Terribly Stressed

by Eric Kreye

Everyone experiences some type of stress, whether they want to or not. So what is stress? There are various definitions suggested by different sources. One says that stress is the reaction of the body to an emergency a person faces. This marvelous human body has built-in mechanisms designed to protect it in time of danger.

One researcher discovered that our capacity to respond to the stresses of life may depend on the amount of energy for this that we have been born with. If this is true, then we must learn to be careful in the ways we use that energy so that it will not be used up too rapidly and cause us to suffer for it.

What causes stress? Almost everything causes a degree of stress, even some good things in life. For instance, someone came up with a list of life events and rated them according to the degree of stress produced. Number one on the list is the death of a spouse. But marriage is number seven and retirement is number ten, both thought to be pleasurable events.

There are two types of stress: the sudden, short-term, sometimes traumatic type, and the long-term, chronic kind that we often are unaware of.

Here are some common things most of us deal with that are potential stressors:

Goals we set for ourselves--goals we eventually achieve and those that are beyond our capability to achieve. It's this last kind that give us the most trouble. In other words, setting unrealistic goals or setting too many goals. You've heard of those who have "too many irons in the fire" or those who "bite off more than they can chew."

Work situations. A person who needs a quiet corner to function the best would hardly do well in a noisy, busy work environment. A deliberate, methodical individual would not do well in a situation where rapid thought and actions are needed. As stress expert Hans Selye observed, "You can't make a racehorse out of a turtle." And if you try to make a turtle perform like a racehorse, he understandably will be under considerable stress!

Beliefs and values. We learn our beliefs and develop values as we grow and mature, and it would never occur to us that these could be a source of stress. But when a crisis occurs or something happens that will put our beliefs or long-held values to the test, we experience periods of extreme stress. When our values are challenged, conflicts result and we find ourselves in a stressful situation.

Self-image. Each of us has an idea about our abilities, limitations, appearance, worth, and place in society. This is what we think of ourselves. And what others say or do to us sometimes influences how we think of ourselves. If our self-image suffers from the feedback we get from others, we feel very stressed.

Strong emotions. Love, hate, excitement, worry, resentment, anger, joy--these are among a whole host of emotions that we may experience in life. And each one can cause stressful situations that affect the chemistry of the body.

Another stressor that we don't often think about is change. Whether we consider it good or bad, change causes stress. Moving, starting a new job, getting married, even changing to a different church--all these changes can cause much stress even though they may produce good results in our lives as well.

Promotion or other personal achievement. A person who may have done well in his previous job, may find his new job difficult. The "Peter Principle" in which a person tends to rise to "the level of his incompetence" can produce a lot of stress. Or consider the athlete who has reached the pinnacle of his profession with some outstanding achievement. Such a one faces the challenge of staying on top, maintaining that level of performance. Imagine the stress that is involved.

Type-A personality. Such a person is usually an aggressive, ambitious, competitive, intense individual, a driver who causes his own internal pressure to get things done. On his own he races against the clock and often seems restless. He is inclined to be a hard worker and is most likely a perfectionist. One can often spot a Type-A individual because of his tendency to want to complete the sentence of the person with whom he is speaking. This same individual is compelled to be on time for every appointment and tries to pressure others around him to measure up also. Such an individual is his own worst enemy. He creates unnecessary stress for himself.

Other stressors are serious illness, extreme pain, commuting daily in rush-hour traffic, insufficient income, and various phobias. Any one of these or even everyday mundane situations can produce subtle stress that the sufferer may not be aware of but can cause negative reactions in the body.

What are some of the more serious results of stress?

The body has biological reactions to stress that automatically kick in when faced with a threat produced by stress. There are all sorts of chemical changes that take place in the body without a person even knowing it.

The number one killer in America is heart disease, and for some time it has been known that stress is a big factor in this killer.

John was a brilliant surgeon, very much respected in his field. He pioneered new techniques and was a sought-after speaker at professional seminars.

He enjoyed sharing his discoveries with his colleagues, but he had one problem--he did not accept criticism or a difference of opinion very well. Often when a colleague would express a different point of view, John would end up in a big argument.

One day in a medical meeting after one of his presentations, John faced an adversary. In the process of denouncing his view, John's face turned red with anger and he was soon shouting loudly. Suddenly he fell to the floor with a heart attack, cut down by his uncontrolled anger and the resulting stress to his body.

The role of stress in causing high blood pressure, a second common health problem, is now the subject of intense study. Stress has been linked to many other diseases and symptoms, such as ulcers, mental illness, headaches, certain skin rashes, chest and back pains, sleep disturbance, muscle tension, asthma, arthritis, and kidney malfunction. Stress has been known to play a part in lowering the body's natural immunity to disease.

Can we learn to cope with stress in such a way that it will not be so destructive to our bodies? Here are some things to consider:

Know and pay attention to your limitations. We each have our boundary lines beyond which things get to be too much. In this connection, learn not to take on more jobs than you can comfortably handle. Learn to say No.

