How you can reduce your stress levels and cope with stress (without receiving medical treatment for stress)
Stress is a personal problem rather than a medical one. Most doctors simply don't have enough time to talk through emotional or psychological problems, particularly if it's all a bit complicated.
They may hand out prescriptions for tranquillizers, which are are effective and fast acting, but don't remove the source of the stress. Rather like drinking alcohol to relax, taking a tranquillizer may lead to addiction or dependency as your body adapts to their action and becomes less responsive.
At best, tranquillizers are a means of reducing the physical or mental pain that severe stress can produce during a life crisis. Beyond that, you can reduce the effects of stress on yourself by changing your beliefs about your environment, your relationship to it and yourself, so that you no longer perceive situations as threatening, or by lessening the effects of stress through deep relaxation.
Changing Your Stress Producing Beliefs
Ultimately, all harmful stress is caused by a perception of threat based on your unchallenged beliefs. For example: a man stressed in his job believes he has no option but to continue in that employment.
A housewife living a life of drudgery believes she has no choice but to go on doing so. A university student believes that exam failure would be a personal disaster.
A man unable to socialize freely believes that other people are likely to reject him. A less able schoolboy believes that he is the most stupid child ever born. A teenage girl believes she is unattractive. A man frightened to ask a woman for a date believes she may not like him and that rejection would be a catastrophe. And so on.
Beliefs like this lead to perception of threat and so cause emotional arousal. But the thing is that these beliefs are often faulty or mistaken because they are based on wrong information or negative past experiences. Unfortunately, we usually accept as fact or reality without any questioning!
Changing these beliefs, or at least re-examining them, can alter our perceptions and so reduce stress. It's a process we can extend over every aspect of our lives. In this section, we'll examine beliefs about relationships, work, and life in general with specific attention on how they may be challenged and, when appropriate, changed for the better.
Beliefs about yourself come later, when we look at social anxiety, because the beliefs you hold about yourself are closely linked to things like self-image and self-confidence.
A lot of people are severely stressed and unhappy. Yet, if you ask them why they don't do something about the situation, they say something like: 'Oh, I couldn't possibly change my job/move home/leave my wife.'
This type of response may be a fear of the unknown which keeps many people stuck where they are. It often seems better to avoid the immediate pain of change, even though the long term pleasure from a changed lifestyle would be much greater.
On the other hand, such remarks can also be genuine but mistaken beliefs about oneself and the position you're in. 'I can't possibly change my job.'
Well, maybe, but why not?
If you sit down and examine the accuracy of each assumption which contributes to that overall belief, you may find there are aspects to the situation you never even thought about.
As we shall see, this process is essentially one of strengthening your objective, reasoning, Adult decision-making ability. For example:
Consider John and Mary, a married couple who are constantly engaged in a struggle for power within their relationship. Constant arguments and conflict produce almost unbearable stress and great unhappiness.
The options open to John and Mary are, however, very simple: either they separate or they stay together. If they choose the first option, they will have to decide whether or not to get a divorce. If they choose the second, they will either go on as they are or they will have to learn to live together more amicably.
So what if they really want to split up and divorce, but dare not do so for fear of their parents' disapproval. A professional counsellor might help them escape from this trap in the following way.
JOHN: We can't get a divorce, it's out of the question.
COUNSELLOR: Why is it out of the question?
MARY: Because of the shame that it would bring on us.
COUNSELLOR: Why do you consider divorce is shameful? When one marriage in four ends in divorce, it must be socially acceptable.
JOHN: Our friends and parents wouldn't like it.
COUNSELLOR: Don't you already know some divorced couples? What do you think about their divorce?
MARY: Yes, but I'm talking about what our parents would say.
COUNSELLOR: Why should you remain trapped in a miserable marriage just because of what you think your parents might say?
MARY: I know they wouldn't approve. After all, mine have been together for thirty years.
COUNSELLOR: How do you know they wouldn't approve? Have you asked them?
COUNSELLOR: Who is running your life, anyway? You or your parents?
JOHN: Well, we are, I suppose.
COUNSELLOR: Who should make the decision about divorce?
For all kinds of stress related illnesses, or emotional difficulties with stress such as anxiety and depression, seeing a qualified counsellor can be very helpful. Here's one who can help: you want support?
Hopefully, the answer which either John or Mary now gives is: 'We should.' Human nature being what it is, they are more likely to say something like: 'Yes, but divorce isn't that simple. You have to think of other people.' The difficulty lies in getting them to see that ultimately no-one else should be able to exert control over their lives. They bear ultimate responsibility for changing matters; they CAN make the rules for themselves.
It's a simple example, but the process is designed to assist them to question the beliefs they hold, so that eventually they gain enough insight to allow them to establish new, autonomous views about life. You can use this analytical process on any problem.
As a second example, consider a man who is stressed by his job. He's overworked and underpaid, never gets a word of thanks from his employers and has poor relationships with his colleagues because they abuse his willingness to take on extra work. When he wakes up each morning, his first thought is: 'I wish I didn't have to go today!'
He works hard all day, meeting deadlines, working on several projects at once, perhaps even working over his lunch hour and taking work home. All his working life is pressured and stressed, which makes him unhappy and unfulfilled. He wants to leave the job but never does so - simply because he does not question whether he can leave the job. He could challenge himself in many ways. His basic assumption is that he can't leave his job for any one of a hundred reasons:
I have no skills for anything else
Why not look for work in the same field with a different employer?
This is a time of high unemployment
Sure, during periods of high unemployment, demand for staff may be lower. But there are still hundreds of thousands of people changing jobs every week. What about retraining in a different work field or take temporary work while looking for a new position?
I wouldn't be able to retrain
But why not? With enough determination you can do anything at any age. And there are areas of work where skilled people are in short supply. Alternatively, many people find great satisfaction in setting up their own business. There are plenty of opportunities for franchising, for example.
I shall be short of money, and what about my family?
Of course, responsibility extends to caring for one's family materially as well as emotionally. If you really would be short of money, why not sell the car, move to a smaller house, or make a real effort to find a new job before leaving your existing one?
That's a simple example, again, but it illustrates the point. But always think first of what will be best for you in the long term. Because the effects of stress can be so debilitating - even fatal - you might be better off without a car and a job but with your health intact. The process of questioning beliefs can be a lengthy one. (Sell the car? How could we manage without one? Well, do you really need a car? If you think you do, ask yourself why.)
Sometimes, you go through this process and decide that your beliefs are correct and you just ain't going to change anything for anyone! If so, you might need to learn some effective ways of dealing with stress.
What's more, sometimes it's the conflict between your beliefs and what you do that causes you stress. Peter is a friend of ours who worked for many years with a company which sold pharmaceuticals and artificial baby foods to the Third World.
Although the job was very well paid, he found it highly stressful, and he eventually developed an ulcer. This caused him to stop and question what he was doing for the first time in many years. He realized that he'd been ignoring the fact that he had serious doubts about the ethics and morality of the profit oriented business he was involved with.
He told us how this insight had sparked off a session of self-analysis. 'First of all,' he recalled, 'I had to find out whether my doubts were objectively valid. I researched the opinions and statements of doctors, both in the West and in our sale areas. I spent some time looking at the comments of government ministers in the Asian and African countries to which we sold these high tech products.
'I soon understood that poor people were spending a large proportion of their income on drugs and baby foods which were unnecessary and highly priced. Uncontrolled by doctors, they were probably suffering rather than benefiting. There was no doubt in my mind that I wasn't just prejudiced. This was no irrational attitude; I couldn't go on ignoring my conscience any longer."
He left his job and now works happily for a charity.