The Shape of My Stress

Carrie and I are in a good place these days. One of the leading indicators is our stress level, but to talk about stress is usually a reductive, simplistic exercise. It doesn’t fully capture the reality of the situation, and understanding it is important because doing so gives you more predictive power, better informing your next moves. Stress, and emotions in general, are multi-dimensional.

Early on in my counselling back in 2015, one of the ways my psychologist helped me through my trauma was by helping me feel my way through it. Remember that emotions only disappear after you feel them, and putting off that emotional processing merely puts them in storage — they don’t just go away if you ignore them. As I talked to my therapist about my adverse childhood experiences, she could see that I was wincing from the pain. She asked me to describe the physical feeling. It was a tightness in my chest, right in the middle of my heart and slightly to the left. She pushed me further, to not let go of the pain but to hold it close until it was ready to be let go. What did that feeling look like? What colour did it have? What does it smell like? Does it have a physical texture? Is it smooth like glass or is it rough like sandpaper? Is it soft or hard? In that moment, I described it as the Symbiote from Venom, a black, sticky, oozy substance that could change shape, like a spiky, hearty durian. It was heavy, pulling my shoulders forward and down. That tightness in my chest lasted about 5 minutes, which doesn’t sound like a long time but it certainly felt like it. I was sitting in her armchair, clenching my fists and teeth because of how much it hurt. 

It was a turning point though. There was a moment where she could see my face relaxing, my breathing getting deeper and slower, my body leaning back into the velvet upholstery of her chair. She asked what I was experiencing in that moment. “Describe how what your pain looks like now.” It felt like it was evaporating, like cotton candy being pulled away in the form of a thin, wispy cloud. The weight lifted, allowing my back to straighten. My fists stopped shaking. It was there that I learned I couldn’t suppress my feelings indefinitely. If you want to permanently remove those powerful emotions, you have to fully experience them. Sometimes they have to overwhelm your whole body and spirit. It took several sessions like this one to slowly drain those pent up feelings like a blister, but within a few short months, the weight I had been carrying for twenty years was finally out of my life, never to return. (Well, it’s been about four and half years, and so far so good.) It’s not all gone, but enough had been taken out for me to move on with my life.

At first blush, it might make sense to fully experience all your emotions within a shorter time frame, but there can be a lot of good reasons to delay. In emergency situations like during a hurricane or flood, emotions can become uncontrollable, throwing off your judgement and putting yourself and others at serious risk. Some of these encounters in life are way beyond our capacity to understand or interpret in that very moment, so there are times when it’s perfectly acceptable and healthy to wait a few years before you can let them go. In my therapist’s office, I could barely handle the pain of childhood trauma as a grown-ass man, so how was the kid version of me supposed to know how to handle it on his own? When people give advice, sometimes their full solution is “don’t think about it” or “don’t let it bother you,” which is the equivalent of telling a hungry person to stop being hungry when they just need some food.

These days, Carrie and I are talking a lot about the shape of our stress. Here, I’m using shape to describe not just its imaginary physical form but as an overarching summary of many qualities. Before the summer, we were both in the learning stages of our new jobs, and she was studying in the evenings and on weekends. The shape of our stress then, and for some years prior, was such that required me to party on the weekends. All of those coping strategies meant for cute, cuddly, soft stress wouldn’t work for me. A cup of tea, a walk, deep breathing, they might smooth out the rough edges, but employing those tools was like paying a few bucks towards an American medical bill. That was okay for the time because that was the shape of our stress then. It was spiky and painful, suffocating. It was cloudy and foggy, reducing our vision to just a couple days ahead. It felt like no matter how much we worked at addressing our issues, there was little to no movement or visible progress, which fed back into the cycle of despair.

These days, there is more breathing room, and our body’s defences don’t have to be on high alert at all times anymore. Taking action towards our problems actually produces results, mostly because the big battles have already been fought. We’re allowed to make mistakes, to change our minds on a whim, to cancel or reschedule plans now. The stressful emotions are smaller now, leaving room for softer, quieter ones like gratitude, tranquility, boredom.

