When molehills become mountains - hug your dog.
Updated: May 6, 2021
The popular idiom “making a mountain out of a molehill” was coined in the 16th century and refers to an overreactive and hysterical manner in responding to small triggers (TheIdioms.com, 2021). To make a fuss over something that should be manageable is where many of our misperceptions lie. Stress and anxiety are small things, or are they? We are taught that when things get tough “the tough get going” or “that’s just life”. We are, however, not told that brushing off small anxieties and stressors can result in feeling like you are facing a climb on Everest, if we are not careful.
It is important to acknowledge that stress can be debilitating (National Today, 2021). Amazingly, most of the time, we are aware of feeling stressed but we are not aware of the extent to which it influences our physical and mental health. It is therefore really important to be aware of healthy coping mechanisms to practice daily, and not only when we are feeling overwhelmed and stressed.
So what are some things that can make us feel overwhelmed and stressed: Being parents, being a teenager, the idea of aging when it’s your birthday, a month with many birthdays and additional expenses, family get-togethers, interpersonal relationships, conflict, work, colleagues at work, otherness or being different, social media, perceptions and expectations of life and what that means, existential questions, what is meaning? All of these are examples of things that are normal and part of life. Yet, all of these tiny concepts could make for some weighty thoughts.
Stress can be healthy, but it can also be insidious. Normally, people have a to-do list, a set of responsibilities for home and work and we all have past traumas and future plans weighing in on our subconscious mind. When our day-to-day becomes loaded, we often feel overwhelmed and stressed even though “everything is fine”. This is where the insidiousness of stress comes in. We usually are “fine”, and there is not only one thing that makes us feel overwhelmed but there are a lot of little things that we should be able to handle. So why are we feeling so “down”, why is tiredness and being distracted a real threat to our day? Lots of little stresses can cause frequent light headaches, insomnia, decreased productivity, irritability and many more.
It is difficult to admit to ourselves that we are feeling “stressed”. We were raised to be tough and to not voice our stresses but to just handle it. The most common statement we feel comfortable in sharing is that, “Everything is fine”, “No, nothing is wrong”. The truth is, there sometimes isn’t one big thing, event or trauma that give us reason to feel stressed; but more often than not, it is a culmination of many small and seemingly insignificant stresses.
So, how do you know if you are feeling stressed? Here are some of the physical and cognitive signs of stress listed on PsychCentral (2016): Agitation, increased heart rate or heart palpitations, restlessness, muscle tension, stumbling over words too regularly, lack of energy, mental slowness, a racing mind, forgetfulness and a sense that “life” is too much. A big danger also happens when you start detaching yourself from family and friends (Bresset, 2016). Detachment is not a bad thing if space and boundaries are what you need to fill your cup, or to recuperate; but it can become dangerous when you find that you are unwilling or unable to connect to people the way you used to (Holland, 2019). Some people become detached when they want to protect themselves against drama or stress; but for others, being detached is because they feel unable to be open or honest about their thoughts and emotions (Holland, 2019).
What are the solutions then? Most of us don’t have time to meditate, journal and reflect on our deepest feelings. We are busy and have full-time jobs, kids, partners and social responsibilities. The truth is that there is no one-size-fits-all (Scott, 2020) approach to this.
The first step is to acknowledge that there are stressors and triggers we deal with every single day. Once you admit and acknowledge this, you can learn how your mind and body effectively relieves itself of stress. Here are some activities than can be done anytime and anywhere: in the car, behind your desk, while on the treadmill even while sitting in on that meeting that could have been an e-mail.
Guided Imagery (Scott, 2020) – This is like taking a vacation for your mind. We do this accidentally when we daydream. The difference is that when you intentionally focus your attention and senses on the imagined place, you are allowing your body to feel like you are experiencing it for real. Imagine for one minute that you are walking or sitting in your favourite spot. For example, if you think about the beach, close your eyes and smell the salt in the air, the sunscreen on the peoples’ skin. Feel the warmth of the sun and the dryness of the hot sand on your skin. Listen to the waves, the birds, the sounds of people talking and children laughing. See, in your imaginary image, the glare of the sun on the water, a boat in the distance. Use all five of your senses to bring this image to life. By doing this, your body will experience a physiological reaction where muscles will relax, breathing will slow down, blood pressure will decrease and so much more (Bresler, 2011). Guided imagery is even used to alleviate pain in patients with chronic illnesses (Bresler, 2011).
Progressive muscle relaxation (Scott, 2020) – This activity involves tensing and relaxing all of the muscles in your body group-by-group. To do this, you’ll start at your feet tensing your muscles in isolation and relaxing, then moving up to your calves, tensing and relaxing and eventually making your way to your forehead. Through progressive muscle relaxation you should be able to identify where tension is situated in your body for example in your stomach, back or even neck. This way, your focus will increase and it will become easier relaxing those areas.
Just breathe – While breathing slowly and deeply, many things happen to the body: Your sympathetic nervous system’s activity is decreased (you don’t feel like you are in danger all the time), your blood pressure is reduced, mental stress is reduced, the brain’s activity is synchronised (you will think more clearly) (Arcuri, 2021). Interestingly, when we feel like we are “stuck” or in “a rut”, our brain is in a locked-in circuit that feels almost like walking in the same circle over and over again. Doing focused and deep breathing every day can help your brain re-circuit and get out of that feeling of being on an endless loop (Arcuri, 2021).
Quick fixes - There are also some quick-fixes that really help with in-the-moment anxiety, but that will not help with long term effects. These are: Get a hug from a loved one, cuddle your partner, listen to music, watch a comedy, hold a baby, play with your dog or cat, light a scented candle, draw, journal, colouring books, pray and the more cathartic examples to scream or repeatedly punch a pillow until you are exhausted.
Take a minute a day, at least to breathe and perhaps take an imaginary stroll in a forest. It’ll be good for you.
Arcuri, L. (2021). Take a Deep Breath. Retrieved from Physiology: https://www.physiology.org/publications/news/the-physiologist-magazine/2021/january/take-a-deep-breath?SSO=Y
Bresler, D. E. (2011). Physiological Consequesces of Guided Imagery. Retrieved from Practical Pain Management: https://www.practicalpainmanagement.com/treatments/complementary/biobehavioral/physiological-consequences-guided-imagery
Bresset, S. (2016). The Impact of Stress. Retrieved from PsychCentral: https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-impact-of-stress#1
Holland, K. (2019). Emotional Detachment: What it is and how to overcome it. Retrieved from Healthline: https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/emotional-detachment
National Today. (2021). Stress Awareness Month - April 2021. Retrieved from National Today: https://nationaltoday.com/stress-awareness-month/
Schwartz, A. (2021). The Impact of Small Stresses in Daily Life . Retrieved from MentalHelp: https://www.mentalhelp.net/blogs/the-impact-of-small-stresses-in-daily-life/
Scott, E. (2020, January). Effective Stress Relievers for Your Life. Retrieved from
TheIdioms.com. (2021). Retrieved from The idioms: https://www.theidioms.com/make-a-mountain-out-of-a-molehill/