Emotional Vulnerability and Stress

There are a number of techniques we can use to effectively manage our emotional response when tensions run high: mindfulness strategies, distraction, breathing exercises, among others. What these ‘in-the-moment’ strategies all have in common is that they all involve you having been in a strong emotional state in the first place. However, what if I told you there was a way to avoid reaching that point at all? One strategy is through reducing our emotional vulnerability to stressful situations.

Imagine you just came back from work and your mother calls you. She is complaining about your lack of ambition again and spends the next 30 minutes going down a laundry list of things you should do to improve your life: finding a partner, getting a better job, spending more time with the family, and so on and so on. In order to address a significant tech issue at work today, you’ve been on the go since 10:00am without food. Moreover, a recent project has been a huge source of stress and you’ve gotten maybe 7 hours of sleep over the past 2 days. How well do you think you’d be able to handle this phone call given amount of emotional resources you have? This phone call would probably not boil over all too well.

On the other hand, imagine you just came back from a well-deserved vacation and had gotten a fantastic sleep the night before. You’ve been balancing work and life well and have begun a consistent schedule to exercise every day. How do you think you would fare in the phone call now? Probably a little better! That’s precisely how emotional vulnerability works – certain behaviours and events can nourish us to feel more ready for potential stressors that come up; and other behaviours deplete us.

The blue line indicates someone whose emotional vulnerability is low, whereas the red line represents someone whose emotional vulnerability is high. As you can see, the person in the red line has higher baseline negative emotions. When a stressor happens, they experience greater emotional reactivity and take a longer time to come back down to baseline. This highlights the importance of reducing emotional vulnerability to better handle stressful situations.

Using the P.L.E.A.S.E skill to reduce emotional vulnerability

The PLEASE skill refers to different aspects of our lives that we can optimize in order to increase our resources to handle stressful situations. It is often used in as part of emotion regulation skills training or dialectical behaviour therapy to reduce emotional vulnerability. By reducing emotional vulnerability, we are better able to handle stressful situations and act in ways that are consistent with our goals instead of reacting simply because of our emotions. They stand for:

– Treat PhysicaL Illness

– Balance Eating

– Avoid Mood Altering Drugs

– Balance Sleep

– Get Exercise

I know I know. Clinicians in psychology love their acronyms, but some of them are a bit of a stretch. We’ll talk about each of these activities in turn.

1. Treating Physical Illnesses. The body and mind are interconnected. When our bodies are stricken by medical conditions (e.g., a flu, a cold, etc.), this makes us more susceptible – not only physically, but also emotionally. Taking care of our physical illness can be as simply as having regular check-ups with your primary care physicians to making sure that our body is taken care of when we are sick.

2. Balance Eating. Adequate nutrition is important in pretty much every area of functioning. Balanced eating doesn’t mean that you should only eat healthy superfoods; it does mean that we should probably eat from the food pyramid on a regular basis and eat junk in moderation. You know your body best when it comes to what types of foods and schedule works for you in terms of health and consistency. Also make sure to hydrate!

3. Avoid Mood Altering Drugs. This component can include any number of drugs or substances that might be depleting your resources. For some, this may be caffeine; for others, this might be alcohol or cannabis. Generally speaking, it is helpful to avoid or minimize substances that are not prescribed by your medical provider or those that you are not using primarily for medicinal purposes.

4. Balance Sleep. Meeting your own sleep needs in terms of number of hours (see here for an article on finding your magic number) and having a consistent schedule can be helpful to feel refreshed and have more energy throughout the day.

5. Get Exercise. Similar to diet, consider picking up activities that help you fill the exercise quota but is also something you enjoy and can stay consistent with. I’d much rather you go take a walk for 20 minutes a few times a week and be able to stick with it, rather than do 2 hours of vigorous exercise every day and stop within the month. Consistency over everything!

Why be glass half full when you can nourish yourself and be glass full-full?
Photo by manu schwendener on Unsplash

My goal is to always set my patients (or in this case, the readers) up for success. If you notice that there are a couple things that you would like to work on in the PLEASE list, try to start with something small. For example, taking an extra 15-minute walk in the evening for one or two of the days. Or being a little more consistent with your sleep, for example. Small steps lead to giant leaps!

I hope this was helpful to learning a little more about dealing with emotional vulnerability! Let me know what you think your depleting activities are and what might be some things you could add into your life to nourish yourself and reduce emotional vulnerability.

Best wishes,