Friday, March 14, 2008

The Goldfish Guide to Stress-Management #2

I did a post on the BBC Ouch Blog if anyone wants to read something completely different. Otherwise I shall press on with this.

A bit about feelings

Stress-management does not benefit a great deal from naval-gazing, but it can benefit from a little applied self-knowledge. One's reaction to any given situation is unique. It always amuses me when there are surveys in the news about the most stressful job - the last one suggested was librarian of all things - when whether or not work is stressful depends on much more than the job description. The thing that probably makes most difference to stress levels in the workplace are the people you have to work with and under. But then there's pay and conditions and all sorts of subtle stuff about the meaning or futility of what you have to do, the systems you're working with and up against.

All that, and then how you react to it. We all have strengths and weaknesses with this stuff; a person might be really run into the ground by her job in the library, but when she finds herself in a train crash, she is the person who calms everyone down and rallies her fellow passengers to rescue the wounded and escape the wreckage. People who end up really suffering with situational stress are not less hardy than anyone else; they merely found a situation which they are particularly ill-equipped for.

I have a close friend who has the same condition as me, to a worse degree, but who always seems to cope much better with the ups and downs. Initially, this made me feel very guilty; clearly, I was a wimp. Not only was I a duffer, but a completely pathetic one.

Later, this became quite useful; if my friend could cope, and I hadn't noticed the halo, then it wasn't necessarily for me to go through what I was going through every time I got a little worse. There must be reasons, other than my "weakness" that made it so difficult for me. Some of those reasons I managed to identify. Nothing to do with anything you might call damage, but stuff to do with lessons I had learnt and ideas I had about myself and my place in the world which became problematic in that situation. The obvious example being the importance of education; wouldn't have done me any harm at all had I not been sick, but as it was I thought that without education I was nothing, and I now found myself out of education.

Even having sorted this and other issues out, my friend still seems to cope better than I do. And I don't suppose anybody could go what we go through entirely unaffected by the sudden loss and uncertainty that relapse entails. But I cope much better than I did because I have a better understanding of how I tick and what knocks my pendulum off kilter.

Probably the most valuable piece of information to dig up is what you actually afraid of; stress is basically about an ongoing state of fear, after all. And the answer isn't about a scary event, but an emotional consequence of whatever events you are afraid of. Guilt, shame, loneliness, worthlessness; that sort of thing. Sometimes simply working out what your big fear is can be enough to realise it is unfounded.

So to more practical steps;


One cannot expect to live a hassel-free existence, so when one is in the thick of a crises, one needs to control those things which make life much more difficult. Everyone has slightly different triggers, but often people don't identify them or attempt to control them. This is all part of life, they think, stuff you have to just deal with. Not necessarily so.

Controlling triggers requires discipline; anything which involves patience when you are in a state of anxiety can be terrifically difficult. But it can be learnt and you can get better at it. Once again, it is all about the choices we make.

There are three sorts of stress triggers:

(a) Triggers you cannot avoid.

These are things you pretty much have to go through (having made certain choices). These cannot be avoided, but they can often be controlled. For example, one can take little holidays from the crisis. You can't pretend a problem doesn't exist, but you can leave dealing with that problem alone for a period of time. Have days when you don't talk about it, when you don't do any research, make any phonecalls, don't do anything which concerns the crisis. You can't choose not to think about it, but you can reason that there's no point thinking about it now because you're not going to act on any of those thoughts.

(b) Triggers that you can avoid and should avoid.

I think this is probably the set that folks think about the least. I would break this one into people and activities.

I have known so many adults who have someone, usually a parent, sometimes a sibling or even a friend who is a persistent source of stress in their life. They either dump all their troubles on your shoulders like it is all your doing, or they blunder into your troubles as if they are the world's authority on everything. No individual has to be endured, unless you brought them into the world yourself. If you don't want to dump them altogether, manage your contact with them and avoid it altogether when you're in crisis.

As for activities, well stressed-out people are often drawn to activities that wind them up. It's transference again; the wind-up is an emotional distraction, but it can only make things worse. For example, when I'm stressed-out I am drawn to news stories which I would positively avoid any other time; the sort of stuff that just outrages you, but which you can do nothing about. I know other people who are just spoiling for a fight when they are under stress and start an argument about the slightest thing. But none of this stuff is an effective vent and usually we feel worse than when we started.

