It is a while since I've written more than one on the same subject; I hope you'll forgive the tedium. Here I am talking here about situational stress, and on the milder end of the scale. Not so much stress beyond the point where it is an illness which incapacitates and kills people. But it seems to me than just now, several of my kith and kin are struggling to enjoy life because situations are overwhelming them. Situations which, for the most part, ought to have limited bearing on their happiness. That's what this is about.
The Goldfish Guide to Stress-Management #1
Acknowledge the option of quitting.
The most stressful situation is one which you don't feel able to escape. Fortunately, most people are perfectly capable of escaping the source of their stress. It may take something radical, but it can almost always be done; one can walk away from any job, any course of education, any relationship - including those we were born into. One can move house, one can declare oneself bankrupt or dynamically adjust one's lifestyle. There is always something else which can be done other than facing the problem head-on. In a few cases, running away might actually be the best idea.
People are often in denial about this, which not only a denial of responsibility, it makes life very much more stressful than it needs to be. Of course, people who are stressed out usually feel that they have lots of responsibility on their shoulders, but rarely is anyone's life or happiness depending on their success. This is not to denigrate the troubles people have; if something is important to you, it is important to you. Your choices are legitimate, but entirely your own - that's the point.
Usually, a person does not want to quit whatever situation is causing them stress, but once you acknowledge that you have chosen the course you are on, you realise that you have a great deal of control. And generally, you'll feel better; this is about your own desire, rather than any sort of cosmic compulsion.
Suicide is, of course, the only way to completely escape chronic illness or impending death. People may find it a shocking subject, but making the positive choice to live is an enormous liberation; one is forced to become conscious of the reasons why one is carrying on, why one is prepared to endure what one must endure in order to live. And it helps one to start shaping one's life around that. Whilst white-bearded types may ponder why we are here in the first place, people with chronic illness frequently have a clear idea about why we are here now. Why we have chosen to be here and what that means about the sort of life we want to live.
No problem is too big to be run away from. Doesn't mean that you don't have a problem, but chances are it is a problem you have chosen to address.
Acknowledge stress as an independent problem.
Because stress arises from life events, the stress and its cause can become inexplicable in one's mind. Your current project is very stressful, but you know you'll feel much better when that's over so you carry on regardless. Unfortunately, stress inhibits your ability to work, making the project even more difficult. In the meantime, it makes you a more difficult person to be around so you start having relationship problems. You get more minor infections which last much longer than usual. And you spend more money than you can afford to. All of which, in turn, makes you very much more anxious and unhappy.
Stress is not the same as hard work or resilience or any such thing. Nor need it be a fact of life; difficulties and frustrations abound, but we don't have to be made miserable or unwell by them - not usually. Wherever possible, we need to separate stress out as a problem in itself.
I think this differentiation is particularly important when the source of stress is any kind of relationship trouble. If you are being subject to abuse the solution is almost certainly escape, but if you are merely locked in conflict with a loved-one or colleague, you really must be careful to differentiate the stress of the conflict and the relationship itself - even if the other party is acting unreasonably. If you get to feeling that another person is the source of all these emotions, then you're going to struggle to communicate with them at all and you're certainly going to struggle to be objective and constructive about the conflict that exists.
On which subject...
Beware the dangers of transference!
Stress arises from a significant problem which is not simply dealt with. Perhaps it can't be dealt with, and you have chosen to endure it. Or if it can be dealt with, it's going to take time and work. Sometimes, it seems so overwhelming that you don't want to have to think about it at all. So what we are inclined to do is shift the focus of our distress onto a more accessible target.
We've all had conversations with our friends and family where someone launches into an extraordinary tirade about what seems to be an extremely trivial matter; the service they received at the post office, a delayed journey, a broken-down washing machine or something like this. We let them rave on about their outrageous misfortune before we ask, just as soon as they've stopped for breath, "So what's really bothering you?"
This is a very dangerous way to deal with stress. The first issue is that you really don't need to look far to find things which will irritate you. Attempt to travel anywhere and you'll experience delays and crowds. Use man-made technology and sooner or later it will let you down in some way. Pick up a newspaper and you will be presented with a selection of stories designed to rattle your cage. Interact with other people and someone is bound to put a word wrong.
If you don't want to address an underlying problem, then you can quite happily accumulate all manner of extra grievances before the day is through. You can get angry with the world, or you can begin to feel that everything you touch turns to poo.
The second and more serious issue is that down this path, you can end up taking out your problems on other people. Some grumpiness is to be forgiven, but some people can become plain nasty under stress. You can end up causing a great deal of hurt if not permanent damage to your most treasured relationships. Whereas I would argue that a cornerstone of stress management is to
Look after those you love.
If you look after the people you love, they will generally look after you. Even if not a lot of looking after is required and even if there are no deep heart-to-heart conversations to be had on the matter, maintaining good relationships with your loved-ones is paramount. People very close to you are likely to be feeling pretty lousy on your behalf; it is far better to reach out to them than try to protect them with silence or avoid others altogether for fear of bringing them down. By all means avoid people who seem to make matters worse, but if you have a choice whether or not to face your troubles alone, don't.