Stress At Home and How To Manage It

The Stress-free Marriage – Part 1

Safe Haven MarriageA good marriage is a stress-free, safe haven for both spouses. In its fold, both partners come to feel emotionally secure and emotionally stable.  They become physically, emotionally and cognitively connected to each other.  There is no challenge or difficulty that cannot be confronted and successfully managed together, as a couple.

In the safe haven of marriage, each spouse feels freer to be truly herself or himself.  Both partners learn to make adjustments to better fit their personality to the other, and over time these changes become almost effortless, are positively motivated, and are long-lasting.  Neither feels compelled to be significantly different from his or her true self.

When a marriage is emotionally secure for both partners, discrepancies in points of view do not cease to exist.  A safe marriage is not a marriage without disagreement.  It is a marriage where disagreement, when it occurs, is handled with fairness, mutual respect, and with an eye toward a mutually beneficial resolution.

Spouses that are in the habit of providing an emotionally safe environment for each other know how to externalize their problems in a way that does not make either spouse to be the problem.  They know that the problem is the problem, not each other.

Both partners learn to work on their significant issues together.  There is no problem of one spouse that does not automatically involve the other.  The partners come to embrace each other’s challenges as their own and are empowered to confront them together.  They know that two working together are stronger, safer and more effective than either working alone.

Two people can accomplish more than twice as much as one; they get a better return for their labor.  If one person falls, the other can reach out and help.  But people who are alone when they fall are in real trouble.  And on a cold night, two under the same blanket can gain warmth from each other.  But how can one be warm alone?  –Ecclesiastes 4:9-11.

For a variety of reasons, marriages can start out to be or become emotionally unsafe.  An unsafe marriage is one where both spouses co-create an emotional barrier that keeps them from being close to each other.  This barrier can be made of negative experiences, negative expectations, or negative assumptions about each other and about the relationship. Read more

Anxiety: Fear Turned Inward

Joanne Weidman, MS, MFTLet’s say on more days than not you feel pretty good about yourself and how you do in most areas of your life. Then one day, you struggle, perhaps at work, perhaps under pressure from a boss who expects more of you at times than you feel capable of achieving. The stress can be overwhelming. On the way home that day the elevator feels particularly confining and the freeway traffic is more irritating than usual, in part because when it stops you feel trapped too far from the next exit. You can’t sleep that night because your heart races and your thoughts are dominated by efforts to figure our out how to solve the problem that came down earlier in the day.

Each of these symptoms can be understood within the broad category of what we call “anxiety.” We throw the word around a lot, but what does it really mean in a psychological sense? Anxiety means more than just the symptoms you feel, though that list is long, including phobias (ex: afraid of flying, elevators, or leaving the house), obsessive-compulsive thoughts and behaviors (ex: counting steps, hand washing), physiological reactions (ex: feeling flushed, racing heart, sweating, dizziness, difficulty sleeping), generic fears (of losing control or going crazy), performance, social and separation anxieties, and the granddaddy of them all, post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. Different people are inclined to express their anxiety in different ways and to vastly different degrees.

Some understand anxiety symptoms as fear turned inward. But your anxiety thinks it’s being your friend by trying to keep you safe — anxiety issues are all about feeling in control. Some anxieties are what we would call situational, such as a mandatory performance or project, the evaluation of which is out of your control. Some anxiety we would consider chronic. This is common for those who have had neglect or abuse in their lives, and some of this may be unconscious, meaning that sometimes you’re not even sure what you’re frightened about that’s causing the anxiety symptoms. This is especially distressful, because how can you take control of a situation when you aren’t even sure what it’s about?

Your distress means that you are struggling alone, but you don’t have to. Therapy can help you identify your anxiety triggers and acknowledge anxiety’s good intentions to protect you. You and your therapist can identify real solutions for managing or eliminating it.

Guest post by Joanne Weidman, M.S., M.F.T.

The 4 Sources of Stress

Sources of stressStress, the reaction that mobilizes our resources against a potential danger (real or perceived), can be produced by an almost infinite variety of single triggers.  This variety is produced by the many different situations that can cause stress, in addition to the individual differences among individuals in their perceptions of these triggers.  It is not uncommon to see a threat where someone else may see an opportunity or a challenge, and vice versa.  For ease of understanding, stress triggers may be classified into four major sources, which in turn can be further combined into two categories.  The principal categories are: physical stressors and psychological stressors.

Physical stressors impinge upon the five senses and pertain to the domain of the tangible and concrete. These are stress triggers that we can see, hear, touch, smell or taste.  A car coming straight at us on the sidewalk is a real, tangible and imminent physical threat, which must and does trigger an immediate stress reaction.  We respond to this physical threat by stepping out of the way, instinctively and without giving it much thought.  Included in the physical stressors is pain, which is the body’s reaction to a noxious agent that attacks its structure.  Thus, illness, which frequently produces pain, is considered primarily as a physical stressor, rather than psychological.  However, and it’s a big caveat, it would be a mistake to consider illness a purely physical stressor, as illness (especially if accompanied by pain) has a way of affecting the mind by producing negative thinking, negative self-appraisal, hopelessness, mental fatigue and other effects on the person’s spirit, attitude and worldview.

