Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Regulating Your Stress When It Is ‘Over The Top’

Knowing how much I love the warm weather and the beach, a friend recently asked if I wished I could I re-locate to one of those Caribbean Islands. Without blinking, the first words that came out of my mouth were, “No, not enough stress.”  WHAT?

Well, what I was thinking about was the adrenaline rush that makes life interesting – you know, the race to make the express train, the challenge of the new case, the arrival of last minute guests, the negotiations of pets and people over the holidays…

I wasn’t factoring in the anxious ruminations that keep us up at night, the pressured multitasking that results in lost car keys and misplaced cell phones, or the distracted thinking that equates to missed bill payments, migraines, and fender benders…. stress that spills ‘over the top.’

Good Stress

Experts would say, that this is the difference between moderate or “good stress” and excessive stress. We need what moderate stress offers us. That is, when the brain perceives physical or psychological stress, it starts pumping the chemicals cortisol, epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine into the body. The result is that the heart beats faster, blood pressure increases, senses sharpen, and a rise in blood glucose invigorates us. In this regard, psychiatrist, Dr. Lynne Tan, describes stress as a “ burst of energy” – the way in which our body tells us what we need to do. According to her and other experts, moderate amounts of stress help us perform tasks more efficiently, improve memory, heart function, and even improve resistance to infection.

The message is that much as we need “ good” anxiety to alert our fight/flight response to danger, a moderate degree of stress exerts pressure that stimulates and helps us.

Excessive Stress

The problem is that ours is a culture dealing with much more than “good stress.”  The American Psychological Association’s 2007 “Stress in America” poll found that one-third of people in the U.S. report experiencing extreme levels of stress. In addition, nearly one-in-five people report experiencing high levels of stress 15 or more days per month.

Unlike good or moderated stress, high levels of stress put us at physical and emotional risk.  When such stress persists over long periods of time, it has been found to be associated with high blood pressure, compromised immune system, depression, heart disease and asthma.

How Can we Manage and Moderate Excessive Stress?

There has been considerable attention in the media and in professional consultation on the use of Stress Reducing Strategies to buffer the impact of stress physically and psychologically.  The use of exercise, meditation, creative pursuits, music, hobbies, spirituality, social connections and volunteering are crucial life dimensions to stress reduction. We need them but we may need something more.

“Picture a Pot on the Stove”

Adapted from a strategy for understanding workplace stress, here is a way of conceptualizing stress that puts into perspective those internal and external factors that play a role in our experience and regulation of good and excessive stress.

Picture a pot on a stove.

  • Inside the pot are the factors in your life – personal, family, work, financial, social, medical, recreational, etc.
  • We all have different amounts of these factors in our pot and for life to happen, we have to provide the heat, the energy (i.e. the stress, pressure, impetus) that heats the pot and makes it “ cook.”
  • Regulating our stress means we are providing enough adrenaline to get things cooking productively without “spilling over the top.”
  • Stress Reducers are an invaluable way to regulate the heat so that even if some extra things are thrown in (a new baby, a change in job, a divorce) – nothing is going over. Life goes on cooking!

“Over The Top”

There are two primary reasons that your life pot boils over.

  1.  The first reason is that too much has been put into the pot and there is no more room. Regardless of your stress regulators (i.e. even when you bring down the heat by exercise or singing) that pot is boiling over.

In the face of a “full pot” where external demands like job pressure or family expectations contribute to the overflow, it is worth considering:

  • Do I feel entitled to say “ NO” when I have reached a limit?
  • If I cannot say “ No” to a boss or family situation, am I able to re-prioritize such that I take some other things out of the pot?
  • Can I be creative about reducing the pot i.e.  car pool, work from home, hire a sitter, alter my timeline for deadlines?
  • Can I adjust my expectations such that my self-worth does not rest on being all, doing all and caring for all?
  • Can I define a reason for taking something out of the pot  (like postponing running for the school board, joining a competitive men’s soccer team, or going back to school full time in view of childcare needs) in a way that gives me a sense of control and choice?

2.  The second reason for your pot to boil over is that the flame,“ your personal stress level” is so high that the pot (regardless of what is in it) heats up so  quickly that the “boil over” is inevitable. This is the situation where the mere reminder of needing milk can incite a tirade of blame and accusation.

When feeling an excessive personal stress level, it is valuable to take a personal stress audit. Understanding the level of stress you are suffering facilitates management and reduction.

A Personal Stress Audit is a way of looking closer at yourself physically, emotionally and behaviorally both in terms of causes of high stress level and reactions to high stress level.


  • Are you sleeping, eating and taking time out for rest and recreation?
  • Is there a medical, situational or post-traumatic response causing difficulties?
  • In somewhat of a vicious cycle, sleep deprivation, hunger and overwork lower our threshold and increase our reactivity to even moderate stress.
  • The increase of stress in turn leaves us with sleep problems, skin problems, unhealthy alcohol or drug solutions, eating and gastrointestinal disturbances.

One man would show me the palms of his hands whenever I asked how things were going – he used the presence or absence of eczema as an indication of his stress level.

Based on what you observe about yourself, it is always effective to WORK FROM THE BODY OUT. Resetting the body rhythms in simple ways and if necessary with medical or professional consult is always a path to stress reduction.

For one woman joining a weight watchers group was the start to less bingeing, increased walking, better sleep and less stress.

For one man limiting alcohol intake to weekends meant he had more gym time and less stress and reactivity to work and family issues.


  • Is there any medical condition (pregnancy, thyroid levels, menopause, high blood pressure etc.) that is increasing anxiety, irritability, depression, and driving up your reactivity to even moderate stress?
  • Are you accepting of your personal strengths and limitations such that you can have self-empathy instead of self-criticism for the stress you feel? Self-criticism adds to stress. Empathy entitles you to help.
  • Are you judging yourself by other’s standards in a way that puts you in a situation that is a mismatch to your personality and stress tolerance?

People are different and they can handle different amounts of different things. For some folks having four children would be too much. For others the responsibility of a business would be beyond what they could manage.

  •  Have you reached such a stress level that you feel burned out – there is nothing left to keep life demands going?
  • Regardless of the reason – illness, depression, age or circumstances- it is emotionally wise to ask for help, to borrow on the energy of others, be they friends, families or professionals,to get your life cooking again.


Most people can tell you the behaviors they use as indicators that their stress is “over the top.”

  • Some recognize binge eating or excessive drinking as the markers.
  • Many report disorganization, missed appointments, losing things as the sign of excessive stress.
  • One woman used the pile of clothes in her bedroom as the barometer.
  • A man knew that when he stayed up in an exhausted state watching mindless TV – he was over the line.

In some ways the recognition of these behaviors as indicators of excessive stress is as important a stress regulator as the daily jog or the yoga class. As points of information they enhance and broaden the potential for stress management.

  • Maybe in addition to yoga, we have to do something about a work environment that is too stressful.
  • Maybe the daily walk is crucial but cannot off set the demands of being alone as a caregiver seven days a week.

 It seems that if we are human and we are going to function, we are going to deal with stress- whether here or in the Caribbean. As such, it may benefit us to broaden our stress management to include stress reducers as well as a self-reflective gage of when and why our stress is “ over the top.”

Stress is not what happens to us. It’s our response TO what happens. And RESPONSE is something we can choose- Maureen Killoran