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Stress: Stop In The Name of Life
by Marjorie Dorfman

Stop, in the name of life, before it ends your life!
–  Stolen from The Supremes (sort of)

Why is stress so dangerous for most adults? What can we do to reduce it and live more healthful lives? How can we manage our stress levels effectively so they do not endanger our emotional and physical selves? Read on for some middle-aged solutions short of homicide.

Diana Ross and The Supremes warned us about love, but they never told us about other things we should stop in the name of. Certainly stress can occur from the pitfalls of love, but unfortunately, it more often comes from other less pleasant and more lethal pressures. To discuss this issue honestly puts me in the position of a pot calling the kettle black, for I am, shall we say, a stressfully challenged person. According to Hans Sele, one of the founding fathers of stress research, "stress is not always bad; it really depends on how one absorbs it. The stress of exhilarating, creative work can be highly beneficial, while that of failure, humiliation or infection can be detrimental." In my case it’s both and neither of the above.

Let’s define our terms. What is stress anyway? According to Richard S. Lazarus, "stress occurs when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize." Much research has been conducted into stress over the last hundred years. Some of the theories behind it are now settled and accepted; others are still being researched and debated. One thing is certain; stress has been around since Adam and Eve and maybe even before. (After all, someone had to show them how to worry excessively about things!) Today stress is America’s number one health problem and while it can never be eliminated, with better understanding it can be managed and harnessed in beneficial ways.

There is no single level of stress that is optimal for all people. All individuals have their own unique chemistry and requirements. A general rule of thumb to discover one’s own optimal stress level is to realize that if you are hyperventilating, you probably passed it. What is distressing to one person may not be to another, and even when we can agree that a particular event is indeed distressing, responses to it will still vary due to physiological and psychological differences. For example, a person who loves to arbitrate disputes and moves from job site to job site would be stressed in a job that was stable and routine, whereas a person who thrives under stable conditions would very likely be stressed on a job where the duties were highly varied. Personal stress tolerance changes with our ages (and not for the better, I might add, in case you are wondering).

Stressors are the events and thoughts that lead a person to perceive that a threatening demand is being made. Strain is the negative effects of stress which may appear as fatigue, irritability, difficulty concentrating, insomnia, anxiety and depression, just to name a few. One of the keys to managing stress is to become aware of stressors and your own emotional and physical reactions to them. Notice your distress and address it. (Hello, distress!). Whatever you do, don’t ignore it. It’s like a dangerous pimple; it won’t go away by covering it up and pretending its not there.

What do you tell yourself about the events that distress you? This is important. Write write your thoughts down in a "stress journal." (Keep it next to your grateful journal, but don’t get them confused as this may lead to even more stress!) Also write down how your body is reacting to the stressful event and describe your physical reactions. This will help to both identify and keep you in touch with your feelings.

Doctor Phil McGraw often says, "you can’t change what you won’t acknowledge." Recognize what you can change about the things in your life that are causing you stress. Can you avoid them or do you need to eliminate them completely? Can you reduce their intensity by managing them over a period of time instead of on a daily or weekly basis? Can you shorten your exposure to stress by taking a break or even leaving the physical premises? Can you and should you devote the time and energy necessary to making a serious change? This may involve goal setting and time management techniques as well as delayed gratification strategies. Find out what works best for you and go for it.

Reduce the intensity of your emotional reactions. This is easier said than done. It may help, however, to understand that the stress reaction is directly triggered by your perception of danger, whether it be physical or emotional. The question is are you perceiving the danger correctly or overreacting? (I am guilty of this.) Do things always appear critical and urgent? If you can distinguish this, it is a good step forward because it may lead to the adoption of more moderate views. Stress then becomes something that you can cope with rather than something that overpowers you. Try to keep the situation in emotional perspective and do not labor on the negative aspects and the what ifs. (Guilty again, your honor.)

Eliminating or lessening the effects of negative consequences can be accomplished by doing what the boy scouts say they always do: preparing for them. (You don’t need the uniform, just the ideology.) Putting money in an emergency savings account, buying insurance and changing jobs are all positive steps in this direction. Most important in overcoming the negative, however, is the acceptance of what can’t be changed and the refocusing of time and energy into what can be done. Learn how to moderate your physical reactions. One thing that has always helped me is slow deep breathing. Proper techniques can reduce muscle tension. Electronic biofeedback can help you gain voluntary control over such things as muscle tension, heart rate and blood pressure. Medications, when prescribed by a physician, can help in the short term but they alone are not the answer. Learning to moderate your own reactions is a preferable long-term solution.

Inappropriately handled stress can be devastating. It lowers our resistance and makes us more vulnerable to illness and disease. The increased inner pressure can cause our health to deteriorate, resulting in some very serious consequences. Victims can become emotional cripples and physiologically old and run down before their time (warranties run out on people too, you know). Stress can rob you of your health, your job, your family and even your life. People under stress also make more mistakes, and these mistakes can cause others to become secondary victims (kind of like second hand smoke only less smelly). Consider surgery performed by a doctor under extreme pressure or flying in a plane with a stressed pilot. Need I say more?

Build up your physical reserves. Exercise and eat well-balanced, nutritious meals. Avoid excessive caffeine and nicotine. (Come on, you can do it.) Mix leisure with work but never work with leisure. Take as many breaks as you can get away with. Whatever your job, this will help to relieve tension. Get enough sleep and be as consistent with your sleep schedule as possible. Emotional reserves are important too. Develop mutually supportive friendships and relationships. Keep your goals realistic and meaningful to you alone. (Other people’s goals don’t count here.) Expect some frustration and failure. Be kind and gentle with yourself always.

Remember that your body is not unlike a machine with its own specific limits and requirements. There is no warranty or exchange policy and you certainly can’t trade yourself in for a younger model. Just like a machine, your body needs maintenance and occasional adjustments (a screw here, a nip and tuck there, new tires etc). Be prepared to make the necessary changes to bring you some inner peace. In the case of one of my friends, that was the decision to finish everything she started. After two bottles of wine, one entire cheesecake, a box of chocolates and a package of oatmeal cookies, she really couldn’t say that she felt any better!

We all must find our way, so just be careful not to trip over anything on your path to inner peace!

Did you know . . .

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