Abstract Conceptual Model

Let me be silly and put on my engineering hat here to approach the concept of stress shapes from a more nerdy and bastardized mathematical perspective. A lot of the time, we talk about stress in a single dimension, where it’s high or low. This level is where we talk about eustress, distress, and crisis. The model is like flying a kite, where there’s the good amount of wind, eustress, that allows the kite to fly, being pretty and exciting for the whole world to see. When there’s too much wind however, distress, the kite becomes hard to control, and it’s at risk of being damaged. When there’s a hurricane, that would be a crisis for the kite. This single dimension is typically how people talk about their stress, and that’s usually sufficient for small talk or quick updates. In the physical world, we’re all quite familiar with the three dimensional model of Cartesian coordinates, with orthogonal unit vectors in the x, y, and z axes. Herein, we would typically define values in [x, y, z] format. 

Even still, stress is more complex than that. Biologically, there are multiple systems involved to describe and handle short-term and long-term stress, with hormones like cortisol and adrenaline as well as indicators like heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, and sweating. Mathematically, linear algebra teaches us that we can analyze relationships with more than three variables. Thus, we can define a system where stress, as an example, can be defined in terms of texture, smell, colour, weight, location, etc. Let’s limit our exercise to those dimensions for now. For this blog post, stress has exactly five dimensions.

Stress =


Stress_Jon’s childhood trauma =
[hearty durian,
25 lbs.,
left chest]

This on its own isn’t anything terribly fancy, merely a rephrasing of my description into a vector form. However, let’s imagine what it’s like being in a relationship where each person’s stress can interact with their partner’s. As I’m unpacking these old memories with my counsellor, Carrie is in school and working, both full-time. Let’s just make up some values for the shape of Carrie’s stress at this time:

Stress_Carrie =
30 lbs.,
lower back]

Therefore, Stress_Lês =
[durian brick,
dark blue,
55 lbs.,
lower left back]

Managing stress is a lifelong exercise, directing energy at both the sources of stress and the resulting symptoms. In linear algebra, homogeneity is an important concept in dimensional analysis. (This will be the last bit of math, I promise.) You can see from the table above that the weight of my stress interacts with the weight of Carrie’s stress. It doesn’t impact the texture, smell, or colour of her stress. We know that carrying an object with considerable weight has an impact on where in your body you feel that stress. I described above that the weight of my stress pulled my shoulders down and forward. However, in my five-dimensional model, we’ll simplify things to just focus on how each dimension interacts within itself, which has direct implications on how stress interacts within the marriage and how to manage its shape together.

To assure your short-term survival, you need to manage the symptoms so they don’t throw you off your centre. There are some tried-and-true methods for getting through it. Some of the healthier ways include exercising, eating, socializing, entering a state of flow, practising gratitude, mindfulness. Some less healthy ones include smoking, drinking, and binge-eating — no judgement though. It then becomes a practice of understanding the current shape of your stress and learning what are the best ways to reshape it or process it into a form that you prefer. This area is also extremely personal and unique. I even wrote a blog post to remind myself what worked during that period. However, these coping strategies don’t erase the sources of your stress, so you need to also take meaningful action towards them. If someone is suing me, then I need to find a good lawyer. If someone is being mean to me, then I need to talk to them. If an anonymous person keeps discarding my clothes, then I need to tell Carrie to stop ripping my old underwear and throwing them away and to buy me new ones.

We know that in reality, stress can multiply, it can procreate. If Carrie is studying for exams and I’m overloaded at work, the stress in the marriage takes on a life of its own, more than simply the sum of its parts. Linear systems with three variables are tough to calculate on paper, though it’s possible. Adding in more dimensions means that solving those equations usually requires a computer. Nobody ever taught me how to handle an object that feels like spiky durian bricks and smells like a campfire. One method we employed in those days was to, in engineering parlance, design and verify, or in simpler terms, guess and check. I tried dancing at the stress. I threw a regular gym routine at it. Multiple types of food were smashed against the dark blue durian bricks. To borrow language from the one-dimensional stress model, we were both up to our eyes in it.

