For some, stress is hard to live with. For others, it’s hard to live without.
As soon as, a 36 year old working woman opens her eyes and sees that’s she’s over slept by half an hour, she has the sinking feeling that it’s going to be one of those days when nothing seems to go right. Rushing to get ready for work, she dashes a glass of hot milk on the kitchen floor, and then hurries out only to find that the trains are delayed because of a power failure. After finally arriving at her office, late of course, she learns that her boss has moved up an important deadline that will keep her working late every night for the next week. Then, when she gets home, she finds that the washing machine has broken down.
Contrast that, with a retired executive, who wakes up at his usual time, has a leisurely breakfast with his wife and then heads off to the club for a game of golf with friends. He returns home in the afternoon, takes a nap, and then has an early dinner and watches a movie on the video.
Which person is under more stress? From the outside, the answer is obvious; the lady is the one under pressure. On the inside, however, the answer may be just the opposite. Retired executive may be ready to explode, while the working woman may be handling her situation calmly.
Most of the stress, we experience does not come from an outside source. Its something we create ourselves, say the experts. People’s reactions to similar events vary widely, and what may see very stressful to one person may not bother another person very much at all. The difference lies in how people perceive the events, not in the events themselves.
Some people, it seem, perceive the most innocuous events and common places as parries or threats. Such people are chronically stressed or stress addicts. It’s almost as if they have a physical carving to make themselves upset. They go fine for days at a time, then boom: they have got bad TV reception, or found a film of dust on the window still, and they’re all twisted into knots. The bad spell could go on for days at a time. And it is so predictable. No matter how well thins are going, sooner or later, such persons go berserk. If nothing happened to trigger, the stress, they’d find something.
Such chronic stress can lead to a host of physical problems ranging from mood disorders, gastrointestinal distress and heart irregularities to peptic ulcers, cardiovascular disease and stroke.
That’s not to say we should try to avoid stress altogether. At times stress can be a tremendous motivator, spurring us to complete our work or handle a difficult situation. Other stresses aren’t beneficial, but are unavoidable: a death in the family, being fired from a job, debilitating illness. The secret is not to seek to avoid all stress, but instead to learn how to deal with it effectively.
The Nature of Stress
Thought stress may spring from our minds, in order to master it we first have to understand and what it does to our bodies and that means traveling back in time several million years. Back then, stress meant facing a charging tiger, not standing up to a tyrannical boss. For our caveman ancestors, the proper reaction was either fight or flight. Either alternates called for a burst of energy triggered by so called “stress hormones,” substances that increase heart rate, blood pressure and muscle strength, and quicken our reaction time. All those changes are beneficial if you are facing a snarling tiger, but not so healthy when you are faced to work with a two legged version of one day after day.
The source of stress has changed over the years, but the physiological responses are still the same. When we are facing financial worries, for example, the stress may last for months or even years. After a while the body naturally starts to tire, and then we begin to experience abnormal physical responses like depression, tiredness, sexual dysfunction, bowel and urinary irregularities, aches and pains, and heart palpitations. And in certain people, stress may be the trigger for more serious illness such as ulcers, coronary heart disease, and stroke.
What is the reason behind people’s differing reaction to Stress?
Some researches believe the answer lies in the body itself. “People react differently because of complex and subtle biochemical factor,” say Dr. Ray Rosenman, co-author of Type A behavior and your Heart and Director of cardiovascular Research at the Stanford Research Institute. “There are definite anatomical and biological reasons for the wide spectrum of responses people have to anxiety and stress.”
In this view, our differing responses to stress are largely beyond our control, set by the physiological and genetic factor that cannot be changed. According to Dr Rosenman, for example, women seem to be more prone to anxiety than men, a difference he attributes in part to differences in the hypothalamus.
Other experts believes that the answer lies in the mind, in long held behavior patterns and belief systems that influence the ways we perceive and deal with stress. How we view the world, says this school of thinking, is pretty much formed in early childhood. Then we go through life under the illusion that we are making our decision at a conscious level. When in reality we’re being guided by long standing sub conscious beliefs.
To illustrate, take the example of a person, who as the non rational, subconscious belief that he needs the constant approval of al his relatives, friends and co-workers. Obviously he is not going to get it, which leaves him feeling abandoned and rejected. While a co worker may see a boss’s bad mood simply as an irritant, this person may convince himself that it’s a sigh he’s going to be fired. The key to dealing with that stress is to recognize what his underlying belief is, and then modify it.
