How do you make stress work for you?
You’ve been asked to work overtime yet again, the bus was late, you arrive home to kids fighting and an irritated husband, the kitchen is a mess and you just want to throw up your hands and scream.
Mention stress and most of us think frustration, irritation, depression and exhaustion. We want to find ways to avoid it. Yet stress allows us to adapt and respond to life. In technical terms, it is the “nonspecific response” to any demand placed upon it. It is a complex system that “gears us up” to meet danger and energizes us to live life.
Think of a time when you were doing something you really loved: working on a project, playing a favorite sport or preparing for a marathon. It required diligence, determination, effort and skill. But while you were involved, you completely lost track of time. You worked until exhausted and when you thought you had reached your limit, you found that extra spurt of energy. And in the end you felt good about what you had achieved. It was the stress system that enabled you to accomplish your goals.
We can’t eliminate stress, nor do we want to. It is normal and natural and we can’t live without it. When it works for us, we set challenging goals, make plans of action, go to work, enjoy the kids, solve problems and have fun – in other words, we live productive and happy lives.
So what goes wrong? How come we are in so much distress?
Like any system, when overloaded, things begin to go wrong. As more demands and expectations are placed on us, we work harder and faster to accommodate. At some point, the body and mind become exhausted. But it isn’t just demands and expectations that cause distress, but how we mentally respond to whatever life throws at us.
Here’s how it works
Our brain is constantly receiving and responding to messages of all kinds. As it receives messages, it determines what to do with the information. Different parts of the brain are activated and chemicals and hormones are released to prepare us to act in some way. Sometimes those messages come from inside our body in the form of pain or thoughts – other times they come from our senses; touch, smell, sight and sound.
Responding to danger
Without this interpretative system, we would not be able to survive. When messages received are interpreted as danger of any kind, the “fight or flight” response is activated; an old survival system that prepares us within seconds to either fight or flee.
It is estimated that around 33 different hormones are released into the body at that time. Every organ is affected in some way: heart, circulatory system, adrenal glands, stomach, intestines, kidneys, liver, brain, lungs, etc. Blood is shunted away from our extremities. Digestion is put on hold. Glucose is dumped into the blood to provide energy. Sweating helps remove excess toxins. When the danger is past, the body returns again to a restful state; your heart beat returns to normal, your blood pressure lowers and your digestive system continues its interrupted work.
It’s a great system. The mind interprets data, the body prepares to act on that information, and after we have acted, the body returns to a restful state again. Problems occur, however, when the perceived danger is psychological and not a real physical threat, our bodies remain in a heightened state of preparation and we have nowhere to go. When there are fewer and fewer times to return to a restful and restorative state, we become dis-stressed and exhausted.
©2012 Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC
Challenges can be hidden opportunities
“Jesus turned – caught her at it. Then he reassured her: ‘Courage daughter, you took a risk of faith, and now you’re well.’ The woman was well from then on.” Matthew 9 – The Message
I love to observe people. Postures reveal weariness or enthusiasm. Faces disclose concerns, excitement, or deep concentration. A life time lived with worry can be seen etched in deep lines that expose the battle scars of the soul and spirit.
Some people wear masks woven so tightly they form an impenetrable barrier against the world – emotions denied, guarded and concealed. It is only the eyes that give away hidden pools of pain collected over a life time. While others are like the pages of a book, open to new discoveries, new adventures, a zest for life and an indomitable twinkle in the eye.
Everyone meets life’s challenges differently; our personalities are played out on the stage of life. Some struggle with the simplest demands while others relish the complexity of life. Challenges may be different as well. While some lives are relatively uneventful, others are full of overwhelming tragedies, losses and disappointments.
But it is not what has been handed to us – but what we do with it that makes the difference. We can turn our challenges into a life rich in experience, even if battle scared, or one that is devoid of pleasure and filled with pain.
Life is not perfect – it is not easy. We may be required to give up everything: home, position, status, job, health, and even families. To live means we will struggle. But we can use that struggle to get stronger or allow it to beat us down.
The stress in our lives can be seen as challenges that hold hidden opportunities. Even when the pressures and stress seems unbearable, we can look for and find solutions and ways to profit from it. Even if the gains are small at first, they are steps forward.
