Stress Managing. Avoiding Distress
Stress is simply the pressure of daily living. That’s right: To be alive is to be under some degree of stress. Stress can be generated either externally or internally, and how we handle our stress can have more to do with our health than perhaps any other factor. Excess stress is called distress; thus distress is the amount of stress over and above what you can manage.
Studies have shown distress to account for anywhere from 50 percent to 80 percent of all disease. No matter how hard we try, we probably can’t completely avoid the stress of daily living, but we can reduce it significantly by learning certain skills for coping. This can keep us on the right side of the invisible line separating us from the dangerous arena of distress.
First, let’s understand what stress is, and then we’ll talk about ways of managing it. Remember this simple equation: the difference between the amount of stress you have and the amount of stress you’re able to manage is what causes distress. Our goal here is to eliminate that distress as much as possible.
Just as many people confuse frustration with low frustration tolerance, many confuse stress with distress. Stress in and of itself can be a motivator and a source of change and excitement. Some people are much better equipped than others to handle it, simply because their stress-management skills are more intact. For example, with a little bit of reframing, stress can motivate you to begin and complete a task that you’ve been putting off.
One of the main causes of stress is change. This could refer to job changes, such as a promotion, demotion, or transfer, or a change in your financial status, such as debts, loss, or even a substantial increase in income. Family changes, such as marriage, a pregnancy, a shift in family responsibilities, or someone leaving the house, even act as stressors, and in fact, usually do. Retirement is a very common cause of stress, even though the main symptom may simply be boredom, which you may think of as anything but stressful. Nonetheless, it’s a change, and often an unanticipated one. And in fact, boredom is one of our most unacknowledged sources of distress.
Causes of stress can include any major lifestyle change: a new relationship or divorce, someone moving into your home, moving your place of residence, changes in the way you spend leisure time, or changes in social activities; also illness or injury, sexual difficulty, the death of a loved one, or another personal loss. If you think that’s all, even predictable events, such as holidays and vacations, stress your system. In fact, every holiday season, callers to my radio program wanted to talk about holiday stress more than anything else.
In addition, there are numerous ways we put stressors on ourselves. Perhaps you tend to overplan each day, or you engage in so many activities or thoughts at the same time that you overtax your system. Excessive competitiveness and a dire need for recognition are all self-induced stressors. Being overextended, being involved in too many projects with difficult or impossible deadlines—and don’t forget that compulsion to work while neglecting all other areas of your life—these are all attitudes that bring stress upon yourself.
Not allowing yourself to relax, or, worse yet, feeling guilty when you do relax is a big one. Low frustration tolerance and what’s called time urgency or hurry sickness not only cause excessive amounts of stress, but also dilute your enjoyment of life. I’m not going to tell you to give them all up. I only ask that you recognize them and either choose them consciously or decide to give them up. And if so, do it only because you acknowledge that it’s in your ultimate best interest to do so.
When is it in your best interest to give up these attitudes? Let me answer that question by describing to you the signs of distress. Consider these as warning signals: anxiety and depression, tension headaches, backaches, tics, muscle spasms, migraine headaches, abdominal pains and ulcers, colitis and other bowel disorders, tachycardia and other cardiovascular symptoms, and high blood pressure, or hypertension.
Pounding of the heart, speech difficulties, indigestion, grinding of the teeth, unexplained aches and pains such as in the neck or lower back, general irritability, and accident proneness are usually stress-related as well. Distress may be the source of nervousness, sleeplessness, inattentiveness, feelings of fatigue, tightness of the chest, boredom, or an inability to slow down. It can also cause allergies, sexual dysfunctions, and an inability to concentrate.
Sometimes distress can be circular. For example, if you’re under a lot of distress, you could be neglecting your most important relationships. That in turn could be causing you more distress. Furthermore, you may be putting yourself down because of your inability to handle those dilemmas. Dissatisfaction with yourself is highly correlated to depression, which of course is often a sign of distress.
Stress or distress can be confused with burnout. Although the symptoms are similar, usually burnout refers to a specific area of your life, such as your job. You know that it’s job burnout when you feel a marked improvement in your mood when you’re out of the work environment. In that case, sometimes a change of job or even a complete career change in a necessary next step, in order to restore optimal functioning. And sometimes merely a transition within the system in which you’re working or a good, restful vacation can be the answer.
