Stress is always with us. It may be the result of general life pressures, a major life crisis or the fulfillment of a favorite fantasy. It can both serve us well and get in our way. The level of stress that serves me best may be too intense or too “laid back” for you. It is always a very personal experience. Each of us must learn to creatively manage our own stress, else, if we don’t it may manage us. If this discussion drew your attention, it may be that you need to find some new creative ways of managing stress.
The Process and Symptoms
Defining Threat: You may already know what your stress symptoms are but it may be worthwhile to review what others describe as general processes and symptoms of stress. Hans Selye, M.D. called stress a non-specific response of the body to some kind of demand or threat upon it his General Adaptation Syndrome. Our problems with stress are based on the intensity of the demand that stressors place upon us. He describes a three-stage reaction that the body has to stress.
- The body turns on its alarm system and releases hormones from the endocrine glands. You might recognize some of the symptoms of this stage; your heart beats faster, you perspire, your pupils become dilated and your digestive system slows down. This is when you decide to stand and fight or flee.
- Stage two is when the body searches out any damage caused by the stress and repairs it. Of course, if the stressor continues to turn on the alarm system, there is little opportunity for the body to repair. As the call to alarm continues, the body becomes more and more exhausted,
- Exhaustion uses up the body’s stores of energy. It can create such disastrous symptoms as your aching head and stomach or your fast beating heart, or other physical or mental illnesses that are not pleasant to consider.
How do we control our stress? All agree that although the symptoms we usually recognize are physiological, the issues of stress relate to all aspects of the person, body, mind, senses, and spirit Everyone can recognize the symptoms defined in Hans Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome. Your body is alarmed by the stressor and your heart beats faster. You start to perspire and your digestive system slows down. Then the body goes into a search and repair mode where it searches for any damage caused by the stressor and attempts to repair it.
Of course, if the stressor continues to turn on the alarm system, there is little opportunity for the body to repair. As the call to alarm continues, the body becomes more and more exhausted. Exhaustion uses up the body’s stores of energy and can create such disastrous symptoms as your aching head and stomach or your fast beating heart, or other physical or mental illnesses that are not pleasant to consider.
In the book, "Your Many Faces", 1978, by Virginia Satir she sorts out these aspects out into “parts” including
Our personal “I”,
Our “body, mind, emotions and feelings,
Our sensory inputs from the outside – skin, eyes, nose, ears and mouth., etc,
Our I-thou relationships,
Our soul or life force,
Our context of time, space, light, air, water, sound, color, weather and seasons (i.e. the Universe of which we are all a part).
What threatens us may threaten any and all of these, and the threat is broadly or narrowly defined as such on a personal basis. Such threats often fit into these four categories:
- Frustrated goals and expectations
- Competing values and goals
- Goal confusion
- No goals
Frustrated Goals: We know what we wish to accomplish, but so many barriers seem to block our way that reaching frustrated goals. For example, the goal of returning to school and completing a Masters or Doctoral program may be frustrated by many obstacles, including the need for ongoing income, lack of support from an employer, friends or family, difficulty concentrating in the classroom and so on.
Frustrated Expectations: We plan according to our expectations. When what we expect does not occur, we are sometimes frustrated and disappointed. For example, Joe the teacher believes that learning is important and thinks he has something to offer to others. He gives his very best in the classroom and expects his students to give something too but the results of the first test are discouraging indeed. But he is not down yet. He decides that although his day at school has not been spectacular, he will surprise his family this evening and cook dinner. He hurries home and has dinner prepared before anyone else arrives. His son appears momentarily, grabs what he can carry and leaves, mumbling something about being late for bank practice. Since dinner is usually a bit later, his daughter arrives with three other friends planning to study for an hour before dinner and finally his wife arrives carrying fast food that she thoughtfully picked up on the way home since she was too tired to cook.
We know what is important to us and attempt to set and prioritize our goals based on what we value as most important in life. Often two or more of our goals seem to compete with each other. Indeed, to give priority to one seems to make the other more difficult and sometimes impossible to achieve. For example, Jan seeks advancement in her profession and is offered the opportunity but accepting the offer means an extended separation from her family whom she does not wish to be separated.
We know we have goals but clarifying and prioritizing them may go awry. We seem driven to do whatever must be done, sometimes getting lost in the most trivial of tasks and generally speaking, we are on overload. When goals are confused, time is always full. We are always busy and often exhausted. We are always speeding along to somewhere, but the destination escapes us. EVERYTHING matter.
Nothing matters. We are lethargic, disinterested - apathetic at best. We withdraw from the effort and have no energy to act or belief that acting will create change. Perhaps a loss of a loved one seems all-consuming. Perhaps the crises have been too many and we feel disabled. Our expectations have been off so many times that we simply make no plans.
In a sense, we define threat by how out of control our life feels. The smaller the threat, the easier it is to manage and the more pervasive the threat, the more elusive it is to define and the greater the chance that it will manage us. Simple situational stress is the result of specific problems that are known to us. They seem to be solvable but the solution requires us to learn new skills or apply skills that we are “rusty” at executing. As complications occur and new problems arise, we begin to feel worn down by the bombardment of problems coming at us and the pervasive stress begins to manage us.
What can we do about stress?
Changing ourselves or the situation can get rid of some of the stressors and manage others. We must change the way we perceive and approach stress in our attitudes and habits and must accept the things that cannot be changed. Think of the Serenity Prayer…
Grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change...
Courage to change the things I can...
And Wisdom to know the difference...
“Wisdom” in this context has at least three critical components: an unmasked awareness of self, our stressors, and a GOOD sense of humor. The tools needed to develop a new relationship with stress include a little Windex, a wide-angle lens, a good jack-hammer, and some new positive habits.
This STRESS DESIGN personal stress management series is designed to be followed daily for a period of at least two weeks ‑ each day building on the experience of the last.
Day One: Benefits and Threats – Identify stress that energizes you but has little or no negative residue.
Begin by Being Still
Everyone can be still but it isn’t always our first choice of things to do. With so many other options and so much action going on around us all the time, being still seems like a way to miss something. Sometimes it seems less important than the crisis at hand or the many pressing task that need to be accomplished. Often it is relegated to a “when I have the time” or “I’d really like to but...” place in our lives.
Being still is essential both to creative stress management and life itself. It offers us new and renewed resources to apply to every aspect of living. Being still has many names” relaxing, quieting, freeing, renewing, calming, spiritual centering and energizing are a few. The process is one of letting go of the clutter and the clatter and as they fall away, we become more centered and better able to listen to ourselves and tap our own power.
Every exercise in STRESS DESIGN begins by being still. Perhaps you have music that can bring you at ease, or a meditation, or simple relaxation or prayer – whatever suits you best. Your first task will be to find the best way of being still that fits you best. My second article “The Fourteen Steps of Stress Design” will take your through my personal stress management system. I look forward to working with you. Enjoy!
—David Mayhall, M.Ed., Owezone Contributer