Stress often comes in the form of change to our lives. Therefore, it is very important that we learn how to “get a handle” on change so that we can roll with it rather than be rolled over by it. Stress can literally run you over! Did you know that researchers are finding out that emotional stress is associated with increases in heart disease as well as other stress-related illnesses such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and fibromyalgia?
Life can and will change in unexpected ways. About the time you are getting used to a routine and feel you are on top of things, something changes. Change, as discussed in this article, is any transition or event that significantly impacts a person’s life and requires adjustment. Some changes are planned, such as marriage, having a child, or moving. Some changes are not planned, such as losing a job, severe injuries or illnesses. Some are “non-events,” or planned changes that do not come about, such as infertility, getting passed over for promotions – hopes that are deferred. Your ability to cope with transitions determines their overall impact on your life. The trick is to remain flexible, and approach life changes with as many resources as you can.
When a major change occurs in your life, the first step you should take is identifying how you are affected. For this step, remember these five R’s: Roles, Routines, Relationships, Resources, and Reflections on yourself and the world around you. When an event in your life affects every one of these areas, you can bet it’s a very stressful event. Such an event could be positive, such as getting married. It could also be negative, such as having a stroke. Both of those examples impact all five R’s. When you can examine how an event has impacted you, it gives you a starting point for where you need to begin making necessary changes in your life.
Part of my job is working with patients in physical rehabilitation. These people have usually experienced huge changes in their lives due to traumatic brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, strokes, and other critical illnesses that have left them physically impaired. It is very easy to see how change occurs in all five “R’s” for this group of people. Adjustment to their disabilities is the reason I am involved in their care. Such an unplanned change in their life creates a huge demand for adjustment, and they experience a great deal of stress and anxiety as a result.
When changes have occurred to your roles (i.e., spouse, parent, friend, coworker, etc.), the result could be grief over losing a meaningful role. Grief needs to be acknowledged and expressed, not ignored or bottled up. If a new role has just been added to your life, you could be experiencing “role conflict.” This could mean you need some time to adapt to your new role, or acquire some resources to help you manage your multiple roles better. For example, if a new mother is returning to work, she’ll need time to adjust to handling both roles (mother and worker). She will also need help from others to manage both roles, maybe in the form of a day care center or a relative committing to babysitting regularly.
Changes that impact your routine affect your ability to feel “in control” of your daily life. The less in control of your routine you feel, the more likely you will feel stressed out. If you live with other people, and especially if you care for small children, you must get used to disruptions in your routine. Just expect it. Having realistic expectations about your control over your routine can help lower your stress about it. A bit of wisdom that I found in a fortune cookie has helped me out a lot with this area: “Life is uncomfortable. Become more comfortable with discomfort.” Continuing with the example of the new mother in the previous Role discussion, that new mother’s husband is also a new father. As a father, it will help out the family if he can drop off their child at grandma’s on his way to work every day. This will be a small disruption in his daily routine. He could grumble about this because he has to get up earlier, but that won’t help. The best thing he can do is expect less luxury in his morning and expect a little discomfort for the sake of the child he loves so much.
With that being said, it is still a good idea to find some areas of your life you can control on a daily or weekly basis. Losses of control over your routine in one area of life can be offset by gaining control over routines in other areas. Think of some times in your daily life where you could exert more control and give it a try. Maybe it’s getting up at the same time every day, or choosing to work out three times a week. What’s important about routine is that you feel in charge as much as possible, either by your attitude or through your actions.
Let’s look at change in the third R, relationships. Think about how your relationships would change if you suddenly became paralyzed. How would your relationships with friends change? Which friends would still call or visit you? Consider other stressful life events that could occur such as divorce, death of a loved one, a pregnancy, a job change, or a child becomes seriously ill. In each case relationships will change. Relationships change in level of emotional closeness, time spent together, and the overall impact of the relationship as positive or negative.
When you are going through a stressful period in your life, look at how your relationships are changing. Are certain people withdrawing from you? Maybe just the opposite is occurring and you are involved in more relationships and people are closer to you than they were before. Both can be stressful, because too much or too little social interaction can put you off balance and require you to adjust. It is important to maintain a balance in social interaction. Time and again research shows the importance of social support in counteracting stress. It is also important to set boundaries with people so you have some personal time. This balance varies based on your personality – some people thrive with a lot of social interaction, but others (like myself) need down time to recharge after socializing.
The fourth R is resources. This includes time, money and energy. Your resources go beyond this, however, to include your skills, abilities, knowledge, health, social support, and also your faith. Your resources are also within your personality. Certain personality traits and attitudes help you deal with stress. Having a positive attitude such as “I’ll get through this” is an invaluable resource in stressful situations, because most likely you WILL get through it. Remember, “that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” In times of stress, make sure you surround yourself with friends and family that can support and encourage you. Utilize or develop your faith. Beyond the research confirming the health benefits of prayer, faith in God will provide a new perspective on your life, giving hope and purpose beyond “the rat race” we can easily find ourselves running.
The fifth R is about our perspective – our Reflections on Self and the World. Sometimes things happen in our lives that challenge how we see ourselves and how we see others and the world in which we live. The boy who finally works up the courage to ask that certain girl out may no longer see himself as cowardly and incompetent, but instead will see himself as likable and capable. The corporate manager who is “let go” may find it difficult to feel likable and capable, however. That’s the challenge of the fifth R.
Albert Ellis, a psychologist who developed Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT), states that we have three basic perspectives; self-perspective, other perspective, and our perspectives about the world. These can be negative (i.e., “I’ve messed up”, “Others treat me badly”, “Life has dealt me a bad hand”) or they can positive (i.e., “I’m OK”, “others are OK”, “What a wonderful world”).
Oftentimes stressful events in life skew our outlook towards the negative. In other words, stress can make you lose perspective. It’s very important to check your perspective often. If you find yourself making all or nothing statements like “I’m a loser” or “life really stinks” then you need an attitude adjustment. Just because you experienced a loss or made a bad choice doesn’t mean you are a bad person. Likewise, when something bad happens to you it doesn’t mean the world is full of bad people that can’t be trusted or that God doesn’t care. Try to keep a balanced reflection of yourself and the world – you are likable and capable if you choose to be so. The world is full of wonderful things as well as terrible things, just be careful about which things keep your attention.
Information adapted from:
Schlossberg, N. K. (1989) Overwhelmed: Coping with life’s ups and downs. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.