Psychological stressors are the most complex and perhaps the most frequent type of stressors we encounter in our daily lives.  To understand psychological stressors it is important to remember that they can fall into two distinct categories: real or perceived. Real psychological stressors are produced by the perception of an emotional danger or threat, in other words by a concern over something that is based on reality and does or may objectively occur. An example of this may be an impending relationship breakup.  Perceived psychological stressors are produced by the same mechanism, and are a concern over events or situations that are often based on reality but may be exaggerated or may in fact never occur. An example of the latter may be a worry or concern over an unnamed threat that may keep us from being able to take an elevator, or ride in an aircraft.

To summarize, the four principal sources of stress may be grouped as follows:

  1. Environmental
    • Includes physical stressors that impinge upon the five senses, such as weather, traffic, noise, pollution, disturbing images.
  2. Social
    • Includes psychological stressors triggered when demands are made on our time, attention and skills, such as in job interviews, public speaking, work presentations, interpersonal conflict, competing priorities, financial problems, and loss of relationships and loved ones.
  3. Physiological
    • Includes physical stressors that are produced at various stages in our life, such as during growth spurts in adolescence, menopause, lack of exercise, poor nutrition  insufficient sleep, illness, injuries, and aging.
    • Included in this category is also the physical stress produced by psychological stressors, which produce muscle tension, headaches, stomach upsets, anxiety attacks, and bouts of depression.
  4. Cognitive-emotional
    • The principal source of this type of stress is our own thoughts. Our brain interprets changes in our environment and body and conducts an automatic “threat assessment” to decide whether a danger is present and thus mobilize the body’s defenses.  The good functioning, or poor functioning of our threat assessment mechanism determines whether we become alarmed appropriately or inappropriately, and whether to remain stressed or relax.

In all cases, the stress reaction and the response that follows begins with our ability to correctly assess the situation and to estimate danger. Stress researchers Lazarus and Folkman (1984) were the first to point out that stress begins with our appraisal of a situation. Instinctively, we first ask ourselves how dangerous or difficult a situation is and what resources we have at our disposal to cope with it.  Self-confident individuals are more likely to conclude that, although the situation may be serious, they have what it takes to face it.  Less confident individuals tend to conclude that the same situation requires resources that they either do not have or that they have in insufficient measure.

The stress response of fight, flight or freeze is directly correlated to our ability to interpret the danger correctly, and to select the best course of action that produces the wanted results.  In some case, we will be able to eliminate the stressor (turn the source of noise off), in others we may simply need to distance ourselves from the stressor (flight response), and in some other cases it will be appropriate to do nothing and let the situation resolve itself (the freeze response).  What we choose to do largely depends on our assessment of available resources: making the correct appraisal of what we are capable of can be the difference between the right response and the wrong one.

The Seasonal Stress Buster

Oh, for the good old days when people would stop Christmas shopping when they ran out of money. –Author Unknown

I’m not sure where this year has gone, but all of a sudden Christmas is here. With so much going on at this time of year it’s quite common to feel stressed and rushed off our feet. If you’re juggling a million different things, here’s a brilliant time management technique which might help.

I wish I could say that I thought of this technique myself, but must give credit to Time Management guru Mark Forster. According to Mark, we work much more effectively when we do things in short, concentrated bursts. This is definitely true for me. If I sit down at my computer to check emails I’m very likely to still be there an hour later. But if I know I’ve only got 15 minutes to do the task I’ll be considerably more productive.

So, using this principle, if you’ve got several jobs to do, write them down and assign each one a time limit (from 5 – 30 minutes). Set a kitchen timer, start the first task and when the timer goes you must stop and go onto the next one. Again set the timer for the allotted time, work on the task until the timer goes off and move on to the next. Don’t worry if the task isn’t finished; you can go back to the beginning once you’ve worked your way through the list.

This is the best time management technique I know and it works equally well when you have a big chunky job to do. Get stuck into the job for half an hour, have a break/do something else for ten minutes, then go back to it.

At this time of year, with so many demands on our time, this technique will help you to get everything done in the shortest time — leaving you more time to enjoy the seasonal activities.

2012 has been an unusually challenging year for many of us and so as it draws to a close I wish you a healthy and Happy Christmas and all good things in the New Year.

Annabel Sutton
ICF Professional Certified Coach
Author of 52 Ways to Transform Your Life

Connect with Annabel on LinkedIn: http://uk.linkedin.com/in/annabelsutton. Book a FREE Coaching Consultation with Annabel. Find out more about Life Coaching.

Worst Stress Relievers: Pain Medication

Who is to say for sure how much pain I have right now, I had yesterday morning, or will have this afternoon?   Only I can know for sure the pain I am feeling—and I can lie, to myself and to others.  Herein lies the greatest challenge of addiction to pain medication. There is no objective measuring tool for pain. The best we can do is to ask the person to rate his or her own pain on a scale of 1 to 10, with all the accuracy that can be expected from such a subjective assessment, which isn’t very much because pain can always feel more intense than it actually is, physically or sometimes just psychologically.

The sad result of the greater availability of pain medication, its greater potency, the beneficial effects felt by the individual by taking what amounts to a legal hit of morphine is an ever increasing number of people who are dying from abusing or misusing pain medication.  Among some groups, deaths from prescription drug overdoses are more than ten times higher than they were in the late 1960s. These are the results of an age-period-cohort analysis using data from the US Vital Statistics and the US Census, available online.

