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Stress Management:
Responding Rather Than Reacting to Life

Stress is caused by the demands placed upon us. Stress, however, is not necessarily bad. Life would be boring without some stress, which is a common experience for retirees who suddenly find themselves with few challenges. Some become so bored they seek out new demands by volunteering or returning to work. Others sink into depression or self-destructive behaviors, and a few even seem to die from boredom and lack of challenges.

When demands outweigh our resources to cope, we become stressed out. Artist unknown.The goal, then, is to find a healthy balance between the demands placed upon us and the resources we possess for dealing with these demands. For most of us, the problem isn't too few demands but too many. When demands consistently outweigh our resources, we become "stressed out," which affects our emotional and physical health over time.

Visualize a playground seesaw. If the end of the seesaw that holds our resources is sitting on the ground, then we are most likely bored. But if the end holding the demands sits on the ground (as in the cartoon on the left), we become stressed out. Ideally, we want both ends of the seesaw to be off the ground and at similar heights so our resources are sufficient to meet the demands we face.

Stress comes from external and internal sources. A common source of external stress for all of us is the acceleration of change in our times. A recent article stated that mankind's knowledge base - the sum total of all human knowledge - is now doubling every 1 to 2 years. Compare this with the estimate that mankind's knowledge base at the birth of Christ required 1,500 years to be doubled. Thus, life around us is speeding up geometrically, like a merry-go-round accelerating out of control, leaving many of us feeling like we are barely hanging on.

Other sources of external stress include family, work, the weather, finances, the environment, and major life events, such as births, deaths, marriages, and divorces. Change is stressful, even good change such as having a baby. After all, raising children is often a major source of stress for parents. In addition, globalization has caused mounting pressure at work for greater productivity, causing worker burnout as exhausted employees work longer hours and even refuse vacation time out of fear of losing their competitive edge.

Droughts, floods, tornados, earthquakes, hurricanes, and extreme temperatures add stress to our already busy lives. Many of us struggle to keep up with our bills as Madison Avenue bombards us with messages that we must continually buy more to be happy. Some of us live in neighborhoods riddled with poverty, pollution, and crime, while most of us must deal with the ups and downs of the economy, global warming, terrorism, and war. One wonders why we aren't all stressed out by the world in which we live.

Individual sources of internal stress can be even more demanding. They include physical and mental illness, feelings of worthlessness and shame, beliefs of perfectionism and/or inadequacy, compulsive behaviors and obsessive worries, pessimism and hopelessness, addiction and substance abuse, chronic anger and resentment, and ungrieved losses and unhealed emotional wounds from childhood. Spiritual emptiness is another painful source of internal stress, such as feeling like one's life has no meaning or purpose, or feeling alienated from others. And we must all face the reality of our own mortality and that of everyone around us. Being human is demanding; without good stress management skills, our health will suffer.

So, how does stress actually affect our health? When stressed out, we feel as if the world is attacking us from inside and out, thus the "fight or flight" alarm system is triggered, causing significant physical changes. For example, blood and oxygen are diverted from our organs into our arms and legs giving us a power surge to deal with danger. Our bodies, however, were not designed to be in  a chronic, internalized state of fight or flight - such as when we feel edgy all the time and are unable to relax - because our organs will eventually become weakened and more susceptible to disease from lack of blood and oxygen. This is why good stress management is vital for good health.

Stress management involves rearranging our lives to decrease the demands on us and, more importantly, learning new coping skills to increase the resources available to us. Mindfulness is recognized as a vital component in successful stress management. Jon Kabat-Zinn, an expert in stress reduction, defines mindfulness as "paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally." Kabat-Zinn describes the stress reaction cycle in his superb book, Full Catastrophe Living, and suggests a healthier alternative:

“This cycle of a stressor triggering a stress reaction of some kind, often accompanied by an internalizing of the stress reaction, leading to inadequate or maladaptive attempts to keep things under control, leading to more stressors, more stress reactions, and ultimately to an acute breakdown in health, perhaps even to death, is a way of life for many of us. When you are caught up in this vicious cycle, it seems that is just the way life is, that there is no other way. You might think to yourself that this is just part of getting older, a normal decline in health, a normal loss of energy or enthusiasm or feelings of control.
“But getting stuck in the stress-reaction cycle is neither normal nor inevitable . . . we have far more options and resources for facing our problems than we usually know we have. The healthy alternative to being caught up in this self-destructive pattern is to stop reacting to stress and to start responding to it.”

Most of us go through life on "automatic pilot," ignoring what our bodies and emotions are telling us when we are stressed out. We react with behaviors of denial and avoidance such as workaholism, substance abuse, hyperactivity, over-eating, excessive partying, or by becoming numbed-out couch potatoes. These maladaptive and self-destructive reactions only add more stress to our bodies and minds, thus affecting our health, productivity, and relationships, and eventually leading to physical and emotional breakdown when our bodies and minds finally scream out: "Stop!  You can't do this anymore. You need to pay attention to what is happening to you!  You need to pay attention now!"

Mindfulness means "paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally." Mindfulness means intentionally paying attention to our bodies, emotions, and thoughts in order to monitor our stress levels so we can respond on a regular basis to reduce stress by employing healthy strategies such as meditation, relaxation exercises, emotional regulation skills, relationship skills, and problem-solving skills. Mindfulness means practicing self-care instead of denial and avoidance. Mindfulness means responding to life rather than reacting to it.

Mindfulness and stress management skills allow us to maintain our equilibrium and good mental health in the face of an ever-changing and demanding world. For related topics, see mindfulness, meditation, spam of the mind, and taming the mind.

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Copyright 2005-2022 Serenity Online Therapy
All Text and many photos by Carl Benedict

"Our very life depends on everything's recurring till we answer from within."  Robert Frost