Stress, like the weather, is ever present in our lives. While unavoidable, we can make it more manageable, just as we can dress appropriately to suit weather conditions. Stress, defined as our reactions to external situations or internal psychological states, affects our physical health and emotional well-being. Despite all the advice that has been written about stress, why are so many of us overwhelmed by it?
One reason is that we find it difficult to accept that living itself causes various forms of stress, making it impossible to eliminate. Nor is all stress bad. The satisfying excitement of achievements and happy events in our lives result in a stress that we welcome. But it is realistic to avoid–or at least reduce–the harmful forms of psychological stress (e.g., worries, anxieties, fears, irritability and depression) and the damaging physiological reactions (e.g., increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, muscular tensions, and an impaired immune system). Stress may also cause us to behave destructively.
Let me say that in coping with stress, we should avoid ineffective or self-defeating techniques, including overindulgence in alcohol, smoking and the use of illegal drugs. These temporary methods not only fail to relieve stress but cause more damage–physically, emotionally, relationship and job- wise. Users become addicted to them and all too often spiral out of control.
Another approach to controlling stress is the use of psychotropic drugs prescribed by physicians. But as a psychologist, I use behavioral and other psychotherapeutic techniques. With most people, these treatments are effective. But they involve the persons participating in their own recovery. However, if the person’s stress is severe, medical consultation could be indicated. Knowledgeable physicians will treat their patients with an effective drug that has the fewest side effects and will follow up on the patient’s progress. They will also reduce or eliminate the medication when the stress is manageable. The patient should not hesitate to question the psychiatrist about the medications and their effects. Often, psychotherapy may be indicated to make more effective and lasting progress.
Physical causes for stresses should not be overlooked. A good physical work-up may be necessary to find out if medical treatment is indicated. Sometimes, medications themselves can cause stress reactions. In considering the cause of stress, we may need to play detective.
Let us keep in mind that people differ in their coping styles. Even with the loss of a loved one, a relationship breakup, losing one’s job or a serious financial setback, some people are more resilient. Others recover more slowly or are even stymied in moving on with their lives. Those whose suffering is severe or lengthy should not avoid seeking professional help. As a consumer advocate, I would suggest that the person consider the various treatment options and consider the pros and cons of each.
Strange as it may sound, stress can be helpful! Like pain, it can motivate us to make changes in our lives or to obtain the necessary treatment that can not only reduce stress, but also improve our lives. I can give two examples in my own life. One concerned a job that was damaging my physical health and psychological well-being. Those stresses made me quit the job, return to school and change my career. A second was an overwhelming workload and a weight gain that were taking a physical and emotional toll on my health. I switched to a nutritious eating pattern and started practicing meditation techniques; both improved my physical and psychological health. I must admit that I had the same difficulties as my patients in overcoming these self-destructive patterns. While we are creatures of habit, we can be motivated to change if we strive for health, longevity and greater happiness.
Having used myself as a case study let me give an example from my psychotherapy practice. A patient worked for two years without a pay raise. Finally, he was encouraged to approach his supervisor. He discovered that the supervisor was unaware of the situation and promptly got the patient his raise. This problem arose because of a personnel glitch and the patient’s not speaking up sooner. He had underestimated how valued a worker he was. His insecurities contributed to the problem! As a result off this experience, he was also able to consider other situations in his life that he could confront.
But let’s be realistic. Another supervisor could have acted differently and defensively. If he had, my patient could have considered all possible options, such as appealing to a director, looking for another job or biding his time if he was not ready to quit. While not wanting to unnecessarily prolong our suffering, we should avoid acting impulsively. It is best to carefully consider our options, including a change in the situation. For several of my patients the difficult supervisor was transferred or quit. Since we are each unique, there are no boilerplate solutions. Know thyself is a good maxim. One person may find it better to quit, another to bide his time. But each should consider the consequences of each choice.
Let me now mention couple relationships which offer not only many satisfactions but, as we all know, stresses as well. While we realize “talking it over” is helpful, all too often, each person goes into the defensive or critical mode. Criticizing and complaining are counter-productive, escalate the conflict and make a bad situation worse. Communication, while highly desirable, has to be constructive All too often we ignore the basic ground rules of effective communication. They include: a calm situation where both are willing to spend the necessary time to listen as well as talk. Rather than criticizing, or complaining and defensively not admitting to any fault, just listen. Don’t neglect to say what you like about the other person and the positive aspects of the relationship. If neither existed, why would you want to remain in such a relationship? Present the difficulties in perspective. I can’t go into all of the effective communication techniques that help resolve conflicts, but be assured there are many. If such discussions don’t help, consider other alternatives, including couple counseling. If your partner is unwilling to go, consider going yourself to get help as to what to do. Often, the partner who’s unwilling to come may change his or her mind. With a skilled therapist, couple counseling will help both persons realize what each is doing to contribute to the problems and what each can do to improve the situation.
One recent example is the couple that came to me, the wife saying, “He threw me out!” while the husband said, “She left and wouldn’t return.” It soon became clear that after a heated argument, he told her, “If you’re unhappy, you can leave.” After she left, she refused to return. By the way, anger, a stress itself, interferes with listening and thinking. The couple, after several sessions, realized that their intentions were not to end the relationship but rather that their words were expressing anger and frustration. They decided to again live together and in counseling learned to discuss and resolve their conflicts more rationally. If all efforts fail to resolve differences, couples may consider divorce to end a futile situation. Hopefully, each can learn from the experience and move on with their lives. If there are children, the couple should avoid involving them in their conflict and reduce as much as possible the damaging effects on them.
Let me summarize my approach, which is appreciably condensed in this brief article. First, realize stress is an inescapable aspect of living and may even prod us into improving our lives. Two, consider the causes of the stress (don’t leave yourself out!) and the options for reducing or eliminating it. Three, realize that many stressful situations have developed over time and may be complicated. So don’t expect instant solutions. Consider solutions a process in which we may be stymied, enter blind alleys, make blunders, but always consider the ways to recover and better resolve the situation. Four, realize that reactions to stress are not limited to fight or flight. Our human species has the capabilities for considering constructive options if we are motivated, realistic, persistent, flexible and are open to getting professional help. And lastly, realize that a realistically optimistic attitude can be maintained or learned if necessary to help us effectively handle the stresses in our lives and live more happily.