Stress Management Tip #3: Give Your Stress a Name

12105873_10100344022927175_1273865416540761232_nBy Warren Holleman

When people come to me for counseling, I generally start by asking how they’re doing. One of the most common answers is, “I feel stressed.”

Based on their body language and the tone and intensity of their voice, I can generally get an idea of whether they are feeling slightly bad (a minor annoyance), really bad (desperation city), or somewhere in between. Sometimes I can detect whether their dysphoria is more of a depressive feeling, an anxious feeling, or some combination. And perhaps also whether this is how they feel some of the time or most of the time.

But that’s not enough information to get a handle on the problem or to help them deal with it. So I ask a follow-up question: “You say you feel ‘stressed.’ Could you tell me more about that?” Oftentimes, they struggle to describe their stress. They are so overwhelmed by negative thoughts and feelings that they have trouble talking about it in a clear and meaningful way. So I ask for examples and I listen to their stories. And we begin to get a handle on what’s going on.

Here’s my point: If you’re having a problem with “stress,” and you want to do something about it, you’ve got to come up with a more descriptive name than just “stress.” You’ve got to name the specific stress or stressor. Only after identifying your problem can you devise a strategy for treating it.

If you have a physical ailment, and you identify your problem as simply being “sick,” or even that you have “cancer,” it’s hard to devise a strategy for treating it. But if you can name your ailment—whether something minor like “chest cold” or something major like “acute lymphocytic leukemia”–then you and your doctor can devise a real treatment plan.

Some people resist giving their stress a name. They’d rather just take a pill or follow some generic “defeating stress in 3 easy steps” strategy. What those people fail to realize is that there is no magic bullet, no one-size-fits all treatment for stress. Unless of course you consider getting drunk or drugged up a real solution to your problem.

The only effective way to deal with your stressors is to name them. In other words: face them head on; figure out what they are and where they come from; and then resolve those you can resolve and learn to manage and live with all the others. To do this you’ve got to learn the names of each of your stressors and address them individually. It doesn’t work to just say, “Hey you, whoever you are! I don’t like you! Just go away!”

I recommend giving them a “family” name (e.g. “occupational stressor”) and a more specific, “given” name (e.g. “conflict with my co-worker re: professionalism”). Here are the names of the most common stressors. I’ll list 6 family names and dozens of given names.

  1. Occupational stressors

These include work-place demands, priorities, and conflicts. They also include relationships at work: with customers, coworkers, bosses, and supervisors.

Sometimes it involves the sheer volume of the workload, which your bosses think will enhance productivity in the short run but you know isn’t sustainable in the long run. Sometimes it revolves around difficulty sharing negative information, such as annual employee evaluations or simply asking someone to change the way they do something.

Once you identify the problem, you need to develop skills and strategies for addressing it. This could involve taking a class on assertiveness or managing difficult conversations. Or, a frank discussion with your boss about what constitutes a reasonable and sustainable workload.

  1. Physical stressors

There are 2 types of physical stressors: those that are inflicted upon us, and those we inflict upon ourselves.

Physical stressors that are inflicted upon us include acute illnesses, chronic medical conditions, and physical limitations and disabilities. Recognizing these stressors and the challenges they cause is an important first step toward dealing with them. Getting help from good physicians, nurses, and physical therapists, and taking time to do the homework they give us, can make all the difference between being “under” the circumstances and being “on top” of them. One key to success is having the wisdom to figure out which things we can and can’t change, having the courage to change the things we can, and the serenity to accept the things we can’t.

Then there are those physical stressors we inflict upon ourselves. In many ways these are forms of self-abuse.

You wouldn’t think of operating your car without taking good care of it. I’m not talking about just the shiny stuff like the washing and waxing. I’m talking about the essential stuff like the right fuel, the right oil, and the right anti-freeze. I’m talking about rotating the tires, lubricating the moving parts, and changing the belts and spark plugs.

Doesn’t it seem strange that many of us fail to give our bodies the same level of care we give our cars? We may do the washing and waxing, but we don’t do the serious maintenance that prevents major breakdowns.

One physical stressor is the junk we put in our mouths. Our bodies need high quality fuels, such as fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, and complex grains. Instead we fill our mouths with sugars, simple carbs, red meats, processed foods, and fried foods. That’s like putting cheap, low octane gasoline in a luxury, high-performance car.

Another physical stressor is the sedentary way many of us work and live. Sitting is nearly as bad for you as smoking. Yet many of us sit all day at our desks, then come home and sit in front of the TV. We should stand more than we sit and walk more than we ride. And we should exercise daily, including cardio, strength, and flexibility training. Instead we abuse ourselves through sedentary work-styles and lifestyles.

A third major physical stressor is sleep deprivation. Most of us need 8 hours of sleep per night, and most of us don’t get it. Then we wonder why we feel irritable at home, unproductive at work, and tired everywhere..

If you stress yourself with bad nutrition, sedentary lifestyles, and sleep deprivation, you will not be strong enough to deal with the stress of modern-day work-styles and lifestyles. Have the courage to name your stress and to deal with it.

  1. Relationship stressors

These are the ties that bind. They can bind us in love, helping us feel engaged and connected, needed and wanted. Or, they can bind us with ropes, chains, heartache, and distress.

If your relationships are healthy, they can be an energizing source of happiness and resiliency for facing life’s stressors. But if they are unhealthy, then they themselves become your stressors.

If you are experiencing stress in your relationships, most likely it involves one of 3 areas: communication, commitment, or conflict. Skills training, relationship counseling, active listening, clarifying commitments, identifying conflicts: these can all help. When there is a seemingly intractable conflict, a mediator or Ombuds professional can help you sort things out.