In those days, the shape of our stress was so large and unwieldy that we began to lose hope. As we tried our best strategies, and even stretched to creatively try untested, unverified methods on these new threats, we felt that progress was far slower than we would have wanted. It was a discouraging time. We’d hammer away at it, trying to reshape it into a more manageable form. I used alcohol extensively, which often hurts as much as it helps. Without belabouring the point, the only thing we could do was to persevere. It’s a pretty illogical approach, when you have lots of empirical evidence telling you that nothing you’ve tried is working, but it’s the only effective method that got us through. As the years wore on, my prayers changed, from praying that the sources of stress would disappear to praying that I would become stronger and more capable of dealing with it all. My vision narrowed from thinking about my five year plan to plotting how to survive the next five hours. Sleep, whenever it was possible, was always a sweet escape, even as anxiety choked the breath out of me while I lay in bed, dreading what the next day would bring.

So What?

Since the end of that war, I’ve been looking back at the wreckage, trying to make sense of it all. My memory was so punctuated from that era because I was dealing with so much all at once, though that hasn’t stopped the feelings from being stored in my body. It will take some time to parse through every little thread, but one of the themes that really stood out was this concept of the shape of our stress. As we return to civilian life after being in The Struggle for years, we’re making a lot of transitions, even from the way things were just a few months ago. I’m partying less, sleeping better, drinking less, losing weight, even feeling optimistic and hopeful for the future. The shape of my stress has transformed dramatically, but my coping strategies haven’t caught up so quickly. I’ve headed into weekends ready to party, but my motivation was totally different. My heart wasn’t in it like it was just a few weeks prior. That’s when I started wondering what was so different since my behaviour didn’t really make sense in my new circumstances.

Briefly, there were some stressful events that I faced over the summer, and as I employed my strategies to combat them, I was genuinely stunned to see that my actions were having an effect. Even as I was making moves, I felt hopelessness, pessimism, skepticism that anything I did would matter. I’m not fully recovered from it all, and this mentality is one of my battle scars. A psychological casualty. It reminded me of that feeling of stepping out after the last final exam of my degree. In an instant, the source of my stress disappeared, but the symptoms of those stressors still remained. Shortly after, I drove down to Calgary to see Carrie, and I had a nightmare one night where I spoke with my academic advisor. She said I didn’t enroll in the correct courses that semester, so I couldn’t graduate just yet. I freaked out because I distinctly remembered talking to her at the beginning of the semester to verify that I had done just that, but in my dream, she was like “Oops. Oh well! 🤷🏼‍♀️” Fun way to wake up. Similarly, I’m still dealing with the fallout from The Struggle. Making sense of the chaos, the concept of the shape of my stress is a valuable tool that has already become relevant as a new source arrived this past summer.

Stress is a complicated beast. We refer to it in different ways, typically as a single dimension, high or low. In psychology, one very useful tool is to describe emotions as physical objects, taking on different characteristics like texture, smell, colour, weight, and location, among others. Looking at stress with this lens can help to provide new understanding in managing its sources and symptoms. In a relationship, your stress can also interact with your partner’s, sometimes taking on a life of its own. Once upon a time, the shape of my stress had grown to be so unmanageable that I was losing hope that I could influence it at all. Nowadays, it’s a lot easier to work with, much to my surprise. Looking back, it almost feels bizarre why I needed to go out and party as much as I did in the past few years, but remembering the shape of my stress at the time and understanding how differently I feel now, there were only a few strategies I discovered empirically that could actually manage it. I’m still sorting through the wreckage from that time, so even though I feel different now, I also don’t want to judge my past self so harshly as I continue to reshape my stress and emotions moving forward. Learning what works for you is such a personal endeavour that there isn’t much room for moral judgement as we each struggle to survive and find our own way in this world.

Jonathan Phan Lê @jon_le