A Commonsense Approach
Most stress reduction programs rely on a few basic techniques that anyone can follow:
- Keep a stress dairy to record the things that are causing your stress, rating their importance on a scale of one to ten. Then list and rate your responses to that stress. A ten response to a two problem is foolish.
- Exercise can be one of the best stress busters of all.
- Modify your diet to cut out those substances that may be aggravating your stress. Eat well balanced means and reduce intake of caffeine, salt, alcohol and cigarettes.
- Learn relaxation and meditation techniques and practice them regularly. Growing numbers of books and tapes can teach you the basics, and even a few minutes of such techniques each day can calm and refresh you.
- Build a strong support network of family and friends to help you trough the tough times. Sometimes all it takes to relieve stress is a long conversation with a good friend.
- And perhaps most basic of all, don’t sweat the small stuff. Realize that most of the stress we have in our lives probably won’t seem that important in a year or even in a month. The secret to reducing stress is realizing that life is good in spite of the daily irritations.
Whatever it’s underlying cause, some people may come to believe that being stressed is normal, and that can’t function effectively without it. Stress for them becomes a kind of addiction, a fix needed to feel complete.
Take the example of an executive with a financial planning company who puts in long working hours in a very stress environment. At the coaxing of his wife, he finally agreed to take a three week vacation. Once there, however, he couldn’t relax because of a whole new set of stresses he created for himself: worries about the safety of their hotel, irritations with the house keeping staff, and a frenetic schedule that took them t every tourist sport. “I thought that once he got away from the office, everything would be fine,” says his fine. “But he actually seemed more stressed on vacation than he did before. It’s as if the thought of totally relaxing scares him to death.”
Such stress can simply be a self destructive habit, or a way of avoiding other, more serious problems: “I’ve got so much stress at work that I don’t have the energy to deal with my mother’s illness.” By focusing on minor irritations, a person may try to overcome deeper worries or avoid them, leading to a continuous spiral of stress.
Some researches speculate that the key to understanding addictive stress lies in the same physical and emotional responses that underlie addictions like smoking or drinking. Dr Paul Rosch, president of the American institute of stress and a clinical professor of medicine and Psychiatry at New York Medical College, says that people can become hooked on the adrenaline secretions released during a stressful reaction. “When that happens, they have alterations in certain brain transmitters that provide a sense of fulfillment,” he says. “If they can’t get that adrenaline boost, they can’t get that pleasurable feeling. It’s a similar mechanism to the one involved in other addictions.”
Such findings may explain the pleasure some people claim to feel when they are under stress. “The only time I feel truly alive is when I’m working under an impossibly tight deadline,” confesses one woman. “Once the pressure is off, everything seems flat.”
Unless we isolate ourselves completely from the world, of course, we are going to have to live with stress. And the best way to do that, say doctors and psychologist, s not through artificial controls like tranquilizers, but through lifestyle and cognitive changes.
“The best advice for dealing with stress is simple: find out what makes you feel anxious and then take pains to avoid it,” says Dr. Rosenman.
But there are many stresses that we simply have to learn to deal with: a long, congested commute to work, the chronic illness of spouse, money problems. These are things we may have little control over, and thus they are the most potentially damaging.
What we do have control over is how we react to such problems. As the example at the beginning of this article shows, it’s not so much what the outside stresses are, as how we deal with them. Various techniques can help you change your behavior patterns in ways that can relieve the physical symptoms of stress.
More deep seated, cognitive changes may require outside counseling or more introspective approach. Certain fundamental attitudes play an important role in the stresses experienced my many older people, for the anxieties they feel are often not the obvious ones of a high pressure job or the struggle to raise a family. Instead they may be concerned with declining health, the loss of friends, and a feeling of not being productive after retirement.
As we age, we need to develop new coping skills to deal with the new source of stress in our lives. One of the most important issues is related to self worth. Often we commit the error of “ego rating’ equating our worth with our productivity or with other people’s evaluations of us. We may think that if we are not productive at the same level that we were before, then we have diminished worth. As our lives changes, we need to define ourselves in new ways.
The lesson is one that we should all learn: stress is a controllable and treatable affliction. With sufficient effort and understanding, it doesn’t have to be a life sentence.