Want to bounce back from stress? Clarify your values

This article looks at how you can learn to clarify your values to help overcome stressful situations and to focus on your priorities in life.

What is stress?

Stress is an unavoidable response experienced in our body and mind. This instinctive reaction is activated when we think we can’t cope with pressure or a threat to our well-being.

It’s in this very moment that we naturally go into "fight or flight" mode, which is a burst of energy that allows us to be alert and ready to fight a potentially harmful situation or, alternatively, to escape from it.

A little stress is fine

As you can imagine, experiencing low levels of stress is perfectly healthy. It allows us to survive potentially dangerous situations. It’s the amount of stress and, ultimately, what we do with it that determines our well-being.

Moderate levels of stress, or manageable tension, can allow us to perform better due to that arousal state that motivates us to do our best - to overcome difficulties.

It’s when we experience intense stress, leading us to a lack of objectivity and reasoning, that we not only tend to perform very badly, but also start feeling drained and incapable of reacting efficiently to difficult situations.

The first step to take, then, is to accept that stress is an inevitable and useful part of our lives.

When does stress become chronic?

From a physical point of view, chronic stress means a constant state of high cortisol levels, which is the hormone responsible for activating stress. This persistent state impacts our body, minds and actions.

Our blood pressure goes up, we become highly sensitive and emotional, we think less clearly and become extremely pessimistic; we become agitated, upset, anxious and perhaps even aggressive.

Chronic stress can lead to a number of well-known psychological consequences such as anxiety, depression, anger management problems, burnout and relationship issues.

Overcome stress by clarifying your values

So how can you reduce your stress levels and ultimately enhance your satisfaction in life? Focus on clarifying your personal values.

A value is a decision about what we feel is most important in our lives. Our personal set of values allows us to be the person we want to be. They are a chosen direction that help us to orient our actions.

Think of values as your personal compass. When you feel like you are lost and losing control, remembering your values allows you to refocus, recalibrate and get back on track towards reaching your goals.

Losing yourself to stress

Think of a typical situation in which you feel an intense amount of stress. Does it feel like your life is a mess? Or do you feel like you are losing yourself bit by bit? Perhaps you feel all over the place, and that you are not heading in the right direction.

When experiencing stress, we tend to lose touch with who we are and our life goals can become unclear.

What, until yesterday, felt like the clear path to take in life, suddenly feels somehow wrong or unreachable. We feel as if we are not clearly in control anymore - which affects our decision making process.

Having this compass of values in life helps you deal with stressful situations because it allows you to stay committed to the person you really are and to see things more clearly.

By clarifying what matters the most to you, you can try to figure out the specific behaviors and steps that will enable you to be the person you want to be.

How many times has it happened that, while under pressure, you have focused externally on some values that didn’t actually belong to you, instead of your own?

Finding your personal values

When I work with my clients I help them find their set of values by asking them specific questions, like asking what is an important value in their life, and how they feel they can practically reach that value.

Together we find ways to define what’s truly important for them, free from the values of others, and develop useful techniques to apply this approach in daily stressful situations.

Be aware of yourself

It is useful to perform periodic check-ins by questioning yourself. "What’s getting in the way of me being who I want to be?" "When did I stop being the person I wanted to be, and why?"

Once you have given yourself some answers, you can start again committing to actions that are true to yourself.

Learning resilience

You need to be consistent with your values in order to have a sense of purpose in life that allows you to overcome upsetting situations.

You must pick yourself up over and over again because defining your values doesn’t happen overnight.

Whether we like it or not, we will always have to deal with inevitable stressors and must learn to be resilient. That’s life!

Melania Zampieri


Melania Zampieri

I am a licensed psychologist and support internationals living in the Netherlands. I run my private practice in Utrecht, in Amsterdam and on Skype both for English and Italian speakers...

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