It's like a big itch you feel compelled to scratch, but knowing that's exactly what's going on is a big step towards resisting the temptation.

(c) Triggers that you can avoid but shouldn't avoid.

The classic example is the person who, in tremendous debt, avoids looking at their credit card bills or doing their book-keeping. Or the couple who are barely talking in an attempt to avoid the ooh-nasty conversation they really ought to have.

The trick with this stuff is to approach the matter as coldly as possible. Set time aside as soon as possible and sort out the paperwork, have that conversation, go to the doctor about the funny lump and so on. Enlisting the assistance of a friend or family member can help a lot, because meeting up your ally involves a schedule you are committed to.

You can choose to run away from the problem, but hiding in the bushes in the hope it'll go away is generally a bad idea.

Over-stimulation and the empty hole.

An obvious remedy for stress is relaxation, but there is a good reason that folks struggle with this.

A person gets used to a certain level of external stimulation, such that when the world goes, the brain will get compensate for the "silence". The inability to sit quietly without falling asleep

If a child lives in an environment where there is always noise and flickering light from television or computer games, often with conversations competing with the technology, then their brains will get used to a very high level of external stimulation. This makes it nigh on impossible to sit in a classroom and pay attention to a teacher - as an individual they'd probably have a better chance if the teacher was competing with a television programme. However, they'd be even better off if their little brains weren't under so much strain in the first place.

Adults get like this too via a different route. When we're stressed, boredom is a real problem state. As soon as we're not occupied by some activity or other, all the worries and nonsense get aniggling. It becomes a constant battle to avoid boredom and to avoid silence. Stressed people frequently need to have the radio or television on in order to go to sleep. Unsurprisingly, such people then find themselves falling asleep in all manner of inappropriate places where stimulation levels have dropped below a certain point - like when you're having a conversation in a quiet room and the other person has paused for thought.

The only solution is to seriously work at reducing the levels of stimulation in our lives. Try to do only one thing at a time. Learn to spend time in silence, to be comfortable in that state. Set aside just five minutes in a day to sit and do nothing but watch the clock. Initially, the worries and nonsense will come in a wave, but if you just let it be, it probably won't last even the whole five minutes.

Another good tip is to set aside worry time; a period at the same time every day where you allow yourself to cogitate over all the things troubling you. When they come to mind elsewhere in the day, you don't simply try not to think of them, but you take note and schedule your concern for later in the day. Generally, by the time worry time comes around, most of the things that were bothering you earlier have either resolved themselves or seem insignificant.

I haven't quite finished, but I might post about something different next time in any case.


marmiteboy said...

How I agree with you Ms Goldfish. Stress is something we all hjave to endure at some time. I used to stress about all kinds of things that I no longer do.

A period of extreme anxiety taught me a salutory lesson. Stress is actually good for you in small doses and that it keeps you going. However there is no benefit to be gained about things outside your control. I am often asked why I don't get stressed out about hospital visits, trips to the dentist for example when other people flap about. Well I cannot do anything about what is going to happen to me on the slab as I am in the hands of others. If something untoward does happen then I'll worry about it afterwards.

Of course it is very easy for me to say this and I have people very close to me who do worry about all kinds of things outsidfe of their control and that stress isn't good for them. Just because I don't stress about it doesn't mean it isn't stressful.

Stress though isn't helpful in these situations, It can make you ill (I know I've been there) and it is far better to let ity all go if you can.

The Goldfish said...

Thanks Marmite, you're very right.

Anonymous said...

Excellent advice. Yoga or some form of it also helps with the over-stimulation thing, because it makes you focus small and breathe deep.

Someday on my own blog I will tell the story of my needle-phobia and the kick-ass therapist who helped me not get over it but live with it, and I will have to link back to this. My little horror story fits in with the first two parts of this perfectly, the feelings and the triggers, and illustrates exactly what you have said.

seahorse said...

I thought both of these posts were excellent.

Weird in edgewise said...

I've been feeling like a total wimp and fragile hothouse flower because I'm complaining so very very much about going from freelance to fulltime. I know it's a "great" job, I'm in no danger of physical damage sitting at my dark cubicle, but it's still making me feel very sucky. But I can't be cheerful all the time just because I'm not working in a coal mine or being torn apart my wild dogs. And I miss my kid.

PS: I like your blog.