In some cases the relationship is so toxic and dysfunctional that the best solution is simply to terminate it. Just remember that even a terminated relationship can cause distress and for a long time. So do your best to terminate it with respect, dignity, and grace.

If you’re involved in a volatile or dysfunctional marriage, partnership, or romance, and you can’t figure out how to handle it, here’s a helpful resource: Anger Busting 101: New ABCs for Angry Men and the Women Who Love Them, by Newton Hightower.

  1. Parent-child stressors

Raising children is one life’s greatest joys, but it is also the hardest job in the world. Some super-parents have the buoyancy to juggle their parenting responsibilities with their marital, career, and other responsibilities, and they never seem to feel flustered or stressed. Many of us, however, become easily overwhelmed. There is only one way to stop feeling so overwhelmed: name your parenting stressors.

Again, communication, commitment, and conflict are likely sources of stress. Another common problem today is parents who have unrealistic expectations of their children’s capacity for doing things: they “overbook” their children and then wonder why the child is irritable or unmotivated. Children need a lot of down time and family time. So do parents, for that matter!

The other big parent-child stressor occurs at the other end of the life cycle. When we find ourselves caring for our aging parents, a number of new stressors enter the picture. First, there’s the simple mathematics of juggling one more ball in our daily routine. Second, there are the new relationship dynamics, such as role reversals, anticipatory grief, clouds of uncertainty, and every-changing expectations. These are all significant sources of stress. Once you identify which ones are stressing you, talk about them with your spouse, your close friends, your religious community, a support group, or a family therapist.

You might also read a good book. One of my favorite authors on the subject of caring for aging parents is Terry Hargrave, author of Loving Your Parents When They Can No Longer Love You, and Strength and Courage for Caregivers.

  1. Spiritual stressors

I’m talking here about the things that get in the way of our core values and beliefs, or of our ability to engage with our religious community.

If you feel that your job, your relationships, your busy schedule, or your own moral shortcomings or psychological insecurities are making it difficult for you to live according to your core values and beliefs, or to practice your faith as you ought, then this can be a significant source of stress.

I’ll give a concrete example. Where I work, it is common to attend after-hours dinners with out-of-town consultants and speakers. These gatherings are often held at expensive restaurants and spouses are not welcome. I have always felt conflicted about these dinners because (a) I believe it’s wrong to waste money—especially taxpayer money—on expensive meals, and (b) the evening is my only time to spend with my family or to attend to non-work responsibilities and priorities. In the past I generally went along with the dinners and felt “spiritually stressed.” These days I generally say “no.” It isn’t always the best career move but, for me, it’s the right thing to do. Once I figured out that this was not just me being anti-social, but rather me identifying my positive values and my negative stressors, I felt a huge load lift off my shoulders.

  1. Technological stressors

I’m talking here about electronic attachments and addictions. Such as cell phones, IPads, IPods, TV, and radio. Such as email and social media.

Maybe we should change the name to “anti-social” media. Isn’t that what it is when:

  • We wait at the bus stop with 3 other people, and never looking up to say “hi”?
  • We spend more time interacting with electronic screens than real human beings?
  • We are at work and don’t notice the smile or frown of the people we pass in the hallway because our face is buried in our cell phone?
  • We are out and about and fail to appreciate the wispy cloud that drifted across the horizon, the monarch butterfly that fluttered a few feet in front of us, or the dazzling sunset that was there for a few moments, then lost forever? Not to mention the elderly man or woman who needed someone to hold the door for them, or help them find their way.

I believe we ought to add a new category of obsessive, compulsive behavior in the next DSM: “electronic.” (Or is it already there? I still own a DSM-IV so wouldn’t know.) I’ve been in meetings and watched my colleagues pick up their cell phones and blackberries every time it beeps or vibrates. They disengage from the meeting, type in a a few words, then theoretically re-engage with the meeting. In my opinion they aren’t engaged with either the meeting or the person they sent those 12 words to. In some cases they are doing essential work, e.g. a clinician verifying a medication for a patient, or an administrator giving someone permission to leave work early to take care of a sick child. But in many cases it appears they are just practicing a compulsive behavior, much like the rat who reacts to whatever prompt it was trained to react to, pulls the lever, and gets the morsel of food.

Many believe they are relieving stress by grabbing their phones and typing in those 12 words as soon as they hear the beep or see the light go on. Perhaps in the short run they are, but in the long run are they just reprogramming their brains to dumb down to the level of a lab rat? In the long run aren’t they reprogramming their brain in ways that deprive them of the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual resources to face life on its own terms?

In the long run, electronic stressors elevate our anxiety levels and reduce the human connection we need to be resilient against all the other stressors in our work and in our lives.

Here’s a prescription for fixing the problem: (1) For several hours each day, turn off whatever electronic device you have become codependent on. (Many of my physician and nurse friends will have trouble doing this during work hours, but at least you can do this after hours . . . er, at least when you’re not on call.) (2)  Take a few moments each day to study the faces of the people you work with and live with. What is the color of their eyes? How many different types of smiles and frowns can you observe in a single day? Do they walk like someone who is happy or someone who is carrying a heavy burden? What can you learn about them, and how best to work with them, just by observing them? One day they’ll start noticing you too, and you’ll have a truly human connection.

I publish a new post every Wednesday. The first Wednesday of each month, I spice things up with a story. On fifth Wednesdays (and when I’m on vacation), I publish a  “Morning Coffee” feature.
In case you’re wondering “How much is that doggie in the window?”, he’s not for sale. This is my new granddog Ray.
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