by Peter S. Silin, MSW, RSW
People often talk about being stressed, and about managing stress. I think it helps to take a closer look at what stress is.
Stress is, in some ways, a psychological/physiological response to stimuli. The stimuli can be externally or internally generated. For instance, it could be a colleague at work, or it could be worry about an exam.
The important thing to focus on is that stress is a response to something. It manifests as worry, fear, anxiety, anger, depression, and so on. There are stressors, and there are stress responses. This gives you a couple options. One, you can manage your response or you can manage the stimulus.
Managing the stimulus might mean talking directly with your colleague, or studying for an exam, speaking to the professor of the course, or avoidance. Managing the stimulus might also entail managing what it means to you and why.
Managing your response would entail doing something so that you are not worrying, afraid, etc., or those feelings are lowered to a level which you consider tolerable.
There are a number of techniques to do the latter. These include creative visualization, meditation, yoga, journaling, finding support and talking to friends, going to the gym, hot baths, etc. You need to find out what works for you.
Another way to manage your response is to think about what it stimulates in your about yourself. This entails understanding some of the ways you think about yourself in your world: the shoulds. For example, I should be able to handle all of this. I should be a better wife. I should be better at this. I should learn this faster. These are the thoughts which stimulate stress in yourself when there is a gap between what your should, and what is possible for you. This means understanding and perhaps changing some beliefs about yourself and your world. When those change, the pressure is off. The stressor events may still be there, but you will not experience them as stressors, or if you do, you will not respond with such a strong stress response.
Often, or course, we use a combination of both dealing with the stimulus, and dealing with our response.
To start, take a piece of paper and divide it into two columns. Label one stimulus, and the other my response. Below that, rate the level of both, 1 being low 10 being high. Below that, write out an exact description of each. Then write down the techniques you are going to use to deal with each.
Keep a journal with two columns. Each day, or half day, or whenever it is convenient, and you have focused on working on one or both, write down what you have done and how effective it is. Then rate the level of strength of the stimulus and/or response on you after doing so. After a while, you will find there is a decrease in the one (or both) that was high.
One of the reasons people come to see me is to help them learn and use techniques to manage their stress responses and to understand what they are doing that is creating and maintaining them. We often look at what it is about the stressor which is leading them to have a stress response. For example, it may remind them of someone they knew in the past or something that they experienced in the past. A situation may resemble a situation that you have been in at some point, and which was difficult for you. This often is what happens during relationship issues. When you change your perceptions about the stressor (in this case also meaning a situation), you may not have the stress response, or it will not be as strong. With a deeper understanding of the stressor, you can have some choice about how you respond. In time, this can become your primary response to this, or similar situations.