Burnout also applies to relationships, such as marriage. Stormy love relationships can certainly contribute a great deal of stress to life, but those that are characterized by indifference, especially when they were at one time fulfilling, are often found to be suffering from burnout.
If this is the case, and your relationship is one that you want to save, it’s essential to begin communicating with your partner about this immediately. It’s important to agree that this is what’s happening. Next, talk about how things were different when you first got together, and try to work as a team to recreate that climate, so that perhaps even those sparks you once had can be reactivated.
For a number of reasons, many couples find this very difficult to do without the help of a third party, such as a marriage counselor or a couples therapist. But when two people are willing to work together to rekindle a relationship, the success rate in counseling is very high. How do we prevent stress from becoming distress? The answer lies in learning some new attitudes and habits that will result in a healthier lifestyle. Let’s look at these one at a time.
Are you trying to have it all? If so, can you truthfully say that you’ve ever met a person who’s actually reached that standard and actually had it all? I haven’t. Remember the secret that practically all high achievers who avoid distress seem to know: with hard work and determination, you can have practically anything you want, but not everything you want.
If your highest priority is having it all, then you’re a perfect candidate for both job and relationship burnout, as well as untold amounts of distress. In addition to pushing yourself way too hard, chances are that your self-esteem will suffer as you experience the inability to reach this goal as a failure. With whatever you do accomplish, instead of enjoying the fruits of your hard-earned labor, you may negate the progress you’ve actually made.
Strategies to Manage Your Stress and Avoid Distress
The key is to be satisfied with what you do have on one level while striving for the additional things you want on another level. Keep those goals realistic, and allow yourself to experience some satisfaction with what you have before pressing yourself for what you don’t. (After all, what’s it all about anyway?)
This could mean putting off some things, such as having a child or relocating for advancement, or just plain giving yourself a break from the constant pressure to climb the ladder of success. When you tell yourself that you must succeed in order to be a worthwhile person, chances are you’re putting success above happiness, and after all, isn’t happiness the purpose of success in the first place?
- Avoid hurry sickness. Allow for delays. Give yourself some slack in your schedule, and enjoy those times when you need to wait as a gift. I’ve found it very useful always to have a pencil and paper with me, so that I can jot ideas down whenever I have to wait. Perhaps this involves working toward enjoying your own company. If you can give yourself that gift, I can practically guarantee you that solitude will be one of your most favorite ways to spend time.
- Set priorities wisely while considering long-term versus short-term consequences. This can apply when taking on new projects as well as when being aggravated with something unimportant, or spending your time around individuals or circumstances that are meaningless. If your time is tight, a great habit could be to think about how meaningful whatever you’re considering will be to you two or three years from now. Use this test to set priorities, and I can practically guarantee you that you’ll be easier on yourself. Does the project or issue really matter? Sometimes you need to step back a bit and look at it objectively. Once again, do this as though you were advising someone else. If you find that it’s difficult to achieve long-term meaning this way, then just say no.
Perhaps you will feel a little bit guilty at first, but remember that guilt is usually just a self-defeating attitude. With a little practice, you’ll learn to ignore the guilt and be much more conserving and protective of yourself.
- Try reaching out to others around you when feeling stressed. Don’t get hung up on an attitude that says that dependence on others is a sign of weakness. An example is an economic crisis. Let’s face it: there are few things that can throw a family into as much emotional turmoil as an economic crisis, such as one caused by sudden unemployment, a large unexpected expense, a disability, or a major financial loss. But families who are able to stay together and avoid blaming themselves or one another are the ones who get through these situations with the least amount of distress, and they come out stronger for it.
- Keep a diary of your stressful situations and of negative feelings. Include all of the W’s—who, what, when, where, and why—about whatever is going wrong. It’s often helpful to have someone you can discuss them with. If there’s an ongoing situationthat you can’t seem to resolve, get professional help. Consider reaching out for help as a power tool, not as a sign of weakness. Sometimes an objective party can help you to zero in on something that, no matter how long you wrestled with it, could have been very difficult for you to see clearly.
