones. If you experience too much stress and the resulting stress hormones don’t get digested and metabolized, it will impact other parts of your body and how you feel.  We discussed this notion on episode #252 of The Tonic Talk Show/Podcast. This article is inspired by that conversation.

How do you know if you’re not digesting your stress? The first step is to see if we’re experiencing chronic stress. The symptoms typically manifest in 4 different ways: cognitively, emotionally, physically and behaviourally.

Cognitive symptoms refer to the way that you think. You might notice things like memory problems; that you’re forgetting things all the time, or have difficulty concentrating. So you sit down to do work and every two seconds you’re getting distracted. You might find that you have poor judgment. In those circumstances it’s really difficult to make decisions that are supportive of your well-being. There tends to be a negative bias to your thoughts. You might experience anxious or racing thoughts. So lots of thoughts all the time and really excessive worrying. 

Emotional symptoms: Thoughts and emotions are always linked, like the chicken and the egg. You might experience a depressed mood. Or you can feel low energy; like you don’t want to do anything. But you could also get really agitated, moody, irritable or just have a very short fuse, maybe even a shorter fuse than you normally would. Tracey says; “A lot of people who are stressed when they come to see me. [they tell me that they’re] just so overwhelmed…and then feelings of loneliness, like as if they’re the only one experiencing what they’re experiencing, and then that, of course, will cascade into the physical symptoms.”

Physical symptoms over time amplify into things like chronic aches and pains, and just not feeling good in your body. Digestion-wise, you might experience diarrhea or constipation, depending on what your tendency is. It might also manifest as nausea, dizziness, or a fast heart rate. In some circumstances, Tracey says; “It can even look like not wanting to have sex at all and/or also getting sick a lot, just catching everything that comes your way.”


And finally stress might manifest in Behavioural symptoms such as over or under eating, (depending on your tendency). You might experience ‘over sleeping’, which kind of relates to depression, or ‘under sleeping’, which is more related to anxiety. In some circumstances you might isolate yourself or avoid people, procrastinate, neglect your responsibilities or ‘self-medicate’ with alcohol and drugs. “And then just nervous habits, and when I’m meeting with a person I’m always tracking nervous habits, things like leg shaking, nail biting, leg jiggling, that kind of stuff” says Tracey. 

So if we think that we’re stressed, what can we do about it? The first step is to examine the sources of stress. Some of which might not be controllable. Tracey explains; “What are the competing interests of my time? How am I using my time? Look to see where you can limit some of those pressures so that you can have a little more well-being.”

The next step is to understand that any time you’re experiencing excessive stress, those hormonal changes or those stress hormones (adrenaline or epinephrine or cortisol) are secreted in your body and you need to do something to digest them.

Tracey recommends four practices that will help you digest your stress. 

The first practice is cognitive in nature. As you begin to overthink and experience future-oriented anxiety, every time you have another thought, your brain reacts to the thought as if it’s real, and then it produces stress hormones. In those circumstances you need to uncouple from your thoughts and notice that your thoughts are not facts. “I know they feel like they are.” says Tracey’ “but they’re not and so one exercise that I suggest to people is taking your thought, (such as “I’m so overwhelmed”) and visualizing it, by putting it on a leaf and watching that leaf drift down the stream and doing that over and over.”

Emotionally, you want to notice the trigger, name the emotion for yourself, notice what happens with your body and identify the action urge. Tracey continues; “So when I have this feeling, I ask what is the story I’m telling myself and what do I want to do? Do I want to run away – for example? And is that action urge in alignment with my values? You have to slow down in order to do this practice, but when you do, it actually gives you the time and space to process the emotion.”

Physically, try to metabolize your stress hormones through regular exercise. Sometimes, when Tracey is seeing a client, if they are jacked, she gets them to run down the street. Because, until those hormones are processed, it’s really hard to think clearly.

Lastly, the behavioural practice is to really figure out values-based choices so that when you’re stressed you can make choices that are based on your values rather than reacting to the stress. Contextualize your behaviours so that you can direct them. Because if you don’t, if you’re reactive, you’ll gravitate to the easiest solution in the short term and it’s often not the best long-term or big picture solution.