In the absence of significant pain, prescription painkillers are ingested because of their very powerful relaxing effects on the central nervous system and for the sensations of well-being that characterize their action. The presence of hydrocodone, which is the equivalent of synthetic opium, in these drugs makes them highly addictive. The first signs of a painkiller overdose include loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, sweating, and confusion or weakness. Later symptoms may include pain in the upper stomach, dark urine, and yellowing of the skin or the whites of the eyes. Overdose symptoms may also include extreme drowsiness, pinpoint pupils, cold and clammy skin, muscle weakness, fainting, weak pulse, slow heart rate, coma, blue lips, shallow breathing, or no breathing.

The rapid increase in mortality due to accidental poisoning that has been observed since 2000 is almost tenfold for whites and threefold for blacks over the study period. This appears to result at least in part from the coming of age of baby boomers who, as they age, are becoming addicted to prescription medications, most especially pain killers. The majority of prescription drug abuse involves painkillers, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. In the US, Vicodin (containing acetaminophen and hydrocodone) is the most commonly abused prescription drug.

The greatest proportion of overdoses appears to occur in people in their 40s and 50s. While in 1968 about one per 100,000 white women in their early 50s died from accidental poisoning, the number has risen to 15 per 100,000 in 2007. Among black women of the same age, accidental poisoning deaths increased from about two per 100,000 to almost 17 per 100,000.

What’s the fix for this nationwide epidemic?  In the absence of an objective pain measure, it is hard to imagine how anyone can take exception to the screams of pain that can come from someone who is in the process of becoming addicted to pain medication, or already is.  Many doctors have taken the no-hassle course of prescribing, rather than questioning the veracity of the patient’s pain.  Many other medical practitioners, such as dentists and surgeons, have taken to dispensing large quantities of “samples” to patients who have had even the simplest procedure, “just in case you feel any pain.”  Of course, the patient takes the stuff, the pain (if any) goes away, and the powerful effects of the drug go to work by inducing a high that feels incredibly good. At this point, and in many sad cases, only a few short steps separate the patient from the addict.

More recently, the DEA has cracked down on pharmacies and doctors, with the intent of reducing the supply of these medications. More needs to be done to stop the flow, but also and most especially to educate the public on the potential addictive nature of these substances. They do work extremely well against pain, but at what cost?

Fear and Attraction: Racial Stress

The-Pirates-AttackThe coastal populations of Mediterranean countries lived for decades, stretching into centuries, with the fear of pirates, the strange invaders suddenly appearing from the sea.  Inhabitants of regions bordering with sparsely settled or frontier territories lived in fear of the sudden appearance of “barbarians” or “savages,” variously labeled according to time and locale.  With the increased sameness of living conditions brought on by progress and technological advance, there now remain far fewer parts of the world where the fear of strange invaders is part of daily life.  But is the fear of people that are unlike us still in the background, perhaps below the threshold of full awareness, but active nonetheless in driving our reactions, and sometimes our prejudice and discrimination?

The Strange Attraction of the Strange

barbarians-at-the-gatesWithout attempting a comprehensive definition of racial diversity, at a very minimum, physical differences in appearance often appear to be the first (and sometimes the only) trigger of a psychological defense mechanism.  In most human beings, there appears to be an innate drive to self-preservation that may be activated in the presence of individuals we may not recognize as familiar to us.

Often, there appears to be an instinctive and uncontrollable stress reaction that mobilizes our psychological, and at times also physical defenses against what we perceive as a possible threat from another human being.  This is by no means a new phenomenon.  As the coastal villagers and the frontier dwellers, we know that our own survival depends on being able to accurately assess any potential threat to ourselves and to our families and possessions, and take the most appropriate action (fight, flee or do something else) toward self-protection.

Clearly, not everyone we meet who is not like us is automatically a physical or psychological threat to our well-being.  Indeed, even those who appear to be exactly like us, in race, language, culture and background, may turn out to be a severe threat.  In ensuring survival, it pays to be alert to any potential danger. As President Reagan once put, Trust But Verify is a wise policy to live by, in politics but also in business and in interpersonal relations.

In some ways, we are attracted to the strange and the unfamiliar.  Our attention is automatically directed to it, out of simple curiosity, concern or fear.  When a different physical appearance is thrown in the mix, the perceived threat may be magnified by real or imaginary thoughts of danger and risk.  Paradoxically, there is also a part of us that is attracted to risky or dangerous situations, which does nothing to simplify the cacophony of feelings that are triggered by the sudden appearance in our midst of the strange and the mysterious.

A Universal Phenomenon

racially-diverse-babiesIt appears that no particular group of human beings is immune to this type of consideration when coming in contact with strangers.  There is certainly also an economic factor that plays a role, as when the need to defend one’s income or property, ends up taking precedence over solidarity and cooperation with the stranger.  It has been observed that people down on their luck, destitute, physically ill, or in need of urgent help seem to exhibit a tendency to be far less discriminating or threatened by the stranger than those who, by their own definition, may have a lot more to lose in such encounters.  Thankfully, human solidarity seems to shed at least part of its suspicions and reservations in the face of natural disasters or man-made calamities.  There are indeed moments in time when we realize that we are all humans, that we share a common identity, and that we inhabit this small planet together, if not always at peace with each other.

