Stressed-out feelings are very often stoked by self-sabotaging self-talk. It is very easy to catastrophize the situation, along the lines of “I’m going to have a nervous breakdown. It’s absolutely impossible for me to do this.” Off-kilter beliefs such as these are guaranteed to keep the vicious cycle of stress running at full throttle. It’s difficult—if not impossible—to address the true external cause of your stressful feelings without first getting them under control.
Can you strengthen your resilience to stress and actively increase what might be called your hardiness? Indeed you can. Stress tolerance can be learned (as we’ll demonstrate later on in this chapter).
Once learned, it offers relief and improved health in both the short and longer term. That, in turn, allows us to become more flexible and adaptive when further, more severe hardships come our way. The attempt to understand the relationship between negative events and our ability to cope with them has a long history.
As early as 1915, Freud was postulating what he termed a “defense mechanism,” a largely unconscious process involving deep-seated internal repression and rationalization.3 But Freud’s theories were updated in the late 1970s by researchers who believed that, on the contrary, stressful situations usually unleash conscious strategies or styles that people under stress have developed over time to suit themselves.4 This is good news for those who wish to handle stress better. If Freud had been correct, unconscious processes would have had to be probed and uncovered by means of extensive therapy, an arduous prospect.
But if stress can be eased (or worsened)—sometimes instantaneously—by the people involved, depending on what they tell themselves and how they behave, then the condition is much more open to improvement on an individual basis. The exercises that follow will help you learn to better cope with stress.
If we develop stress responses to demanding and challenging situations, we always run the risk that the emotional experiences of anxiety, panic or hopelessness will erode our ability to reality test, problem solve and behave with confidence and certainty. Our physical symptoms of chronic tension, shortness of breath, and so forth, will deplete our sense of vitality and make it difficult for us to concentrate and focus. All of these debilities will make it less likely that we can be successful. In short, if we “cave in” to minimal environmental demands, we will not have the presence, the hardiness or the resilience to behave independently and assertively, and all of this will undercut our attempts to be successful. Individuals who do not have good stress tolerance tend to “fall apart” or become “overwhelmed” in two ways: some feel highly anxious and agitated, flustered and worried, helpless and hopeless, demoralized and apathetic; others may not experience uncomfortable emotional states, but may develop physical symptoms of insomnia, rapid heartbeat, breathing difficulties, nausea, diarrhea, unrelenting headaches or rashes. Individuals who have developed the ability to tolerate stress do not develop these symptoms, but rather stay calm and focused under pressure. They do not visit their difficulties on others.
They have the capacity to relax and wind down emotionally. Those who tolerate stress well are also described as hardy and resilient. They can present themselves with confidence, think clearly and assess their environments realistically. Stress tolerance is linked with success because it brings with it the capacity to focus and weather storms without allowing unpleasant feelings or disturbing bodily symptoms to interfere with moving forward and reaching a goal. Without the capacity for stress tolerance, reality testing, problem-solving, flexibility and impulse control are all eroded. And as these abilities are undermined, individuals become less and less able to function successfully.
- Think of a demanding, unpleasant or unexpected situation that has arisen recently at work. It might be a deadline that looms when you’re already snowed under, a lost promotion or the prospect of losing your job itself.
- In your notebook, write down the unpleasant feelings you experienced, any unexplained physical sensations that accompanied the incident and the ways in which your work suffered because of your difficulty in managing the stress.
- Now think of a similar situation that has arisen in your personal life, such as encountering problems with your significant other, parents or children. Again, record your feelings, your physical reactions and the negative impact of the stress on your relationships with these people.
- Think back to several recent stressful incidents, and make a note of the event that sparked the stress. Do these events form a pattern, revealing your areas of vulnerability to stress; that is, are the majority work- or family-related? Which, if any, produced a feeling of helplessness and inability to effect change?
- Once again, for each of these incidents, make a note of your feelings and bodily sensations.Does a pattern emerge here as well? Some of us tend to be either “feelings” or “body” responders to stress; while others get hit both ways at once. If you are the latter, how does your stress first manifest itself?
- How do you deal with stress at present? List even those methods that aren’t effective and that you’d like to change.
- Which of the following tactics are you most apt to resort to:
• taking a deep breath
• going for a walk
• counting slowly to 10
• ignoring the problem and hoping it will go away
• passing the buck to someone else
• looking for alternative strategies
• making lists
• letting emotions surface
• using alcohol, tobacco or other drugs
• meditating, practicing yoga or listening to soothing tapes
• taking a tranquilizer or other medication?
8. How would you prefer to deal with stress as it affects you and as you understand it? What, in your case, do you think is the ideal solution?
A number of physical exercises can help shift our unsettled emotional states to calmer, more relaxed feelings—as well as to actually alter to some degree the body’s physiological responses. For maximum effect, they should become part of your daily routine. Don’t wait until a crisis emerges and then plunge into them, looking for a quick fix, although two of them can also be resorted to when emotions are running hot.
They take only five or 10 minutes each—a small price to pay, considering the time you might spend on coffee breaks or watching TV. Because it releases endorphins, exercise has a potent effect on reducing the signs and symptoms of stress. Also, it cheers you up; you feel (correctly) that you’re actively doing something constructive, instead of passively experiencing various sensations. This in itself imparts a sense of control over your body and, by extension, the situation that keyed the stress in the first place.