Getting better is the goal of every stress management program… and every other program, plan, treatment, intervention we may choose to undertake. But what does getting better mean? Are there some specific characteristics to recovery that would clearly indicate that we have succeeded? These important questions, for one reason or another, often are either not asked or not fully replied to, leaving us wondering where all that effort went and whether it was really worth our time and investment.
The Meaning of Not Doing Well
Before we attempt to define the specifics of getting better, let’s clarify the characteristics of not doing well. In the case of chronic stress, two criteria can be used to reliably define its severity: subjective distress and level of functioning. The first, subjective distress, indicates how much we are bothered by the condition. Chronic stress can produce bothersome physical symptoms (gastrointestinal problems, fibromyalgia, skin rashes, headaches) and distressing psychological problems (irritability, anger, sleeplessness, poor concentration, memory loss). When these signs appear, it can be said that an individual’s subjective distress has risen to levels that go beyond just feeling pressured and have escalated to affecting multiple aspects of the mind and the body.
The second major indicator, level of functioning, can be gauged by examining personal productivity, balance between work and family life, quality of significant close relationships, and social connectivity. When problems appear in these areas, ranging from interpersonal difficulties to the inability to keep a consistent work schedule or to take care of tasks and chores that could be previously accomplished, one’s level of functioning is said to be impaired. Impairment of functioning can be somewhat of a subjective measure, and for this reason it is often helpful to compare our own perception of how well we are functioning under severe stress to the perception of those around us, as they may be able to give us a more balanced assessment.
As recently described by Dr. Marianne Farkas of the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation at Boston University at the Refocus on Recovery 2010 conference, getting better can generally be defined as, “the deeply personal and unique development of new meaning and purpose as one grows beyond the catastrophe… reclaiming a meaningful life… a long-term journey with many dimensions [which] include re-engaging in life, finding a niche or major role, developing secondary roles, reawakening hope, [and] developing a sense of purpose…”
In practical terms, this definition comes down to two essentials: the individual feels better (about meaning and purpose of life, hopefulness, and motivation) and functions better (by re-engaging in more meaningful and productive activities, and adding new roles and dimensions). Thus, the two hallmarks of feeling poorly, distress and impaired functioning, are both mitigated or reversed to fully express the reality that the person is indeed free of distress and capable of functioning at or near optimum levels.
Some indicators of having successfully overcome chronic stress:
- A return to prior levels of happiness, enjoyment of life, and positive outlook
- An increase in energy levels and the ability to apply energy toward productive activities
- The ability to manage personal resources in a way that takes into account the need to replenish them before reaching exhaustion, e.g. better nutrition, more regular sleep patterns
- A significant reduction or disappearance of the physical symptoms of stress, without the need for medication, alcohol, nicotine, or illegal substances
- The restoration or improvement in the quality of interpersonal connections
- A noticeable increase in self-esteem, feelings of well-being, a sense of empowerment
Using the two measures of well-being, distress and level of functioning, can be a quick and simple way of gauging different aspects of our life. Wherever distress is detected, or a stress reaction is taking place, there is an indication that something is not right and requires our attention. Likewise, detecting a reduced level of functioning at work, in leisure or in interpersonal relations should not be overlooked, as it indicates that our resources are dangerously depleted and must be restored.