Awareness Normalizes

Our God-given capacity to muster our defenses against potential threats is a powerful asset, whose importance should not be overlooked even in a world where physical danger has been greatly diminished (though certainly not eliminated) by the safeguards of civilization.  Imagine would it would be like to automatically and unthinkingly assume that everyone we meet is friendly, honest, kind and has our best interest at heart.  Unrealistic, naive?  Yes, and I would also say, definitely dangerous to our personal and collective well-being.

Being aware that we possess the gift of discriminating between the real and the perceived, the dangerous and the annoying, the severe and the trivial can help us realize that it is the way we normally are and to make the best use of it.  Racial discrimination may be caused by an overuse of this important asset.  To automatically assume that anyone not like us (by various definitions) is a dangerous threat is clearly discriminatory, exaggerated and ultimately detrimental to our own well-being.  We are societal beings, by nature, and isolating ourselves from large swatches of humanity may be an attempt at self-defense, but one that clearly exceeds the intent and the practice of reasonable threat assessment. Unreasonable fear and loneliness often travel together.

Is Time a Ferrari or a Donkey Cart?

Time can be, and indeed is, for many people a source of stress. The perception of time or the use we make of the time we have can present a challenge to the mind and be causes of emotional distress. At times, and for some people, time flies by Ferrari-fast. For others, it seems to inch forward in fits and starts, perhaps more akin to the pace of a reluctant donkey.

The Perception of Time

timeimage Rationally, we understand that time passes at a substantially fixed pace with no perceptible variation. The earth rotates around the sun at a precise speed, given or take a few mph’s, and the sun in turn moves around the galaxy at an equally precise speed, give or take a few kmh’s. Our whole universe expands at a measurable rate, as scientists who have been able to measure it tell us. Since the invention of clocks, humans have acquired the ability to slice daylight and nighttime intro those discrete units of measure we call hours. The calendar helps us group hours into days, months, weeks and years. Humans have also agreed among themselves that years can be grouped into decades, centuries and millennia. And that’s how we generally understand, rationally, the passage of time as an objective and measurable phenomenon.

How we perceive the passing of time, however, ends up being far more subjective and somewhat unpredictable. Certain slices of time can appear to one individual to be passing more slowly than for another. Within our own personal experience, there are hours or days or longer periods in which time seems to speed up (especially when we are experiencing something pleasurable), and others in which it seems to slow down (think dentist chair). Excluding any chemical influence that may alter our perception (e.g., medication, alcohol or other artificial or natural mind-altering substances), these different “speeds” of time can indeed be puzzling and seemingly without explanation. In fact, these perceptions can and do induce stress and anxiety about having too little time, or boredom and restlessness about having too much of it. What is happening to the objectivity and predictability of time when it is perceived through our emotions?

The Emotion of Time

Age and one’s mental and emotional state appear to have something to do with the emotional perception of time. Most people recall feeling that time passed very slowly in their childhood and, indeed, young people confirm that, for them, time tends to be perceived as crawling along. Conversely, older people are often heard complaining that time seems to zip along very fast and that, “it seems like yesterday that I was having such and such” or, “where is the day-week-month-year gone? It’s already Christmas!”

In times of distress, especially if traumatic events are occurring, we might perceive every second of time with heightened sharpness, which can contribute to the perception that “time stands still” when something dramatic is happening. The opposite is produced by very positive feelings of pleasure and enjoyment, that are often said to be “way too short” in duration. Indeed, a week’s vacation can go by in just a flash (perception-wise), whereas a week in school or at work may seem like it’s never going to end. Both last exactly one week, by the way.

The Best Way To Handle Time

The best approach to time, emotionally, is to just let it pass. Paying too much attention to the passing of time is counterproductive. In fact, it can be anxiety-provoking and, in addition, take us either too far forward or too far back and render us unable to enjoy the moment.

Thought stopping, a congitive-behavioral technique, can help in this respect. Whenever we catch ourselves paying too much attention to the passing of time (or rather, to its perceived speed), we can say, “stop!” to our thoughts and divert our attention elsewhere. With practice, we may not completely eliminate our preoccupation with time, but we can minimize its impact on our ability to enjoy the present—which is, as a matter of fact, all that we have to enjoy.

Stress and the Typical Male

typical-male Although all men are fully capable of experiencing the full range of human emotions and can face a variety of challenges, certain issues can occur more frequently in men than they do in women. Among the challenges that occur more frequently in men, the most common are self-medication through the use of alcohol or other substances, anger management, impulse control, and problems with emotional and sexual intimacy.

For many men, the healthy expression of stressful negative feelings can be a challenge. The typical male relies very heavily on a “logical or rational” approach to most emotional or psychological issues. Often from childhood, men have been accustomed to think that emotional vulnerability equals weakness and that it should be avoided as much as possible. Given this mindset, it is understandable that for many men it is objectively difficult to share with others how they are truly feeling. For some, it may even be difficult to read their own emotions correctly, to know for themselves how they are really feeling about certain issues. Issues arise that may require an adjustment of these beliefs and attitudes, as for example in the inability to connect, to open up in relationships, or in knowing how to be sensitive.

When this complex set of stress-inducing emotions are routinely avoided, repressed or denied, some problematic behaviors can result. Mismanaged emotions and feelings often produce addictions, compulsions, and avoidance. One of the most common ways of expressing hurt or emotional pain is anger; for other men, working longer hours helps them avoid relationship challenges; for others, superficial intimacy takes the place of genuine connection; other men resort to addictive substances and compulsive behaviors to “take the edge off” or avoid the full experience of negative feelings.