In his book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Victor Frankl writes, “To live is to suffer; to survive is to find meaning in the suffering.” In the horror of concentration camps, Dr. Frankl discovered that “what alone remains is ‘the last of human freedoms’ – the ability to ‘choose one’s attitude’ in a given set of circumstances.”
We choose. We choose how we will respond to the challenges in our life. We choose whether we will see opportunity or hopelessness. We choose whether we will try once more or give up. We choose to ask God for strength, hope, faith, resiliency and courage.
We choose how we color our world. Even when the canvas is all black, we hold the paint brush that can add bold color. The canvas does not become the dominant theme in our life – but only the backdrop for what we put on top of it.
The ability to choose is a great freedom.
©2012 Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC
Does stress work for you or against you?
I then asked how they experienced their stress. What were the symptoms they had. As I jotted responses on the white board, I was reminded once again of just how many demands are placed on us today and the heavy toll it was taking in our lives.
There are a thousand scenarios that contribute to our stress, but a basic pattern runs through them all. Thoughts return over and over again to what isn’t working. The list gets longer and longer as we think about what we have to do to survive. As more and more time is spent thinking about what we can’t do, we find it more and more difficult to concentrate and accomplish what we want to do.
New technology increases our work load as we struggle to learn and apply it. We are not only required to work faster and smarter, but improve the quality and quantity of output. The learning curve gets steeper and steeper and we struggle to keep pace. The harder we try the more tense we become. The tenser we become the more difficult it is to stay focused. And the cycle goes round and round and we soon find ourselves overwhelmed and exhausted.
We forget, become disorganized, and confused. There are too many options with no time to think and consider decisions resulting in more and more mistakes. Accidents lurk around every corner waiting to happen. We begin to make excuses – first to others and then to ourselves. And at the end of the day we feel like a violin string that has been stretched so taut that if we breathe we will break.
The day begins and ends with a never-ending stream of things we “have to do” and “must do” to survive. Lists of things we “should or ought” to do have long been set aside: the thank you notes, the call to a sick friend, scheduling a long overdue doctor’s appointment, etc. etc. etc. There isn’t enough time.
We run out the door in the morning, grabbing a bagel or sweet roll to eat along the way and return in the evening dragging. As we drop our keys on the kitchen counter, we look around at the mess left from the morning and wonder where to begin. Our stomach hurts and we grab a cookie to eat. And as it melts in our mouth, we realize we have been snacking on sweets of some kind all day.
And when we finally get a moment to sit down, we zone out on TV, Face Book or some kind of internet game before we fall into bed. Our neck and shoulders hurt, acid reflux starts and we wonder if we will be able to go to sleep and/or stay asleep.
We can’t slow the world down. But we can get off the merry-go-round that simply keeps us spinning around and around out of control. We can take back our life.
It doesn’t mean we won’t be required to learn new skills, work more effectively and efficiently. It doesn’t mean we will find all the answers.
But we can become more adept at problem-solving, more pro-active instead of re-active and in the process take charge of how we respond to our circumstances.
Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC
Preparing for a weekend retreat on “Reducing Distress while Maximizing Good Stress”, I outlined ways we can make stress work for us instead of against us. We create a lot of our distress by our responses to whatever is happening in our lives.
One of the exercises I use with my groups comes from a series produced by Nancy Loving Tubesing, EdD and Donald A. Tubesing, MDiv,PhD entitled “Rest in Peace”. As we take an inventory of thoughts, attitudes and behaviors that hurt instead of help us, we can put them to rest for good.
Most of us act on old beliefs, thoughts, ideas, biases, attitudes and perceptions that may have helped us in some way in the past – but have outlived their usefulness. Many of our defenses, such as anger, hostility, despair, denial, perfectionism, procrastination, resentment, and grievances, create and maintain stress levels.
We need to periodically take an inventory of how we respond to our world. Anger may have helped us make some important changes in our life. Anxiety may have helped us examine our choices and whether we are re-active or proactive. Sorrow and despair may be telling us to grieve, forgive and let go of past losses. Hostility may be holding us in a pattern of resentment that continues to eat us up. Putting a lot of “old stuff” to rest can free up our lives.
