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Where do I Begin?

“For God hath not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and a sound mind.” II Timothy 1:7

So if I am dis-stressed, what do I do about it? 

God gives us both promises and encouragement. He reminds us that with His help we can accomplish most anything. Understanding how our minds work can give us the tools to act out the faith He gives us.

Where do I start?

Our personality traits have an influence on how we respond to life. While one person might get distressed in a situation, another person may be challenged or energized. Our life experiences and our DNA help shape and mold the core beliefs we hold about who we are, what we can do and how we fit into the world.

But we are not held captive to a set of personality traits. It is what we do with life experiences that make the difference. It is how we choose to respond rather than simply reacting.

Many of us can remember parents or grandparents who met the challenges and struggles of life with a spirit of determination and hope. We might have read stories about people who have overcome severe adversities. They remind us that if they can survive and find solutions we can too.

Stressors

Anything that creates stress is called a stressor. Remember that good stress is measured in our ability to enjoy and live life. It allows us to make goals and accomplish them. It enables us to get excited and experience happiness and joy. Distress comes when we are overwhelmed, exhausted and challenges become insurmountable obstacles. Here are some of the more common ways we get distressed:

Time management: juggling schedules – doing too much – not saying No.

Time pressure: We are expected to maintain or improve quality, increase productivity within a smaller time frame. We are infected with a time disease.

Overload: too much information, new technology, requiring high learning curves

Disorganization: there is stuff all over the house – we don’t know what to do with it so we shuffle it from one place to another.

Lack of Structure. We have no defined schedules or routines or family structure

Relationships: Enormous stress is created when there is constant disconnect and disharmony in our relationships with family, children, spouses, co-workers, and bosses.

Over the next few weeks I will share with you how you can take the challenges creating distress and turn ways to turn them into positive action. We will also find ways to better define our stressors and problems so we can find more adequate solutions turning our distress into energizing stress.

©2012 Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

When Stress Becomes Distress

Everybody has stressful days that result in sore necks and shoulders. Sometimes we have sleepless nights as we wrestle with problems. But then we regain our balance and go on with life.

Our bodies are extremely resilient and flexible. Even when high levels of stress extend for longer periods of time, we are still able to cope as long as it doesn’t go on forever.

It’s when problems seem overwhelming with no solutions, we are having difficulty adjusting to change and we remain stressed for longer and longer periods of time without relief that we become dis-stressed. Our sleep becomes chronically disturbed, making it harder and harder to fall asleep or stay asleep. And with less rest, our bodies have difficulty restoring itself.

Symptoms of distress

Other problems emerge: irritability may now become a chronic response to life; there is always a dull headache and we constantly have gastro-intestinal problems. We grab for that cookie or fat, mouthwatering, sugar laden muffin to give us a moment of bliss or respite. The once in a while glass of wine to unwind at the end of the day now becomes a daily ritual of one, two or three glasses. Our heart seems to be racing more often, and we worry about hypertension – high blood pressure and arterial disease. Our hands and feet always feel cold or clammy even when others seem comfortable and we can’t remember when we felt happy. We have lost our joy and zest for living. 

As our distress becomes a habit, we rely more and more on short term coping strategies such as prescription drugs, food, alcohol, or smoking. We overeat; especially on foods high in carbohydrates, fats and sugars, junk food. We are too tired to exercise and we gradually lose interest in taking care of ourselves. We don’t exercise or take prescribed medication.

Take your stress levels serious

In 2004 a team of psychologists published findings from a review of nearly 300 scientific studies linking chronic stress and the immune system. These studies, dating from 1960 to 2001 and involving 18,941 test subjects, showed incontrovertible evidence that stress causes changes in the immune system.

What they found was that short-term stress temporarily boosts immunity, but chronic stress weakens the immune system, making us more vulnerable to common ailments and serious diseases. The elderly and people suffering from illness are more susceptible to changes in the immune system due to chronic stress. Other studies show that exposure to chronic stress early in life makes us even more vulnerable to a depressed immune system throughout our lifetime. 

The bottom line

We can’t eliminate stress – nor do we want to. Good stress helps us meet our goals and live happy lives. We just want to keep it from becoming chronic stress where there become fewer and fewer moments of peace, contentment and joy. If we are constantly stressed in a negative way, unable to resolve problems or adapt to change, our stress system begins to work against us.

2012 Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

We are Made for Stress

If we used the analogy of a car and gas, we might say we were the vehicle and stress the gas. Stress is the energy that drives the engines of our lives. But we are behind the wheel and in charge of how we use that energy.

Cars will run effectively and smoothly for a long time if they are taken care of and maintained. If we don’t take care of our car and its engine, it will soon break down. Just like our car, if we don’t take care of or maintain our mind and bodies we too begin to break down. 

Stress Gradually Turns to Dis-stress

We were designed to deal with what life throws at us. Our internal “engines” were made to function in many different situations. 

But when we become overloaded and fatigued for longer and longer periods of time, we begin to show signs of distress. Normal stress gradually becomes “dis-stress”.

It is estimated that around 75% of doctor’s visits are attributed to high and prolonged levels of stress. Consider the following:

• Tranquilizers, antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications account for one fourth of all prescriptions written in the United States each year

• Stress contributes to heart disease, high blood pressure, strokes, and other illnesses

• Stress contributes to the development of alcoholism, obesity, suicide, drug addiction, cigarette addiction and other harmful behaviors

• Prolonged stress exhausts the adrenal glands, depletes the nervous system and can cause symptoms such as ulcers, chest pains, headaches, depression and finally exhaustion. It also lowers the immune system which protects us from many serious diseases

• Recurring health problems of any type can be a signal that we are under high levels of stress that we need to pay attention to. When the body is highly stressed for too long, it gets out of balance and that imbalance is expressed with disease.

What signs and symptoms are you experiencing from stress? When do you feel stressed? When do you feel relaxed? Keep a stress log for a week and mark down those times when you are feeling relaxed and when you are feeling stressed.

Even when you feel completely stressed out, if you find some time each day for some kind of rest and relaxation, pleasure or fun, you can keep chronic stress away. Relaxing at the end of the day with a relaxation CD can return both the mind and body to a restful state.

Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

Can Stress Be Good?

“We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.”  Romans 8:28

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.

Good Stress

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

Meeting Life’s Challenges

“Just then a woman who had hemorrhaged for twelve years slipped in from behind and lightly touched his robe. She was thinking to herself, “If I can just put a finger on his robe, I’ll get well.

“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

Stress

Does stress work for you or against you?

Make Stress Work for You

At a women’s retreat this past weekend, I asked the question, who had experienced stress in the past week. All hands went up.

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