There are many counselors who specialize in working with men’s issues. The right counselor can help identify and work through avoidance, repression and denial in a way that appeals to men’s desire to approach issues in a logical, rational and goal-oriented way, while providing guidance toward learning about the values and benefits of emotional intelligence.

Allostatic Load: Stress Upon Stress

Chronic stress is a potentially lethal condition that is characterized by long duration and effect accumulation. Humans respond to stressors such as physical or perceived danger, an infection, or a crowded and noisy environment, by initiating a complex biopsychosocial adaptation and coping response. This response is initiated by the sympathetic nervous system and leads to release of excitatory stress hormones (the catecholamines) and glucocorticoids from the adrenal cortex (the well-known adrenaline rush).

The objective of this rapid physical mobilization of the body’s resources is to engage with the stressor, resolve it and return to a more normal state of alertness. Regaining normal arousal levels through a response and adaptation to the stressor is called allostasis. A highly stressed state is meant to be temporary and to subside naturally when the challenge has passed.

There is never a shortage of situations that trigger the stress reaction, at work or at home. All of us face the not too uncommon challenge of having to cope with more than one stressor at once or a series of stressors that happen within a relative short time. Most individuals can cope with this type of demands and are able to regain allostasis once the stressor or stressors have been taken care of or have taken care of themselves.

When individuals are not able to cope effectively with the stressor and cannot regain allostasis, this creates an accumulation of allostatic load. In this situation, there is an incomplete return to the normal condition and a regaining of physical and emotional stability. In fact, a state of stress at relatively high levels becomes the “new normal.” Over many weeks, months, or even years, this exposure to elevated levels of stress hormones can produce allostatic overload, with predictably serious health consequences.

Type 1 Allostatic Load

If the physical and emotional energy required to meet the demands created by one’s cumulative allostatic load routinely exceeds the energy intake and what can be mobilized from one’s own resources, type 1 allostatic overload occurs.

Allostatic overload type 1 is characterized by a significant increases in the circulation of glucocorticoids in the bloodstream (and other hormones that regulate allostasis), which triggers physiological and behavioral changes. These changes refocus the individual from functioning at normal levels of stress in daily routines into a high-stress high-alert survival mode.

Type 2 Allostatic Load

If energy demands are not exceeded and the individual continues to take in or store as much or even more energy than he/she needs—perhaps as a result of stress-related food consumption, choice of a fat-rich diet, or metabolic imbalances (prediabetic state) that favor fat accumulation—then type 2 allostatic overload occurs.

Allostatic overload type 2 causes lesser but higher than normal levels of glucocorticoids (and other hormones that regulate allostasis), which do not trigger physiological and behavioral responses, in such a way the individual remains stuck in a situation of high allostatic load without resolution.

Allostatic Load and Its Consequences

Elderly people who have had a lifetime of sustained economic hardship can have a more rapid decline of physical and mental functioning.  Hypertension is often an indicator of job stress, particularly in factory workers, in other workers with repetitive jobs and time pressures, and in workers whose jobs were unstable due to financial and market conditions.

In certain societies, conflict and social instability have been found to increase illness and mortality. For example, cardiovascular disease was found to be a major contributor to the almost 40% increase in the death rate among Russian males in the social upheaval which followed the fall of Communism. High blood pressure causes atherosclerosis as well as increased risk for heart attacks.

Abdominal obesity is another stress-linked change, which is often a precursor to more serious illness such as diabetes. The immune system is also a likely target of psychosocial stress, increasing vulnerability to the common cold and other more serious infections.

Heed the Message, Don’t Shoot the Messenger

VirginIslandsNP_EN-US154535774The messages provided by the stress reaction that something is wrong, or dangerous, or simply requires our attention are often very powerful, even debilitating. Just think of the feeling we get in our gut (seat of the enteric nervous system) when something is not quite right. Even though we might not identify the threat right away, the stress signal activates our body’s defense almost instantaneously and we become fully alert. In the absence of a clearly identifiable threat, or upon identification of a threat that we cannot immediately escape, we may choose to treat stress itself as if it were the enemy. The common phrase, “I have too much stress” should in fact be restated as, “I have people, situations or circumstances that are an emotional, physical or mental threat to my well-being.”

Turning off the stress alert system is possible, especially with the use of powerful drugs or alcohol, at least for time. In fact, this amounts to unscrewing the warning lights on a dashboard so as not to be bothered by what they signal. The stress messenger conveys valuable information in the form of neural signals (mediated by the limbic system), sensations, and subjective feelings. The messenger does its job, the way it should, to ensure our survival. Nevertheless, the repeated stress signals may rise to a high and uncomfortable level of intensity, depending on the perceived dangerousness of the situation. That noxious feeling of being stressed is trying to give us a priority notification, to make sure that certain signals (which represent an important message) grab our full attention. Refusing to heed the signals of stress, or simply shutting them off or ignoring them, is not an appropriate response.