Over the next few weeks, my blogs will focus on the many ways that we can reduce stress levels. Take a moment and reflect on your attitudes, feelings, and patterns of behaviors. What old habits and beliefs that you act upon hurt you? Which creates distress?
Take a piece of paper and write down all the things that you believe are keeping you at high stress levels. Your list may include such things as relationships, time pressures, family and marital problems, lack of finances, job search, depression, discouragement, etc. Be honest. What beliefs keep you captive to fear and anxiety? What losses seem overwhelming? What adversities seem insurmountable?
We can’t live without stress. It is the body’s non-specific way of adapting and responding to any demands made on it. It is normal and natural. When it is working for us, we are able to set goals, make plans, go to work, enjoy our family and friends, and solve problems.
All emotions are important and tell us something. When we are on overload, we no longer hear the messages they tell us, but become flooded with feelings that create ongoing panic, fear, and anxiety.
Follow me in the coming weeks, as we uncover ways to make our lives less stressful.
Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC
When do you experience rest that heals your soul?
When we find ourselves in the midst of turmoil, crisis and difficulty, we want to quickly find a way out of the anxiety, fear, uncertainty and uncomfortable feelings that hold us captive. We want to be doing something, anything that will take us out of that space.
But sometimes we are asked to do nothing. We are asked to stop struggling; stop running around in circles, stop the frantic thoughts of have to, must and should that exert enormous stress and pressure on us to do something or we will not survive. We are to just STOP.
Years ago, when grieving the loss of my husband, I remember asking God, “What am I supposed to be learning and doing in this valley of tears – this desert of dead dreams and barren futures.” And I heard His quiet by powerful voice say to me, “Rest – you are learning to rest. You are not to do anything or try to make anything happen – just rest.”
I remember thinking, Rest? What does that mean? How can I find rest in the midst of all this turmoil? How am I supposed to find rest when all I want to do is get away as fast as I can from this space and find someplace where I can be happy again?
Since I had asked for and received a directive, I decided I needed to think about rest and what it meant. I knew that when I kept busy the distraction kept my mind diverted so I wouldn’t have to feel my loss. Was that rest?
I thought back over the years. When did I experience rest? As a young housewife my days were filled with juggling schedules of three children, two with special needs, and a husband who worked several jobs. Rest then was a time to quietly finish folding the laundry, do some creative sewing or work in the garden when my children were playing or asleep.
Later, when I went back to school to complete college degrees, the schedules became even more complex and demanding. Rest was those times when I could study for class instead of cleaning the house. Even quick weekend trips away with my husband were often filled with activities giving only temporary reprieve from the pressure of ongoing life and work.
I began to realize that I could make “rest” just another item on my “to do” list, or I could actually rest. I believe what God was trying to tell me during those days when I was coming to grips with my loss, was that I was to just “be”. I wasn’t supposed to do anything. I wasn’t to run away from, ignore, or try to resolve my situation – I was to simply rest in it.
Jesus said, “Come unto me, all who are heavy laden and I will give you rest”. If we bring our heavy bags of pain and troubles to Him we need to put it down and leave it. We stop the resisting, the non-acceptance. We stop the struggling.
Rest is learning that we are still okay within our pain. Rest is allowing ourselves to be in the moment. It is accepting that fact that we might never find all the answers or solutions we want. It doesn’t mean we stop trying to solve problems or look for solutions. It means we are still okay if we don’t find them.
And in that acceptance and rest, we discover peace. In that peace our spirits and hearts are healed.
When I actually allow myself to rest, I can feel God’s spiritual arms around me. I hear His words of reassurance and comfort. When I rest in that peace and comfort, I am letting go of stress, uncertainties, pain, loneliness, anxiety and fear that continues to accumulate when I struggle.
I can sit still, breathe quietly and deeply and feel my body relax. In that spot, I do not need to ask for anything. I do not need to do anything. All I need is to “be” – be quiet, listen, absorb the sights and sounds of the moment, and allow peace to permeate every cell in my body healing all wounds.
©2012 Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC
Are you taking advantage of opportunities as they present themselves?