“I’m so stressed out!”, said the middle-aged man who sat in my office as a new client. “I’m overwhelmed with work and some days I hate my life”. I remember him wringing his hands and holding his face, running his hands through his hair, over and over throughout the session. It was obvious in this man’s race against stress that the stressors were winning. He reported not sleeping well, not thinking clearly (which added to the work stress), being irritable for no apparent reason, being forgetful, feeling tired most of the time and the one symptom that caused him to seek help, frequent chest pains. After a myriad of tests, his doctors assured him that his heart was fine, but he needed to “get the stress under control”.
His schedule was a matrix of business meetings, sales calls, traveling for work, spending time with his wife, working out, and one of the things he enjoyed the most, coaching his son’s soccer team. This world he had worked hard to create and maintain was falling in around him and he didn’t know why. All he knew for sure was that he was miserable and the things that used to bring him pleasure were adding to the chaos. Unfortunately, I hear these cries of the heart frequently from clients.
Is there a way to function in a sea of this uncontrollable stress? The answer is yes, because stress is not uncontrollable. Stress is an internal (INTERNAL: of yourself) response to an external factor. It bears repeating: Stress is our internal reaction to the external factors.
Our reactions to these external stressors can change; they can be within our regulation. Awareness and intentional choices can lead us to a place of control over what feels uncontrollable.
Regarding my client, his first step to helping himself was coming to counseling. He committed to coming once a week and using our time together to externalize his frustrations of the week, gain insight on patterns of his thinking and then determine how he would spend his time in the next week. The symptoms decreased as he built into his schedule relaxation techniques and tension relievers. He began to see that working through his stress and developing coping skills was his responsibility, which relieved any guilt he had about spending time on himself.
If we are intentional about changing how we respond to stress we can relieve many of the symptoms. Here are some additional thoughts to consider about changing our response to external stressors:
- Determine the triggers
Take time to name the items, events, people or thoughts that are alerting your stress response. Note any specific relationship to time that might be present. If we can connect these dots, we are on our way to determining how to respond differently.
- Determine what is needed to change
Once you have filtered through the triggers of your stress response, begin to imagine what life would be like without feeling stressed in each area you have noted. What would be necessary to make that change? How do you want to respond? How do you get to where you want to be? This may require a long hard look at your life, your priorities, your values and your self-worth (don’t rush over that word: self-worth, what is your worth to yourself?). Recognizing what is keeping you from fulfilling your goal is a big step to achieving it.
- Determine what steps you can take immediately
Are you practicing self-care? In this technologically driven world, it is easier than ever to connect to self-help options such as workout videos, yoga, meditation, grief groups, book clubs, meet-up groups to name only a few, and many without ever leaving your house (saves time for busy lives). The importance of self-care can be pivotal to lessen the tension in our lives. If you are a planner, perhaps you schedule time on your calendar for yourself. If you are more of a “winger”, than take advantage of opportunities that come across your path without feeling guilty.
There are viable options to controlling the stress response in life. If you find you need help in this process, please call our office. We can help you in any of these stages of change. We offer interventions such as relaxation techniques, talk therapy or behavior modification for you to use as tools in managing your stress response.
Let me end by saying that stress is different than anxiety. It is important to know which you are experiencing because each has a unique treatment plan. For more information about the difference between stress and anxiety visit this website:
Don’t wait until the stress inside of you develops into symptoms that feel out of control. Invest in yourself so that you can be happy and healthy in your service to others.
Brenda Stutler, LMHC