One thing is undeniable: we all respond to stress in different ways. My friend Missy goes MIA. Mary tackles her projects with every ounce of energy she has to give. My niece, Kendra (great name, right?), drives without music when she’s particularly stressed, to give her brain a break, and see if she can wrap her head around her problems.
Susan makes a list.
I disappear into Netflix or a distracting book. (Ask me how many books I’ve read in the three weeks since my mom passed away. Seven. The answer is seven.)
But I’m not here to judge how you cope with difficulties in your life.On one hand, you can’t go around using your stress as an excuse to hurt others, break the law, or abuse your own body, but on the other hand I’m sure you’ve discovered that you have a go-to response when stress is too overwhelming. I believe that these coping responses are part of who we are; they are built into how God made us.
How do you cope? These six animals represent the typical stress coping mechanisms.
The Six Stress Animals
Ostrich: The Head-in-the-Sand
This stress animal points us to the tendency for some of us to want to ignore the problem and hope that it will go away. Or at the very least, we ignore it until we feel ready to face it. I naturally respond like an ostrich often, choosing to rest my emotionally exhausted mind on the beaches of some imaginary fairy tale island when I feel overwhelmed by reality.
You may be the Ostrich if you:
- Watch Netflix (etc.) when things feel too difficult to handle
- Read books to escape difficult realities
- Are an unflagging optimist
- Find yourself saying, “Things will straighten themselves out.”
What can you do to be healthy? As you begin to find breathing room from the pain, make an effort to reengage with both the reality of your difficult situation and with others who can walk through your difficulty as partners with you.
Turtle: The Hard Shell
The turtle represents the way some of us build walls around ourselves when we experience difficulties. Many times we do this because letting others get close makes our already-tender hearts sting even more. For some reason, this is especially true even with the people we care the most about. So we build a sturdy wall around our hearts, hoping that it will heal in isolation, and sincerely believing that we will be able to remove that hard shell later, when it hurts a little less.
You may be a Turtle if you:
- Avoid people
- Give an abrupt answer when someone asks you how you are
- Move from conversation to conversation quickly, hoping to avoid letting any one conversation go to deep
- Prefer to let someone else talk rather than talking about yourself
- Don’t have anyone who knows everything about you
To be a healthy Turtle: It’s alright to have a hard shell while you deal with the initial pain of a difficult situation. But don’t forget that this should be a temporary response, lasting only up to a week. Find someone safe that you can talk to openly. It may hurt at first, like when air touches a raw injury, but it will help you heal faster if you bring your pain into the light.
Chameleon: Faking It
The chameleon’s response to stress is to hide in plain sight by fitting in. The Chameleon puts on a smile to fit in with the crowd and hopes that no one notices that the smile doesn’t reach her eyes. This response comes from a fear of vulnerability, but leaves the chameleon vulnerable in a different way, as true healing requires honesty.
You may be a Chameleon if you:
- Hide your true feelings from people who care about you
- Turn to substances: alcohol, drugs, or prescription pills to try to appear more happy and normal.
- Haven’t told anyone about the difficulty you’re experiencing
- Find yourself thinking, “No one wants to know how I really feel.”
To be a healthy Chameleon: Even though you are avoiding vulnerability, you need to know that your false smile is making you more vulnerable as you aren’t giving your heart what you need to heal. Honesty with yourself, God, and others, is the path to healing for you. I know that you will be most encouraged to find out that your loved ones are able to love you even better as you open up your heart to them.
Some of us respond to stress like a cat – we bring out the claws. We are ready to fight anyone – everyone! This is just a different response to the same fear of vulnerability that others feel.
You may be a Cat if you:
- Are short-tempered under stress
- Start fights with others
- Look for “payback”
To be a healthy cat, it will be important to remember that your anger is a response to a more important emotion. Take a moment to evaluate your feelings. You probably aren’t really that angry with your husband for leaving the peanut butter on the counter. Let your anger point you to the deeper emotion behind it. Meanwhile, you might find it helpful to explain to your family that you are short-tempered right now because you are worried about (work, your health, etc.) and apologize for taking your anger out on them.
If you are a squirrel you respond to stress by seeking safety and security in possessions. A shopping spree gives a temporary mood boost. And possessions may offer comfort as we build walls of material items around us like a shield.
You may be a Squirrel if you:
- Find comfort in retail therapy
- Own multiples of the same item
- Get very nervous about Goodwill trips
- Think “I’ll feel better if I can buy a new …”
(In this little blurb about handling stress I don’t mean to tackle the psychological disorder of hoarding. If you need help, please speak to a counselor.)
If you a Squirrel under stress, you might find it helpful to realize that what you are looking for with your retail therapy is security. Where does God want you to turn for help, rather than possessions? How can your loved ones and your church family help you? How can you lean on God in your trials rather than seek to meet your own needs with more stuff?
Bird: Fly South
The bird’s response to stress is to fly south for the winter. They run away. Maybe they’ll come back later. People who respond to difficulty in this way will disappear in their hard times. They will stop answering calls, stop coming around.
You may be a Bird if you:
- Avoid people
- Forget to (or choose not to) respond to texts or calls from friends
- Skip a “few” meetings or events that you used to enjoy attending, but your friends tell you you haven’t been in several months.
- Make new friends in difficult times (and avoid the old ones)
To be a healthy bird, you’ll need to deal with your fear of letting your loved ones see you when you’re having a hard time. It will be hard to accept the vulnerability of walking through difficulty in front of your friends, but leaving your community in your hardest times is robbing yourself of the love and friendship that can help you the most. You may need to ask your friends to forgive you for “ghosting” them, but once they understand that you’ve been walking through a hard time, your loving friends will accept you back with open arms.
Bring It Home
Did one of these animal descriptions hit home with you? Are you a Cat when things are going wrong and the stress is more than you can handle. Do you cope with retail therapy like a Squirrel?
It’s likely that more than one of these descriptions resonated with you. I think I can personally relate to all of these except one. And I can understand that one because I’ve seen loved ones do it.
I hope that learning about this stress zoo will help you understand better how you handle stress, and what you can do to grow through the difficulties that God allows into your life, rather than getting stuck in your coping mechanisms.
I also hope that you can walk with your loved ones in their hard times, accepting their coping mechanisms, and helping them learn and grow with love and care.
Most of all, my prayer for all of us is that we will leave the zoo behind and be more like a child.
Setting aside the ostrich, the turtle, the chameleon, the cat, the squirrel, and the bird, let’s be children, crawling trustingly into the lap of our loving God and finding our peace in Him.
“The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”