Thursday, September 18, 2014

Stress -- What's a Gal (or Guy) to do?

"There cannot be a stressful crisis next week. My schedule is already full."  Henry Kissinger

I'm right there with you, Henry!

Every time I've turned around the past four weeks, another stressful situation has been there to meet me. Phone calls with news of medical tests, a grim diagnosis, and various procedures for a beloved family member. News broadcasts of angry people reacting with violence. Unexpected travel (and not for pleasure) resulting in an ever-growing to-do list with more than a few "overdue" items. Disconcerting situations at work. And the list goes on.

Until a few years ago, I had three go-to strategies for dealing with stress. One strategy, which I refer to as "hunkering down", found me lying as low as possible, looking neither to the right nor to the left, and simply surviving the situation.

Picture a toddler who is intent on watching television despite his mom's announcement that it's time for a nap. His eyes remain determinedly focused on the TV screen -- "if I don't look at her, I don't have to acknowledge what she's saying, right?" -- while he remains as small and still as possible, hoping mom will forget he's there. That doesn't work for the toddler, and it wasn't an effective strategy for me, either.

My other, equally-ineffective manner of dealing with stress was to let the steam build for a time until an insignificant but irritating event occurred, at which time I would "let off some steam". Nothing major -- I was never a hairbrush thrower or tantrum-pitcher. Instead, I would express frustration to those around me, talking the situation to death until I ran out of steam.

Picture a far-less-destructive, verbal Mount St. Helens, if you will.

Even the oft-recommended strategy of journalling about a stressful situation didn't work well. Instead of being able to release the negativity and stress through writing, I tended to relive the negativity and become even more stressed.

But experience with very personal, intense stress that lay like a thick blanket over every aspect of my life for well over a year taught me that what I was doing didn't work very well. I didn't "toss out the baby with the bathwater", though; instead, I've found ways to alter what I had been doing in order to make them more productive.

First, I now allow myself to "hunker down", but only for a very brief time, and only for the purpose of giving myself time to better understand the stress and its cause(s). I actually give myself a deadline -- sometimes it's just 10 minutes; for more complex situations it may be longer.

For the most part, talking about the negative situation has ceased to be a strategy. The whole point of talking through the situation was interaction with someone else -- their validation (sincere or fake) of the fact that I had every right to be frustrated or upset. Dazey (my Norwich Terrier) failed to provide either the interaction or the validation I found comforting, so I turned to venting on Facebook.

Sharing my frustrations in response to Facebook's "What's on your mind?" was an eye-opener. I realized more than a few times that I had allowed my stress level to rise at a rate disproportionate to the stressor. I also found that seeing my words in black and white made me less willing to put them out there for all the world to see.

Seeing my thoughts in black and white, on a page, has also changed how I utilize the strategy of writing about what is bothering me. Several months ago, I realized that journalling on paper had become less a joy and more a chore and that blogging provided me with both the writing outlet I love and a sense of connection with others that I wanted. As a result, I quit paper journaling.

As with Facebook, I've found I'm very reluctant to vent here. First, while I address negativity and stress here, I choose to focus more on overcoming both and on not letting either overcome and derail me. As with Facebook (again), I find that when I pause long enough to write for others (as opposed to for my eyes only in a journal) I gain perspective. In turn, that perspective stops me from allowing the stressor(s) from gaining a life larger than its own.

I've found other strategies that help. I can't claim credit for the vast majority of them; articles touting the helpfulness of a healthy diet and exercise, pet ownership, and placing strict limits on the amount  media exposure (television and print news in particular) can be found in a variety of professional journals, magazine articles, and self-improvement books.

Doing what I love -- watching sports on television or in person, knitting or scrapbooking, reading, and listening to music, to name a few -- also helps alleviate stress. Attending a knitting class and being surrounded by cheerful women laughing and talking as they knit and purl makes a positive difference as well. Reaching out to someone who is hurting is also beneficial; writing a short personal message on a Hallmark card and sending it to a coworker who is recuperating from knee surgery, for example, brightens my outlook.

Limiting time spent on social media has also removed a significant amount of stress. While I want to be aware of what is going on in the world around me, expressions of outrage, concern, sorrow, and pain in post after post from beloved friends is not healthy for me.

And that, I think is the key. Finding what is -- and what is not -- healthy is essential, because what works for me in reducing stress might actually make your stress level rise. What eases the stress in your life might be totally ineffective or, worse, create more stress for someone else.

It's important, I believe, to be honest with yourself about how you deal with stress. Is what you're doing effective, or is it causing more harm than the original situation? Equally important is being open to strategies you may not have tried and even those that you've utilized unsuccessfully in the past.

I'm making headway in dealing with the stress in my life. Oh, I'm not ready to throw down the gauntlet and challenge life to give me all it's got, but I'm ready to deal with each day -- sometimes each hour -- as it comes.

And this gal is content with doing just that.

2 comments:

  1. Great writing and thoughts. I myself often wonder why I put myself in stressful situations i.e. dealing with someone that is negative Nanny, dealing with drama Debbie and others of this type. I was seeing a psychiatrist years ago and he said to take yourself away from negative situations and people. I have tried to do that through the years but sometimes it is hard. You have a good grasp on it Patti, great job.

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  2. Steph, you're so right that it's sometimes very hard to distance yourself from negative situations and people. Sometimes it's downright impossible. For example, a dear friend works in what can only be described as a hostile work environment, but because she is under contract with the company until a current project is completed, and that could be up to a year. Breaking the contract would cause her to be sued, and she would lose her fledgling company. She shared with me some strategies she uses; I'll share them here soon.

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