Janet Klosko, Ph.D.
Stress disorders -- asthma, headaches, insomnia, irritable bowel and other gastrointestinal problems, panic attacks, weight problems, skin problems, chronic back pain, high blood pressure, fatigue -- are physical problems affected by psychological stress. The amount of stress in your life and how you manage that stress psychologically have a significant impact on whether the disorder ever appears in the first place, and once it appears, how severe it gets.
"Stressful" events are those involving life changes, positive or negative. Getting married, giving birth to a child, graduating from school, starting a job, buying a house -- all these are "positive" events, and all tend to increase the severity of stress disorders. Certainly negative life events, such as the break-up of a relationship, the illness or death of someone you love, losing your job, failing in business, falling into debt -- likewise increase the severity of stress disorders.
Stress attacks your body at its most vulnerable place. We are all born with particular physical vulnerabilities. Some of us have slow metabolisms and tend to become overweight in times of stress. Others of us have sensitive digestive systems, and tend to develop ulcers or irritable bowel. Others of us have delicate skin, and, in times of stress, break out in rashes or develop eczema. Stress searches out our natural physical weaknesses and capitalizes on them.
We can also develop certain physical vulnerabilities over time, through unhealthy habits or exposure to toxic environments. For example, research shows that people who have panic attacks tend to chronically hyperventilate. That is, they have a habit of breathing incorrectly. This habit creates a physical vulnerability that, under stress, manifests in panic attacks.
Although stress is inevitable in life, we are not totally at its mercy. There are things we can do to help ourselves manage our stressors, and thereby minimize their effect on our physical well being. We can learn skills to cope with stress more effectively.
Whenever stress occurs, it affects three aspects of you: your body, your mind, and your behavior. For example, say that you lose your job. You wake up each morning, and your body feels tense and agitated. You have not slept well. Your mind is filled with thoughts of self-blame and catastrophe. Instead of mobilizing to find work, you spend your days lying in bed or pacing around the house. Your behavior is self-defeating rather than constructive. You could learn to cope better with your stress in all three systems -- body, mind, and behavior.
In terms of your body, many self-control techniques can calm your body. These include mindfulness exercises, biofeedback, relaxation training, breathing exercises, meditation, and positive imagery. Interestingly, all these techniques seem to work in the same way. They teach a focus of attention. Practicing these techniques has been shown to decrease stress disorders significantly.
In terms of your mind, as was once said of "beauty," to a large extent stress is in the eye of the beholder. How you think about your stress has a large impact on how severely it affects you. Distorted negative views (i.e., "I'm a complete failure," "I can't handle this," "There's nothing I can do to help myself") are neither helpful nor accurate. Repeatedly visualizing failure weakens your ability to cope; but repeatedly visualizing success strengthens you.
Stress is best viewed as a challenge and an opportunity. Research shows that people who view their illnesses as happening for a good reason – for example, to teach them something about life -- actually recover more quickly. Your stress disorders are telling you something about the way you are living your life. Try to listen to what they are telling you. Think deeply about the way you are living. Are you allowing for enough pleasure, recreation, time with the ones you love, expression of your natural gifts and inclinations, or activities you view as meaningful?
Very often people with stress disorders are driven people. They have what we call in our book Reinventing Your Life, "Unrelenting Standards" -- they feel pressured to meet very high standards in some area, such as work or school, sports, some hobby, looks, physical fitness, diet, order, cleanliness -- it could be anything. It is not the specific activity that defines you as someone with unrelenting standards, but rather the way you approach the activity. Even play can become joyless and oppressive when you feel driven to be perfect.
Behaviorally, it is important to take an active approach to managing your stress disorders. Stress disorders are "lifestyle" disorders. We are realizing more and more that all diseases are to some extent lifestyle disorders, including life-threatening diseases such as heart problems, cancer, and diabetes. Smoking, drinking, having unprotected sex, eating too much junk food, getting too little fresh air and exercise -- these habits increase our vulnerability to a whole range of illnesses. A commitment to making healthy lifestyle changes can empower you to tap your body's own healing powers and cope better with stress.
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