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Dr. D. Writes: Coping With Stress

You would be surprised to learn that some people do not count themselves as competent enough to handle difficult situations. Others think they are capable until they find themselves struggling to keep their heads above water. The reality is that we all face adverse situations that create stress but not everybody has the skills or know-how to properly manage it.

We’ve all heard the saying, When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. What if you do not know how to make lemonade, do not have the accoutrements to make lemonade or do not feel like making lemonade? What if the lemons are too sour, you do not have enough water or do not have enough sugar? Funny, right?

You would be surprised to learn that some people do not count themselves as competent enough to handle difficult situations. Others think they are capable until they find themselves struggling to keep their heads above water. The reality is that we all face adverse situations that create stress but not everybody has the skills or know-how to properly manage it.

What exactly is stress? Stress is the process by which we appraise or evaluate stressors (internal and external threats and challenges) and cope with or adjust to them. Positive stress (eustress) or short-term stress could actually be beneficial as it could encourage us to do our best in a challenging situation. For example, the stress associated with vying for a promotion could motivate us to excel in the same way that the brief stress put on our bodies by an infection could cause our immune systems to fight it off (Segerstrom, 2007). Stressful situations could thus make us stronger, especially if we handle them properly and learn better ways to cope with difficulty; hence the saying, What does not kill you makes you stronger. It sort of metamorphosizes us, you know, once we have mastered it; resulting in a steely or Teflon mind. Not a whole lot gets to us then. That is different, however, from being apathetic.

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On the other hand, stressful situations that we cannot handle could be detrimental to us, with the risk of harm increasing with the severity and length of the stressful situation. The reality is that we will have to deal with stress as long as we are alive. There is no escaping it. We just need to learn how to manage it. The comforting thought, though, if that is comforting at all, is that the ability to feel anything at all – good or bad – means that we are alive.

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Significant stressors that we experience include natural disasters or catastrophes and life-altering events such as the death of a loved one, divorce, loss of employment or loss of housing. Everyday stressors include dealing with heavy traffic, getting in a car accident, arguing with a loved one or friend, marital dissatisfaction or living with somebody you do not get along with, hating your job, domestic violence, and being financially unstable. In these tough financial times, a lot of people are stressed out about money. Stress becomes detrimental to our well-being over time if we do not properly address it.

You may have heard of the Fight or Flight mechanism, which was initially conceptualized by Walter Cannon (1929) in the course of his studies on the secretion of epinephrine from the adrenal medulla of laboratory animals. He proposed that stressful situations result in a flooding of the stress hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine to prepare us to adjust to the ongoing stress. We thus fight any perceived threat aggressively or run away from it. Further research has revealed that we could also Freeze (be paralyzed in our actions) as well as Fawn (try to please others to avoid conflict) in stressful situations.

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Hans Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome (1976), which built upon Cannon’s work, posits that we adapt to stress in three phases: Alarm, Resistance, and Exhaustion. In the Alarm stage, we experience shock and physiological reactions such as increased heart rate, blood diverted to our skeletal muscles and the body being activated to fight. In the Resistance phase, where we fight the stress, the physiological symptoms remain with a release of stress hormones. Our body experiences a depletion of energy in the third phase, resulting in Exhaustion, which gets worse over time if the stress is unresolved. A person who is bogged down with stress will feel physically and mentally exhausted.

Positive life events such as getting married, having a baby or getting a new position could actually become aversive situations if the ensuing stress is not properly dealt with. The negative effects could be psychophysiological in nature (physical and psychological difficulties), which could result in a weakened immune system and susceptibility to health problems. Consequently, one could be more prone to colds, develop high blood pressure or struggle with insomnia, among other things. Unmanaged stress could also result in clinical syndromes such as anxiety (including panic attacks), depression and substance abuse (E.g., excessive drinking). Unmanaged stress could also result in social or ecological problems (E.g., a failed marriage due to work-related stress or financial difficulties).

So how do I make lemonade out of lemons? How do I cut the lemons? What if I don’t have a knife? Do I cut them at all or should I bite them? Do I squeeze the juice out of them or blend them with the rind and seeds (I am an impatient person, you know)? Do I add water? Do I add sugar? What is the winning formula? I’d like to know!

As I always tell my patients, there is no one-size-fits-all formula in resolving our problems. However, there are general things that work for most people that we could apply to our lives. Some people come to psychotherapy looking for the clinician to wave a magic wand to make all their problems disappear. Dealing with challenges in life is systematic and methodical. It takes time and work to understand and undo years of negative patterns of thoughts, emotions and behaviors. We ultimately have to devise strategies or coping mechanisms that work for us individually and be committed to utilizing the tools and resources that we are given. Some people figure things out a lot faster than others. Others quit for lack of patience. In any case, here are a few strategies to help you cope with stress:

Conceptualize the problem: Understanding what is happening in a realistic manner is half the problem solved. Do not run from the situation. Do not avoid dealing with it. Clearly assess it to understand what is happening. Seek to understand the source(s) of your stress.