- Make a list of things that you feel good about and that make you feel good. When you’re under the gun, take a look at that list so you can find some positive things that you can avail yourself of. Later I’ll talk about ways of learning to relax, but you already know those things you enjoy: hobbies; playing golf, tennis, or another sport; getting a massage; going to your favorite museum; calling a friend; taking a sailing trip; playing a favorite video game; or going for a long walk in some pleasing environment, such as near an ocean or a lake or in a wooded area. Fall back on these things when you need them the most.
- Make effective use of your time by organizing your activities. Make your routine as stress-free as possible by trying to anticipate unexpected things that may come up. To have a schedule that is itself stressful only invites more stress.
Chances are you can’t solve all your problems at once. Focus on what you can do effectively now. Also try to address your most difficult issues at a time when you’re not overly bothered by them. Your thinking is much clearer then, and you’re usually able to solve problems much more effectively.
- Take vacations regularly. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you’re indispensable. No one is. Sometimes simply changing your environment will change your entire outlook as well. Short-term solutions, such as the use of drugs and alcohol, may make you temporarilyfeel better, but they’re not without their side effects. Ways of natural relaxation can be just as effective and are a whole lot safer. Of course, there are times when prescribed medication is necessary, but self-medicating usually causes more problems than it solves.
- In addition to learning these positive attitudes, a complete program of stress management and burnout prevention involves exercise, nutrition, and relaxation. The type and amount of exercise you do is a highly individual matter, but twenty to thirty minutes, three times a week, of an aerobic-type exercise—where you bring your heart rate up to about 75 percent of your maximum (about 220 minus your age)—is thought to be the minimum for good cardiovascular conditioning. However, if you’ve been sedentary, before beginning any exercise program, please have a checkup, and exercise only with the knowledge of a physician familiar with your physical condition.
- Eating correctly and eliminating or moderating your use of sugar, caffeine, preservatives, artificial flavorings,red meat, highly processed foods, and fat are extremely effective in increasing your immunity to distress.
- Arguably the most important aspect of a good stress management program is to learn relaxation. Later I’ll give you a couple of methods to do this, but first be aware of some other factors that will go a long way toward making stress work for you. Listen to your favorite music. Try to build fun into your daily schedule at work as well as at home. If this is not possible, something’s wrong. Perhaps you’re not in the environment you need to be in in order to have a happy life. Seek out those chronic sources of stress and do whatever is possible to make the necessary changes. If you start feeling anxiety coming on, practice breathing rhythmically and deeply. If you master this, you’ll feel the stress just peel away. Breathing in to the count of five and out to the count of five is the simplest and one of the most effective on-the-spot stress reducers there is. Also, there are many great and free breathing apps you can put on your smartphone.
As I said earlier, so much of your life will fall into place if you don’t take yourself too seriously. Even if you don’t do any of the things that I’ve mentioned, accept yourself anyway. At this point I’m going to teach you a very simple relaxation exercise that anyone can do practically anywhere for just about any length of time. The more you do this, the easier it gets.
Sit comfortably in a chair or lie down. If you sit, don’t let your head fall backward or let your hands touch each other. Tell yourself that you’ll take five deep breaths and go into a state of relaxation. Next, take four deep breaths, inhale the fifth breath, and say, “Relax now.”
Exhale and tell yourself you’ll let go of your tensions with each breath. Allow yourself to drift. If thoughts come through your head, just let them go by, like clouds in the sky. Don’t pay attention to them, instead, simply put your focus back on your breath. Stay here for as long as you would like. Five to twenty minutes is about the average. If you’re concerned with time, it’s OK to open your eyes, look at your watch or set a timer with a gentle chime, and close your eyes again until you want to stop.
When you’re ready to bring yourself back, tell yourself that you’ll count from one to five, and at the count of five that you’ll come up feeling rested and fully refreshed, and that you’ll remain awake, alert, and fully rested until you’re in bed and ready to go to sleep tonight. When you are ready to come up, simply count forward from one to five. At the count of five, your eyes will open, and you’ll be fully refreshed, back in the room and ready to continue your day.
Positive Attitude Training
How to Be an Unshakable Optimist
Michael S. Broder, Ph.D.
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