The best use we can make of stress messages is twofold:

  1. Use its intensity and the timing of its occurrence to become aware and acknowledge that a psychological or physical threat exists, and gauge its significance. For example, an immediate physical danger will elicit a more immediate and dramatic body reaction than a psychological threat that may occur in the future.
  2. Identify and address the cause of the stress reaction (which is usually accompanied by more or less severe anxiety) and focus our attention on it, with the aim of confronting, reducing or eliminating the stressor. For example, in a relationship that isn’t quite working the way it should the stress signal is the anxiety and worry over it, the stressor is that painful aspect of the relationship that needs to be confronted, reduced or eliminated.

In short, stress is the message, the stressor is its cause. It is much more productive to focus our efforts on the stressor, rather than just unscrew and throw out the red light bulb.

Mindfulness for Absolute Beginners

aaCarignano_SolferinoMindfulness meditation is the wonderfully effective relaxation technique that along with yoga, tantric meditation, mantra or transcendental meditation, has become an increasingly popular forms of stress management. The therapeutic value of meditation in producing positive effects on psychological well-being and ameliorating symptoms of a number of disorders has become widely studied and accepted. But, what is it and how does it work? Here is a primer for the absolute beginner, to start mindfulness relaxation today!

What Is It? The Way of Breath Awareness

Vipassanā (Pāli) or vipaśyanā (विपश्यना in the original Sanskrit) in the Buddhist tradition means insight into the true nature of reality. Vipassana practice, or insight meditation, makes use of breath to focus attention and to let go of quasi-obsessive analytical thinking, which can be very stressful. Breath is simply used to increase concentration. The focus on breath is a powerful way to redirect attention, because it is always readily available, is directly connected to the stress reaction, and is naturally rhythmic and repetitive. Mindfully redirecting attention to the breath when we feel particularly stressed reduces reactivity and provides a positive physiological feedback system that balances the responses of the nervous system.

How Does It Work? The Benefits of Open Awareness

Open awareness is the core objective of mindfulness meditation. The follo0wing are simple instructions to focus awareness on the breath and is the essence of the mindfulness technique (from Stress Management: A Comprehensive Guide to Wellness by E. A. Charlesworth—read the book review).

  1. Find a quiet place and time. If you prefer, set a timer for 20 to 40 minutes. Become comfortable in your chair, sitting with a relaxed but straight, erect posture that is balanced but not straining. Allow your hands to rest comfortably in your lap. Loosen any tight clothing that will restrict your stomach. Gently close your eyes.
  2. Simply allow your body to become still. Allow your shoulders, chest, and stomach to relax. Focus your attention on the feeling of your breathing. Begin by taking two or three deeper breaths from your diaphragm, letting the air flow all the way into your stomach, without any push or strain, and then flow gently back out again. Repeat these two or three deep breaths, noticing an increased sense of calm and relaxation as you breath in the clean, fresh air and breath out any sense of tension or stress.
  3. Now let your breathing find its own natural, comfortable rhythm and depth. Focus your attention on the feeling of your breath as it comes in at the tip of your nose, moves through the back of your throat, into your lower diaphragm, and back out again, letting your stomach rise and fall naturally with each breath.
  4. Allow your attention to stay focused on your breath and away from the noise, the thoughts, the feelings, the concerns that may usually fill your mind.
  5. As you continue, you will notice that the mind will become caught up in thoughts and feelings. It may become attached to noises or bodily sensations. You may find yourself remembering something from your past or thinking about the future. This is to be expected. This is the nature of the mind. If the thought or experience is particularly powerful, without self-judgment, simply observe the process of the mind. You might note to yourself the nature of the thought or experience: “worry,” “planning,” “pain,” “sound.” Then gently return your attention to the breath.
  6. And again, as you notice your mind wandering off, do not be critical of yourself. Understand that this is the nature of the mind—to become attached to daily concerns, to become attached to feelings, memories. If you find your mind becoming preoccupied with a thought, simply notice it, rather than pursuing it at this moment. Understand, without judging, that it is the habit of your mind to pursue the thought. When you notice this happening, simply return your attention to your breathing. See the thought as simply a thought, an activity that your mind is engaging in.
  7. When you are ready, gently bring your attention back just to the breath. Now bring your attention back into the space of your body and into the space of the room. Move around gently in the space of the chair. When you are ready, open your eyes and gently stretch out.

How Long and How Often? Practice Makes Perfect

Mindfulness meditation, like all things worth doing, requires a certain amount of effort and the setting aside of a certain amount of time. Ideally, 20 to 40 minutes once or twice per day, for at least two months. Daily practice produces the best results in training the mind to shift into a mindful state. Shorter periods of time of 5–10 minutes are very helpful in specific situations, when a quick relaxation is needed. Only practicing mindfulness meditation situationally, however, will work when you have learned the technique well. It may not be as effective in the beginning, when it may take more than 5-10 minutes to relax, particularly in moments of high anxiety or stress.

September 11

FlagRigger_EN-US1903695983Memory is learning. The persistence of memory helps us make sense of what has already happened, to hold on to the felt experience of happiness, accomplishment, mistake and pain, so that we can learn what to pursue more eagerly and what to avoid at all cost. Memory is the accumulation of life.

There are many ways of looking at September 11, 2001. We can replay the images of that day in our mind as we would watch a documentary. Many of us can do that, and examine the events as they unfolded from many different points of view. Or, we can re-experience the memories of those events as we would watch a horror movie. Many of us are still beset by the images and the sounds of that day, and are far from being able to just remember what happened. They remember and indeed also relive vividly all the emotions of that day.

