Stress Management: A Comprehensive Guide to Wellness
By Edward A. Charlesworth, Ph.D., Ronald G. Nathan, Ph.D.
Have you ever wondered why some people seem to be comfortable in almost any situation? They seem calm and collected even when they make the most important decisions. They project a sense of quiet confidence and seem to have overcome the fears most of us associate with modern life.
Many of these people have felt the same anxiety that others feel, but they have cultivated ways of relaxing in the most difficult situations. Instead of focusing on the fears or anxieties of life, they view life as an opportunity for more than just coping. They see it as a challenge, but one to be enjoyed.
These are the winners in the game of life. There are signs that more and more people are enhancing their enjoyment of life and not just coping with the status quo. Men and women are the most adaptive creatures on the face of the earth. We can live in almost any environment, even in space and under the sea.
The people who are most likely to survive and succeed in this and future generations will be those who can find enjoyment in adapting to a rapidly changing world. Before we talk about the skills of the winners in life, let's talk about some of the approaches that have failed to work.
To help overcome excessive and chronic stress responses and to relieve feelings of being upright, many people turn to a variety of tranquilizing medications, narcotic drugs, and alcohol. These external agents have helped many through periods of trauma, but they do not modify the fight-or-flight response mechanism.
Over time, many users actually increase their stress by fighting the sedative side effects of the drugs in an effort to maintain alertness. Instead of increasing their internal control over stress, they become more and more dependent on drugs to offset its effects.
The Benefits of Wellness
Because of the shortcomings of drug therapy, much scientific research has been directed toward finding alternative means of stress management. From this work, a number of effective procedures have emerged. Some of these reach you ways to relax and gain control over stress, tension, and anxiety. Other techniques teach you how to change stressful attitudes, beliefs, and actions. There are also procedures that help you release the emotion ill and physical effects of stress.
It's clear that we're willing to take on this challenge. More and more people are exercising and practicing relaxation and stress management skills. Large companies are building wellness centers for stress release, physical fitness, and relaxation.
When companies build wellness centers and promote lifestyle changes, their costs can be repaid through improved employee health and decreased health care costs, as was demonstrated in a major study reported by Dr. Charlesworth and his colleagues at Baylor College of Medicine. After ten weekly lunch hour sessions of stress management training, using the techniques in this book, a group of forty hypertensive employees had significantly reduced their blood pressure beyond the results of standard medical care. Three years later, their blood pressures remained lower or in some cases had decreased even further. In addition, the program decreased the costs of their health insurance claims by over 60 percent. More and more studies are showing the many benefits of wellness.
Short-Term Stress Responses
At times, we are all too aware of how stress affects us. Have you ever felt that your stomach was jittery or full of butterflies? Maybe you had a lump in your throat or your chest felt tight. Perhaps your pulse raced and your heart pounded. You may have felt pain in your neck and shoulders from tension. Maybe you felt sweaty or all wound up. Thoughts may have raced through your mind, but when someone asked a question, your mind went blank. You may have flown off the handle about something minor. Can you remember getting upset and having any of these responses? Most of us have experienced some of these feelings at one time or another.
Long-Term Responses to Stress
The short-term stress responses are physical, emotional, or behavioral warning signs. If the stress becomes chronic and incessant, the short-term warnings become more serious stress responses. Some people work longer and harder but actually become less productive. For many, the words "I don't have time" become a way of life. Dangerous stress disorders can follow changes in the way we feel and in the way we act. For example, some people become withdrawn or depressed.
Smoking and drinking may become problems. One's sexual life may suffer. Pain associated with headaches, arthritis, and other chronic diseases may increase. Some people ear more and gain weight, while others eat less and lose weight. Sleeplessness and sleepiness may become problems. Daydreaming and difficulties with concentration are common. Feelings of suspiciousness, worthlessness, inadequacy, or rejection may become prominent.
Too many of us have some of these experiences too much of the time. We find ourselves anticipating the worst and being nervous before anything has happened. We may not recognize how our personality has changed. Even if the change is pointed out to us, we may not believe we have changed.
The following explanations and diagrams will help you to understand what your stressors are and how you respond to them. Notice that no matter where stress comes from, if the short-term effects occur intensely and frequently, the long-term costs are the same-the quality of your life suffers. On the other hand, if you increase and fine-tune your coping skills, your life and health actually improve.
Stressors: Where Does Stress Come From?
We broadly define stressors as the external demands of life or the internal attitudes and thoughts that require us to adapt. Stressors can include traffic jams, pollution, the latest bad news on CNN, that fifth cup of coffee, the pushy salesman who will not take no for an answer, or the angry boss. Stressors can also include the work that never seems to get done, the children who never seem to listen, or the way some people put themselves down for their shortcomings. Notice that some of these stressors come from our surroundings and others from our inner struggles. Some stressors come from both sources.
Many elements contribute to a stressor being stressful. There are certainly individual differences among us. Hans Selye said, "You can't make a racehorse out of a turtle." How much control we have over the stressor and whether we feel we have a choice in our exposure to it will determine our response. IT you "have to" work late because your boss "made you," for example, you will respond differently than if you "choose to" work late because you want to finish the project and take the weekend off. The compatibility between a person's background, aspirations, and interests and his or her work will also determine how stressful the work seems.
Reviewing stressors in different categories will help you become more aware of the varieties of stress in your life. As you read the brief descriptions that follow, think about an average day and consider how each stressor may be reducing your enjoyment of life.