It happens to us all. Your job is secure, health’s good, kids are great, parents are okay, and life is clipping along. Next thing you know:
*You’ve been laid off – and since you weren’t saving anything because things were going so well…
*Your mom needs open heart surgery now, with time afterward to recuperate. Someone needs to take care of her, 24/7. (I’ve been through this myself in recent months.)
*The police call – your daughter is in jail, charged with a DUI. She needs bail and a lawyer. And to top things off:
*You’re not feeling so good. Maybe it’s something serious, like cancer.
Or maybe it’s stress.
Dealing with these situations is difficult enough to start with — but the stress they inspire can literally be deadly. When we’re threatened in any way, our nerves shoot an emergency message to the pituitary gland: ‘Watch out! Get ready!’ ACTH (adrenocorticotrophic hormone) floods our system and heads for the adrenal glands, which pump out adrenaline. Our heart rate, blood pressure and breathing go up. “All this [known as Alarm] gets our bodies ready for the next stage,” says Dr. Kevin Leman, author of Stopping Stress before It Stops You. “Resistance…’fight or flight.’ We fight stress physically, psychologically — any way we can. If we are successful, the threat to our well-being disappears and our body relaxes…”
BUT WHAT IF IT DOESN’T?
The real difficulty happens as we move through the stages of stress. (These are classic terms, by the way, formulated by Dr. Hans Selye, one of the pioneers on the subject.) Resistance is the natural point for fighting back. But what if you must fight an ongoing situation… for days, weeks or months?
“If things get bad enough,” Dr. Leman points out, “you will wind up in what Selye referred to as the Exhaustionstage, and here is where you can collapse under pressure.
…there is an enormous amount of wear and tear on the organs of the body. It is in the Exhaustion stage that we develop colitis, high blood pressure, ulcers, and even heart attacks…as Richard Ecker points out in his helpful book The Stress Myth, ‘Unquestionably, stress is the most significant negative health influence at work in American society today.'”
ANALYSIS — AND ACTION
You probably won’t be able to automatically ‘fix’ the situation you‘re deal with. But you can take some immediate action with your stress.
*Acknowledge it’s there…and you’re probably not in control.
*Decide what’s most important. Is it your loved ones, heritage, your faith in God…or that IT job you were growing dissatisfied at, anyways?
*Stop trying to be perfect. You don’t have to be Super Mom or Dad; in fact, trying to cover everything all of the time takes what Dr. Selye called “adaptation energy.” It may work for the short term, but your store of adrenalin is limited. And when that runs out? Exhaustion.
*Not everything that happens is your responsibility. Especially in the case of others. You may have to deal with the fallout from their actions — but in the bottom line, they are still responsible. Not you. This is especially helpful to remember when dealing with difficult parents or kids on their way to adulthood.
*Recognize the soul-sucking problem of guilt. Hopefully you were brought up to act responsibly, even if others in your life don’t. Dealing with guilt when you can’t ‘make’ things (or people) better? Acknowledge it’s there, and half the battle is over.
*Ask for help. Others are often willing to step in with an extra meal or helping hand. You may be able to hire a home health aide to stop by a few times a week. (Or look into other possibilities, like having groceries delivered, or setting up an automatic bill payment plan.) Talk seriously to your partner, children or siblings about what needs to be done — and come up with a working plan. You don’t have to deal with this difficulty just by yourself.
*Make a list of things that could or should be done. Rip it up. Now list the things you actually need to do.
*Add at least one item on that list for yourself. Immerse yourself in a new book or movie, or a slice of your favorite cake. (Hot fudge sundaes are a great comforter, if slowly savored with each bite.) Go fishing for a morning. Take a drive. If you can’t remove yourself from the environment physically, take a mental break, instead.
*Things change. Other jobs are out there. We recover from surgery…and (to some degree) the loss of people we love. It may not be easy right now…but life will get better. Husband likes to remind me of this — “This too will pass,” he says.
And he’s right.
“The secret is priorities…when I share my little secret with people, I often hear them say, ‘Is that all? Everybody knows that!’…They may think they know this little secret, but they don’t practice it very well. In fact, I would say that the vast majority of families in America operate without a good understanding of how to order their priorities correctly. And that is why they live in a constant state of stress — the Swamp of Life, as I call it.
“The best way I know of to get out of the Swamp and stay out is to use your slide rule — your priority system — to measure how you are living. What is really important? Are you living that way?”
— Dr. Kevin Leman