In any year it makes sense to monitor and limit stress. But increasingly, that task seems crucial. Some of us are already coping with dramatically reduced work or financial options and almost all of us are looking for ways to cope with some new and unwelcome demands.
Public attention has been focused fairly relentlessly on the obvious superannuation losses, stock market falls and job scares, but while these issues are of utmost concern I suspect that it is also our collective peace of mind that’s in need of urgent attention.
Stress levels are highly sensitive to social conditions. As peace of mind – or confidence and resilience – plummets, stress levels will rise. This is not a matter of emotional concern only. It affects every aspect of our personal and collective lives. Many people will say that they are coping well emotionally but nevertheless report an alarming increase in physical symptoms. These can be as varied as chronic headaches, digestive problems, under or over eating, excessive drinking, sore backs, constant colds or flu, a general feeling of malaise, loss of libido, breathlessness or racing heart, high blood pressure, and, of course, sleeplessness. But those familiar physical symptoms also have their emotional costs. If you are constantly unwell or in pain, or are chronically tired or hung over, it becomes extremely difficult to make the considered decisions that a tough time demands and needs. To deal with stresses “out there”, we need to be on our best form, otherwise even small additional setbacks or burdens become intolerable.
Stress produces anxiety – and worsens it. For many people, this will mean worrying more than usual, or with ever less sense of resolution or purpose. It may also result in high levels of agitation, irritability, frustration and intolerance. Of course this makes difficult situations worse. Panic, anxiety or depression intensify stress, limiting people’s cognitive as well as emotional responses and making it so much harder for them to take in new information, listen well or think creatively. This almost always has a dire effect on relationships at home and work, not least because the anxious person may become quite stuck in their thinking, withdrawn, quick to jump to gloomy conclusions or even quite paranoid. None of that helps the sufferer or makes life any easier for those around them.
The worst catalysts for stress are the situations where we feel powerless.
Either the situation itself is out of control or we perceive that we have no power to effect change within it. Sometimes this is true – but not uniformly. Where we do have some choice is in how we describe a situation to ourselves, how we marshal our resources, whether we nurture some sense of hope and competence, or whether we multiply our stress by repeatedly telling ourselves how dreadful or unfair the situation is or how hopeless we ourselves are. Learning that it is possible to respond more assertively or creatively even to stressful situations can literally be life changing. For some, this will include formal counselling. For others the right book at the right time is a tremendous ally. It can also be almost magically helpful to learn to empty your thoughts into a journal, and I long ago discovered that using strategic skills to “problem solve” in the pages of your journal is far more helpful than lying awake at 3a.m
Recognising your stress reactions and doing something about them is at least as demanding as any of the great physical challenges we so admire. What’s more, it involves some of the same steps: defining your priorities; determining what immediate action is needed; dealing with one situation only at a time; ruthlessly limiting what is undermining or unimportant. Making those changes in focus and attitude will always give you at least some sense of “taking charge” and moving forward, regardless of whatever external circumstances would otherwise hold you back.