911memorialDocumentary memories are transferred to another part of the brain, where they become archival items of experience. Unless they are intentionally recalled, they cause no special emotion. Indeed, the emotions associated with the original events are also memories, much like the sound track attached to a recording.

Traumatic memories never quite make it to the other side of the brain. No intentional recall is necessary, as they are ready to resurface at any moment, given the right trigger. These memories are intrusive, pervasive, they are the stuff of nightmares. The picture of a jetliner flying into one building, the second aircraft flying into its twin… Emotions are far from just a memory: we are back there, at that very moment, heart racing, sweat beads and all.

Freedom_Tower_NewAfter a traumatic event, persistent emotion-laden memories can help foster a syndrome, post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. The experience never quite goes into the archive. Bits and chunks of it just lie around, waiting to be re-experienced again and again. And so it is for many of our generation with 9/11, as it was for the prior one with the assassination of John or Robert Kennedy or Martin Luther King. Earlier than that it was Pearl Harbor, or the long horrors of the Great Depression.

Remembering what we lost that day of September, 10 years ago today—people, buildings, and peace. Will we, who lived through that day, ever truly be able to watch the Towers come down—as a documentary?

Just 14 of the Many Facets of Stress

aaTintoretto_SanGiorgioDragoMRI scans have revealed that children of depressed mothers have a larger amygdala, a part of the brain associated with emotional responses, researchers from the University of Montreal explained in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

A new study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine reveals that the World Trade Center attacks affected the health of the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) resulting in more post-9/11 retirements than expected.

Researchers in the Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI) at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Medicine have uncovered a mechanism by which stress increases food drive in rats.

Do you run when you should stay? Are you afraid of all the wrong things? An enzyme deficiency might be to blame, reveals new research in mice by scientists at the University of Southern California.

Constant bitterness can make a person ill, according to Concordia University researchers who have examined the relationship between failure, bitterness and quality of life.

Listening to music or sessions with trained music therapists may benefit cancer patients. Music can reduce anxiety, and may also have positive effects on mood, pain and quality of life, a new Cochrane Systematic Review shows.

Researchers at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital have found that those who believe in a benevolent God tend to worry less and be more tolerant of life’s uncertainties than those who believe in an indifferent or punishing God.

Knowing the right way to handle stress in the classroom and on the sports field can make the difference between success and failure for the millions of students going back to school this fall, new University of Chicago research shows.

An 8-week course of stress-reducing Transcendental Meditation resulted in a 50% reduction in PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) symptoms among Iraq/Afghanistan veterans, researchers reported in Military Medicine. The pilot study involved five veterans aged 25 to 40 years with PTSD symptoms – they had all served between 10 and 24 months and had been involved in moderate or heavy moderate combat.

When parents fight, infants are likely to lose sleep, researchers report. "We know that marital problems have an impact on child functioning, and we know that sleep is a big problem for parents," said Jenae M. Neiderhiser, professor of psychology, Penn State. New parents often report sleep as being the most problematic of their child’s behavior.

By helping people express their emotions, music therapy, when combined with standard care, appears to be an effective treatment for depression, at least in the short term, said researchers from the University of Jyväskylä in Finland who write about their findings in the August issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry.

Young adults whose mothers experienced psychological trauma during their pregnancies show signs of accelerated aging, a UC Irvine-led study found. The researchers discovered that this prenatal exposure to stress affected the development of chromosome regions that control cell aging processes.

A child who has a psychological adversity or a mental disorder that starts during childhood has a higher chance of developing a long-term (chronic) physical condition later on, researchers from the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand reported in Archives of General Psychiatry. The authors explain that child abuse has been linked to a higher chance of adverse physical health outcomes.

Individuals with anxiety-related symptoms who self-medicate with drugs or alcohol have a higher risk of having a substance abuse problem and social phobia, researchers from the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada, revealed in Archives of General Psychiatry.

Emotional Safety, Stress and Health

Many individuals who suffer from chronic stress report being “on edge” or “keyed up” most of the time. This near-constant state of arousal is reported at times when the person should be at rest, i.e. during normal sleeping hours, while relaxing with family or friends, or even while eating or taking a shower. Certain features appear to be common to most people who share this emotional state. Let’s look at a few of the most important ones.

Emotional Stress Often Translates Into Physical Symptoms

In most instances, psychological stress caused by real adversities or by the anticipation of adversity causes the body to react in an attempt to fight the stressor, flee from it or shut it off and away from immediate consciousness. In the process of taking these defensive measures, muscles tense, the cardiocirculatory system kicks into high gear, and many non-indispensible systems (such as the digestive and sexual systems) shut down or significantly slow their functioning. Since the stressor is often non-physical in nature, this bodily mobilization of resources never quite finds its target. Over time this may wear down certain organs of the body, which begin to manifest signs of illness. High blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome, erectile dysfunction, muscle spams or pain, ulcerative colitis are but a few of the more or less serious physical ailments that can be directly associated with chronic anxiety and stress.

Emotional Stress Can Contribute to Mental Disorders

Frequent stress has an augmenting and, some say, even causative effect on poor mental health. In the presence of serious stressors, such as the loss of a home or a job, or a serious physical illness, or the loss of a significant relationship, many people develop symptoms that are typical of certain mental disorders. It is debatable whether the mental disorder comes first and the stress comes next, or vice versa, but regardless of whether the chicken comes before the egg, the results can be quite the same. A serious stressor may provoke depressive symptoms or acute stress disorder. What makes a difference is the individual’s proneness to manifest a psychological disturbance either in an “externalizing” manner, e.g. with visible signs of anxiety, or in an “internalizing” manner, e.g. with the shutdown of activity that is typical of depression.