Control activities. For instance, instead of feeling a need to answer the telephone each time it rings, use an answering machine and answer all the calls at a specified time. Learn to delegate responsibilities and trust others with the authority to make decisions and follow through with the necessary actions. On the other hand, avoid allowing others to delegate duties to you, if you feel it will push you beyond your limitations.

Don't set unrealistic, perfectionistic standards and expectations for yourself. If you find yourself working during off days or trying to put in time to complete a job you thought you should have completed during regular hours, think again. Did you do your best to complete the job during regular work hours? Are you expecting a higher degree of perfection than the job requires? Do you have other commitments (maybe at home?) that will create tensions if you are not there and thereby increase your level of stress even more?

Work off your tensions. If you get upset at someone or face some other frustrating situation, try letting off steam by doing some physical activity. Maybe you can do a little work in the garden or yard. Get busy at something you enjoy, like a favorite hobby. Take a walk in nature--but don't push yourself as though you are trying to win a race.

Learn to relax. This doesn't mean sitting in front of the television where you get involved in exciting sports events or tense sit-coms. Instead, try to learn to relax mentally and physically. Try lying down and focusing on relaxing the muscles in your legs, arms, hands, and back. Nudge your mind to dwell on quiet, relaxing, calm things. Listen to restful music or read a good book that takes your mind off your present tensions.

This is especially important for a Type-A personality. If you are that kind of person, it will take work to make a change. But it will be worth the effort. You must consciously try to relate to life more like a Type-B person. Learn to "slow down and smell the roses."

Organize and plan your activities. Make a list, if necessary, of the things you would like to accomplish on a particular day. But be realistic in your expectations, and don't get upset if you don't complete your list that day. Remember, you have tomorrow. You don't want to be a perfectionist.

Cultivate good personal relationships. If you have a conflict with someone, try to resolve it as soon as possible. Learn to be assertive (that does not mean aggressive). Whatever you decide to do should be toward accomplishing better relationships, not necessarily just to smooth the troubled waters. It may cause some stress initially, but the relationship will be better in the long run.

Learn to play. Remember that you have a commitment to yourself as well as to your job or to others around you. That means that you should do whatever it takes to keep yourself happy and in good health. In the society in which we live today it is a popular teaching that you think of yourself first. Sometimes in our attempts not to be so selfish as to think only of ourselves, we go the other way and don't consider our own needs at all. We must remember that sometimes the best gift we can give to those around us is to be happy and healthy ourselves.

Regular exercise. Of course, you should check with your doctor before beginning any exercise program. If he gives you the go-ahead, your exercise program should be regular--at least three to five times a week. It should be vigorous enough to keep your heart working hard for at least 20 to 30 minutes.

Eat right. Studies have shown that a person who does not have adequate nutrition, or for some reason the store of necessary nutritients has been depleted, is less able to tolerate stress and is more susceptible to disease.

Get enough sleep. Most people need seven or eight hours of sleep each night. You might get by occasionally with less, but regularly losing necessary sleep can cause you to be tense, irritable, impatient, and less able to do your work well.

Practice the attitude of gratitude. Dr. Hans Selye, the well-known stress researcher, says that cultivating the quality of gratitude is one of the most important things we can do to help cushion the effects of stress in our lives.

Some years ago a man who had a large family and a very limited income was faced with needing to get his washing machine fixed and also his children needed some shoes. He didn't have the money to do both. Which would it be, the shoes or the washing machine? Deeply discouraged he searched the want ads in the paper for a used washing machine. Finding what he thought was a good buy, he went to see about it.

As he examined the fine machine at a reasonable price, he found himself sharing his discouragement with the owners of the machine. As he mentioned his children's need for new shoes, the lady suddenly turned and ran from the room.

"I'm sorry," said the poor man. "Did I say something wrong?"

"No, you didn't say anything wrong. But you see, my wife and I have only one child--a little girl. She was born a cripple. We are just thinking how happy we would be if we could just once have the problem of worn-out shoes for her."

The poor man went home feeling grateful that he had healthy children who could run and play, and that he was faced with the problem of worn-out shoes.

Remember the story of Pollyanna, the little girl who played the "glad game"? That means thinking in every situation of something for which you can be thankful.

Learn to adjust to some stressful situations that you can't change. You may have to change your attitude toward someone who really "bugs" you. Or adjust to situations that are beyond your control. Here is where humor can really help. And remember the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Finally, have a strong faith in God. Just knowing that there is a dependable, all-powerful, compassionate God to whom we can turn in troubled situations can be a tremendous relief in times of stress.

Jesus has promised:

"Peace I leave with you,
My peace I give to you;
not as the world gives do I give to you.
Let not your heart be troubled,
neither let it be afraid."
--John 14:27

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