Monday, April 11, 2011

Life Happens -- But what about the stress it generates?

Feeling overwhelmed happens to all of us. For some of us it’s occasional, for others it seems like a way of life. The causes can range from relationship problems to chronic health concerns like infertility or cancer, with hectic lifestyles usually weighing in with their share of stress. So what to do when life is filled with just too much pressure?

As I’ve counseled people over the years, the one thing I’ve learned is that troubles arise from a whole variety of complex situations. Being able to be as clear as possible about the source of stress can go a long way toward getting it under control. And, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s likely that there’s more than one source of stress to contend with. Many people find it’s helpful to make a list of what is stressing them out, and then putting that list in some order, with the most stressful situations as the top, working down to the least stressful ones at the bottom. As you review your list, very likely you’re saying “No wonder I feel overwhelmed!” And just that admission can go a long way toward helping you feel less crazy and, hopefully, more ready to take the proverbial bull by the horns and work on the issues like a skillful matador.

So, once you’ve named your troubles, another step is to think through the resources you have available to grapple with them. Are loved ones available to help in any way? If they’re part of your stress, are they feeling troubled enough that they’d cooperate in seeking some relief? Could you brainstorm with a good friend who has your best interests at heart? Is your religious leader someone who might help you sort through some of the challenges you’re facing? Would it be a good idea to see your family doctor, either for relief from physical symptoms or for a referral to a specialist? Could a counselor be helpful? In my recent book When You're Not Expecting, as well as in earlier blogs, I provide information on how to find an appropriate therapist, including ways of doing this without a significant outlay of money.

So, now that you have your list of stressors, as well as a list of resources, what’s next? I’m a great believer that success breeds success, so unless you are feeling completely unglued by the issues at the top of your list, my first suggestion would be to tackle two items toward the bottom of your list. These should be items that are troublesome and irritating but, at the same time, capable of showing some improvement. Do one at a time, involve friends, loved ones, or others if they’re willing, and hopefully in a week or two you’ve been able to calm down some troubling issues and feel some mastery over them. Notice, I didn’t say you’d removed them, because some sources of stress aren’t removable so much as they are improvable. Now, keep an eye on these lesser troubles (or ask someone’s help in monitoring them so they stay stable), and go to the middle of your list. Choose one issue there, figure out what resources are available to call on for help, emotional strength, financial assistance or whatever, and make a plan to address this problem.

• What does it mean to make a plan? The most important thing will be to identify what your goal is. (What changes do you want to see? Who needs to make these changes? What changes will you need to make? When will you know you have reached your goal?) You also need to ask yourself if your goal is realistic; if it isn’t, then you’re setting yourself up for feelings of failure and frustration. A goal isn’t necessarily a full solution to the problem if that’s not realistic; it can be a change in the problem that makes it more bearable. Just remember that every change you are able to make lightens your load emotionally and gives you more energy to give to other problems on your list.

• Another important component of a plan is a timeline. Don’t ask too much of yourself or others too soon. Remember, this issue took some time to develop, and it’s going to take some time to unravel it. So try to set a realistic timeline, and be prepared to revise it to a faster or a slower pace depending on how your change efforts are working.

• Pause from time to time and pat yourself (and others) on the back for the progress being made. Even little changes deserve attention, encouragement, and ongoing support.

• It’s a good idea to revisit your goal and to reassess whether it remains as realistic as you initially hoped. By now you’ve had a chance to try out various strategies, engage the cooperation of others, and see how committed others are to change. If you decide your original goal needs to be redefined, fine. You’ll base your new goal on new information and behavior, so hopefully you’ll have a better chance of reaching that goal.

• When you believe you have moved as far as possible toward achieving your (perhaps revised) goal, it’s time to decide what needs to happen so that there’s no (or as little as possible) backsliding away from the changes that have occurred. Maintaining these changes may take some energy, but hopefully some of this energy can be supplied by others who have cooperated in making the changes.

• And now it’s time to move higher on your list…

Why didn’t we start here in the first place? For one thing, now you’ve had some practice in problem solving AND you’ve had some successes AND you have fewer problems on your list AND perhaps you already are feeling less overwhelmed. In short, you’ve reached some goals, involved some resources, begun to feel as if change is possible, and hopefully have the energy to take on a tougher problem. So what will be different as you tackle a #1 or a #2 problem on your list? Probably its difficulty.

Simply by virtue of having risen to the top of your list, this is a compelling problem. It seems to you as if it interferes with your capacity to get on with your life. It probably is something that involves other people in some way. And, very possibly, it has resisted earlier efforts to bring about change. So here is where you’ll want to give yourself some “subgoals” rather than just the one big goal of erasing the problem or reducing it considerably.

So, watch out for next week’s blog, when I’ll take on the challenge of problems at the top of your list. In the mean time, how about trying out this blog’s strategies on a stressor or two at the bottom of your list? That way, you’ll already be polishing your problem solving skills and hopefully reducing those feelings of being overwhelmed. Sure, life happens. But you can play a role in steering clear of the worst potholes by strengthening your resilience! Tune in next week….

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