Ways We Cope with Stress: Featuring Plants

Because I’m so darned introspective, I’ve been examining how I cope with stress these days. I find that I can only handle a subset of the priorities I could before, and I avoid duties that appear like they’ll bring on more stress. That’s how I’m coping now, to the detriment of a couple of projects. But, as I look around I realize mine is only one way to cope. I also notice it’s not just us people who cope in different ways, so rather than call out people today, I’ll illustrate my points with how local plants are coping with the stress from Winter Storm Uri.

A perfect example is how some trees have died, some are struggling to come back, and some look fantastic, and this difference can happen in the same types of trees.

Some of us seem to deal with stress as if it’s not there at all. These people are often deeply grounded, have been through a lot, or have lots of support (roots!). These people, just like the Ashe juniper trees, often support others.

Others retreat and focus on one thing at a time, and try their best to do it well, like a rose bush with just one perfect flower.

Only one blossom, but it’s a good one.

There are people, and I know quite a few of them, who not only handle stress well, they thrive on it and so some of their best work when there’s a lot going on. Sometimes doing something is a way of coping and staying busy (I’m guilty of this), while others find challenges energizing. They enthusiastically bloom where they’re planted!

There are those, and who can blame them, who go into hiding, and only begin to peek out when the danger is over. Even then, they go slowly. It takes a lot out of people and plants to get their bearings when a stressful situation begins to ease up.

Stress tends to scatter some folks, too. They try this method of coping, and that method of coping, trying to find one that will actually work and get them through the hard times. I see this a lot in stressed oaks, which start putting out new growth all over, and not just at the ends of their branches. Some pop up along old limbs, and other pop up from the roots (very common).

This motte of oaks is sending out new sprouts all over the limbs and trunks.

When stress is really causing problems in living your usual life, though, sometimes starting again in a new place might help, like the redbud trees I’ve seem who look pretty sad up top, but have vibrant new growth farther down their trunks.

How many of us know people who have no choice to start over, even when that, too, is a struggle. I saw this poor tree with no leaves or other signs of life on its branches, but that hadn’t given up completely, and was starting again, hesitantly, and perhaps slowly. But, it’s still THERE! I count those of us who are in this situation as stronger than they realize.

I’m coming back!

Many of us fail to thrive during stressful periods. And it’s hard to say who’s going to cope well and who’s going to fall apart. One thing I noticed was that often there are two or more trees of the same variety near each other, and one looks great, while another struggles or succumbed to the weather? What’s the difference? You can’t tell on the surface what internal resources a tree or person has. That’s why we need to be patient and not blame people for their problems.

Same tree (an oak), different success rate.

I think flexibility, along with resilience, makes a difference in how we weather the inevitable Winter Storm Uri events in our lives. People who lived very rigid, inflexible lives really have had trouble with pandemic changes, just like a plant that’s been groomed into a stiff hedge with no choice in how it grows may have more trouble in a winter storm.

There are hundreds of these around the office, all very sad looking.

Those of us who aren’t well situated in the first place or already have anxiety issues may cope by throwing things every which way. A lot of the plants I seem seem to be reproducing like crazy, trying to grow, and growing in weird ways, like they’re trying ALL the options to make sure they’re making a good, healthy, happy impression. This has to take a lot of energy, and I wonder how well they’re going to do if they keep all that extra-perky energy up. I’ve noticed some crashing and burning of late…maybe a bit by me, to be honest.

This inland sea oats has come back strong, and has generated dozens of little buddies, just in case things don’t work out.

Now, some of the trees, and some of the people don’t make it at all through intense stress. I know more than one person who seems to be hanging by a thread right now. Some of us are just out of our element, like tropical trees (palms and such) that look pretty awful right now. I can’t fault them, and can only offer support and virtual hugs. And I will honor those we have lost.

We salute you, fallen non-native and non-cold hardy tree.

Looking at all the ways we humans and plants deal with unexpected stress is a good exercise for me. I can easily see the parallels among us, and what’s most clear is that there’s no right or wrong way to cope, nor are we all going to cope equally well. So, I’ll try to be patient with those who are struggling, including those who cope differently from me. I hope you can, too.

Author: Sue Ann (Suna) Kendall

The person behind The Hermits' Rest blog and many others. I'm a certified Texas Master Naturalist and love the nature of Milam County. I manage technical writers in Austin, help with Hearts Homes and Hands, a personal assistance service, in Cameron, and serve on three nonprofit boards. You may know me from La Leche League, knitting, iNaturalist, or Facebook. I'm interested in ALL of you!

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