Coping with stress

Family Services is now offering groups that provide discussion and practical strategies for managing stress, anger, and developing healthy coping skills. I would like to share some information on stress management. The holidays are over with for a while. Time to relax, right? Well, that might be difficult. Did you make a New Year’s Resolution? Did your credit card statements come in? Have your utility bills gone up due to the frigid temperatures? Did you start a new job or receive a promotion? Stress is part of our lives whether we like it or not. We might as well accept it.

Not all stress is negative. Buying a home, starting a new job, and having a child are examples of positive stressors. Positive stressors can provide motivation and a sense of a challenge. The complication is our brain does not interpret whether stress is good or bad. It just codes it as stress. Think about the strength and courage it takes to manage the difficulties we face in our life. Many of us will try to avoid stress as much as possible and maybe even at all costs. In our culture we do not like to feel uncomfortable as it seems to go against our nature. We strive for financial, physical, and emotional comfort. Unfortunately, we cannot always be comfortable. Avoidance is a common defense mechanism which becomes problematic when utilized often because it does not help you deal with the situation. Thus stress continues to pile up and becomes unmanageable. Daisaku Ikeda, a Buddhist philosopher says, “Suffering only gets worse when we try to run from it rather than facing it.” Thinking about mindfulness, part of being in the moment is observing the feeling in the feeling. It is uncomfortable to experience negative feelings, however effectively managing feelings and stress in our lives starts with identifying the feeling, being aware of it, and experiencing it. Once you understand what the feeling is you can then identify what type of stress it is.

There are two main categories of stressors, external and internal. In this article we will focus on external stressors. External stressors are the things in which we have little to no control over. Examples of external stressors are stressful environments, specifically demanding environments where increased performances are difficult or impossible to meet. Time deadlines, new skills and increased responsibilities can make work or home a demanding situation. Critical or unsupportive environments, situations in which there is frequent criticism, little positive feedback and lack of emotional support are external stressors. Isolated environments and situations in which there is either physical or emotional isolation are also examples. You may work alone, live alone, be geographically isolated, or just feel alone with no one to share thoughts and feelings with. Crowded environments where there may be a lack of privacy or personal space or intrusive behaviors are stressful. Unpredictable environments, situations in which change is frequent and unforeseen and there is little sense of consistency and dependability are difficult. Expectations may change without warning, family or work environments can be uncertain, unstable or explosive. Unclear environments could be new situations or old ones where the “rules” or expectations were never made clear and you are left to guess what’s okay or to find out by trial and error. Rigid environments are inflexible and offer little opportunity for growth. They may become dull and boring as a result of constant, unchanging routine. Unsafe or abusive environments and, work or home situations where there is danger or lack of safety are also stressful. Other external sources of stress are role overload/underload, physical illness or injury, interpersonal conflict or demands for loyalty, financial problems, and waiting.

Let’s look at three coping skills that can be utilized for managing stressful environments. When dealing with stressful environments you have no direct control over the environment itself, you can only control how you choose to respond. Modify means asking for change from the environment, don’t demand it or set ultimatums that you can’t keep. Remember, all you can do is ask, the environment may still say “no”. Utilize this communication formula: I feel (describe the feeling), when you (describe the behavior/situation), it seems like (your interpretation of the behavior/situation), what I’d like is (request the change). If this does not help manage the stress then you might consider leaving. If the environment won’t change you can choose to leave it and seek out more positive healthier environments. When considering leaving as an option recognize that there are many forms of leaving-you may choose to leave the immediate situation (as in an argument). You may also choose to leave by setting limits on what particular situations you will engage in with a particular person or group of persons. For example “I will go out to dinner with you, but I won’t go out to a bar with you because I cannot trust you not to drink too much”. Finally you can choose to tolerate an environment either temporarily or permanently. Try to externalize the stress. That is, recognize that the environment has chosen to behave in the way that it has and don’t take it personally. Do not continue to try and change it, accept it for what it is and don’t assume that the environments failure to change is a reflection on you, recognize it as a reflection of the environment itself.

Other helpful quick stress-busters to help you relax and manage acute symptoms of stress are breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, imagery, exercise, recreation, and letting go. Letting go takes spiritual fitness, trusting that you can let it go to God and that things will get better in time. The serenity prayer is always a nice reminder that can help ground us in the moment: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Michael Philhower, MSW, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker who provides therapy and Intensive Outpatient Services at Family Services. The organization is offering several new short-term groups such as stress management, women’s coping skills, and anger management. Call 723-1330 for more information.