Taking the other side of the equation, people who already suffer from an anxiety disorder or a depressive disorder may feel that their symptoms are aggravated by another stressor added on top of the ones they have experienced in the past. Anxious individuals will feel less prepared to meet the new psychological challenge, and even the mere anticipation of a new threat may be sufficient to produce a panic attack. Depressed individuals, who also may feel that their personal resources are inadequate to cope with a new challenge, may not show any signs of panic or heightened anxiety and will instead further retreat into the dark recesses of depression.

Emotional Stress Is Fear Under Another Name

Psychological stressors share a common characteristic: they are caused by generally unwanted and often unexpected events or situations. Regardless of their origin, negative stressors produce a reaction of surprise and, in most cases, fear. Since negative consequences usually accompany the arrival of a stressor, and since most people are quite capable of predicting a whole range of possible negative outcomes resulting from a stressful event or situation, fear (often masking as anxiety or even anger) is the naturally occurring and logical emotion. Even in the classic case of a positive stressor such as winning the lottery, fear is not too far behind the initial moment of wild elation. Even the arrival of a large sum of money can produce fears of its loss even before the unexpected windfall lands on the lucky winner’s bank account. Stories of big winnings have often culminated in poor choices, reckless decisions, broken relationships, and ultimate unhappiness.

Regardless of its origin, a significant stressor may produce quite a significant state of perceived danger. Many people feel that they can meet the challenge, but many others may not feel up to the task because of low self-esteem, a personal history of negative outcomes, low resilience, or a pessimistic outlook on life. A feeling of emotional safety is a protective condition that helps us make better decisions, enhances our judgment, and is generally good for our physical health. Conversely, the lack of emotional safety (which may range from a mild state of anxiety to the perception that a catastrophic event is about to occur) may be conducive to poor decision making, errors in judgment, inefficient allocation of personal resources or lack of adequate self-care, and may be linked to a higher probability of physical illness.

How To Tame Fear and Fight Chronic Stress

Emotional safety is one of the ingredients of good mental and physical health that, especially nowadays, appears to be in especially short supply.  How can it be increased? A good place to start is by developing better insight into our situation. Insight is the awareness not only of the content of our worries and stressors (“what” makes us feel stressed), but also of the process (the “how”) by which we attempt to manage or cope with the situation. In many cases, our coping attempts are so automatic and out of awareness that they happen without our direct control. Insight into the process can change this. There is a significant reservoir of power and energy that can be tapped by the simple act of self-observation. It is the ability to say not only, “I can’t believe this is happening to me,” but also and at the same time to be able to say, “and just look at how I am handling this right now.”

Insight into the process of coping leads to one very important moment of choice. Being able to ask the question, “Is this way of (over)reacting the only option I have right now?” constitutes a tremendous step forward from a wholly automated and fear-driven response. While it is possible that in the moment no other reaction may be possible except anxiety or depressive thoughts, the presence of insight into the process can help come up with options and alternative ways of handling the stressor. This sets up the vital, and perhaps best, way to cope with the unexpected: an initial automatic and spontaneous reaction to a stressor (which may be physical and psychological in nature, entirely human and to be expected), followed by a more intentional and not so automatic response that comes from the ability to choose between several available options.

Worst Stress Relievers: Owning Guns

SeattleSunset_EN-US1535293454Stressed by the danger of a home intrusion? We may be tempted to purchase a gun to feel safer and relieve this type of stress. The remedy, however, has its own problems. Statistics have shown consistently that guns cause more deaths to their owners and their family members than to would-be intruders. The danger for owners and their families comes from several factors: an increased risk of injury and death in domestic violence situations; a higher rate of successful suicide; an increased likelihood of accidental injury; and a rise in the rate of homicides.

In particular, the risk of successful suicide attempts is not to be underestimated: a self-inflicted gunshot is the leading cause of death among gun owners in the initial years immediately following gun purchase. In an article published by The Washington Post, the authors report that out of 395 deaths in homes where guns were present, there were 333 cases of suicide, 41 cases of domestic violence homicide, and 12 accidents. Only 9 cases were shootings of an intruder.

Guns are the most commonly used weapon in over 65% of domestic homicides. When a couple owns a gun, the risk of partner-on-partner homicide is five times as great. Three times as many women are killed in homes where a gun is present than where no such weapon was available. Children fare no better: 5,285 American children were killed by gunshots according to the 2005 data published by the Centers for Disease Control. During the same year, no child was killed in Japan, 19 were killed in the UK, 57 in Germany, 109 in France, and 153 in Canada.

It is fair to say that guns, which in theory are acquired to increase safety, vastly increase the risk of serious injury or death to their owners and their families. Outside the home, guns increase the frequency and seriousness of crime rates, as well as increase the risk of injury and death among crime perpetrators and their victims. It is also well-known that gun-related violence raises health care utilization and costs, criminal justice system expenditures, higher costs to taxpayers and for insurance premiums. No one will argue the point that gun-related violence produces a legacy of grief and hardship.