Seek to gain control (mastery) of the situation and yourself: Having a sense of control helps in coping with stress. Having a sense of loss of control triggers more stress (Dickerson & Kemeny, 2004). Determine what is within your control that you can do something about and what is not within your control that you can do nothing about. Focus on what you can control and leave the rest alone to God or fate. For example, you cannot stop the flood coming through your neighborhood but you can find practical ways to mitigate the damage you experience from the flood. Additionally, learn from the situation. Tough times teach us a lot about ourselves. We get to understand our strengths and weaknesses. That helps us to be better versions of ourselves and to develop better coping strategies to handle future situations. That is how we gain mastery over situations and ourselves.

Be solution-focused: Remember that stress is how we perceive and address an adverse situation. We can either be problem-focused or solution-focused in how we cope with a situation. If we can do something about a problem then we need to solve it (as opposed to worrying about it, which does absolutely nothing to fix the problem). As the saying goes, Worrying is like a rocking chair; it gives you something to do but takes you nowhere. Worrying is problem-focused. It gives us a lot to turn over in our heads but offers no solutions. There are many stories of people who overcame adversity and flourished because they figured out how to find solutions to their problems. If they could do it, so can you.

Challenge negative thoughts: Negative thoughts beget even more negative thoughts. Use facts and truths about the situation as well as outlined plans of action to challenge negative thoughts in particular. Imagine that you have to go to court to counter certain charges about you with the facts and evidence that you have about the case. You have to mount a darn good defense. Tackling negative thoughts results in the reduction of negative emotions (feelings) and behaviors.

Be optimistic: Optimistic people generally end up being more resilient than pessimistic people simply because they have hope, faith and trust… that things will get better! One of my favorite sayings is, It could be a whole lot better but it could also be a whole lot worse. Every situation has two sides just as a coin does. Do not focus on the negative side of the coin. Flip it and focus on the positive side. Reframe the situation (look at it from a positive perspective). Look at the negative side only if you need to conceptualize the problem and refine your plan for a solution. There will be more time in the future to revisit it after you’ve resolved the situation. However, it is not helpful to dwell on the negatives in real time.

Seek support: Men supposedly tend to deal with stress differently than women. In general, they tend to withdraw, turn to substance abuse or become aggressive. We could call it the testosterone factor or the machismo factor depending on whether we want to explain it via a medical construct or a sociocultural construct. Women, however, generally tend to find others to share their difficulties with and bond with, partly due to a release of the social bonding hormone oxytocin (Taylor, 2006). Seek people you trust and are comfortable with who can help you overcome your stress. Also rely on your tried and tested methods of coping such as your spiritual roots.

Exercise: There are lots of research studies that indicate that exercise – some forms more than others – strengthens the heart, increases blood flow in the body and brain, dilates blood vessels, lowers blood pressure and blood pressure reaction to stress, and improves our mood and overall sense of well-being. Find out the best forms of exercise that you could engage in. Speak with your medical provider to help you find the best options for you.

Practice good self-care: Find tasks and activities that relax you. Have a good sleep schedule and eat well (healthy food, that is). Take time off work, if you can. You could learn to practice mindfulness, which teaches you to be peaceful in the moment as opposed to your mind being all over the place and focused, especially, on stressors. You could also practice meditation, which could be as simple as reflecting on positive statements, scripture or self-affirmations, which could change your focus from the negative things to the positive things. If nothing else, engage in constructive (not destructive) activities (whether alone or with others) that you love and enjoy. Know your limits, especially with respect to substance use. A bottle of beer or two drams of fine whiskey could relax you but 12 beers or a bottle of Scotch in a sitting would definitely be hard on your system! You know the saying, Everything in moderation.

Practice gratitude: Find things that you are grateful for. Once again, flip the coin and you will be sure to find some things to be grateful for. You could practice journaling or spending some quiet time alone to reflect on what you are grateful for. Practicing gratitude helps you to reframe situations from negative to positive.

Seek professional help: Seeking professional help is essential if you are unable to solve your challenges by yourself. A professionally trained clinician would help you to understand yourself and the stress better, help you develop resiliency, and devise effective coping strategies.

When it’s all said and done, don’t just make lemonade; make some darn good lemonade and show others how it’s done! Oh, by the way, make sure you get a fancy glass to drink your lemonade from. I prefer gold-rimmed crystal glasses. That’s what I call success! Cheers!


References

Dickerson, S.S. & Kemeny, M.E. 2004. Acute stressors and cortisol responses: A theoretical integration and synthesis of laboratory research. Psychological Bulletin, 130, 355-391.

Myers, D. 2011. Exploring Psychology, Eighth Edition. Worth Publishers.

Segerstrom, S.C. 2007. Stress, energy, and immunity. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16, 326-330.

Taylor, S.E. 2006. Tend and Befriend: Biobehavioral bases of affiliation under stress. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15, 273-277.

Walker, P. Undated. The 4Fs: A Trauma Typology in Complex PTSD. https://www.pete-walker.com/fourFs_TraumaTypologyComplexPTSD.htm

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