Super stress strategies

By Dr. Batya L. Ludman, Psy.D., FT · Published April 6, 2018

Nearing the end of Passover “vacation”, having dealt with holiday preparation, meals, family conflict, and bored children, many feel super stressed and in need of a real vacation.

“Super stressful” may conjure up images of all sorts of things that don’t make you feel good - even when they actually may be innately good things – such as a move, a wedding or the birth of a baby.

These were the things that came to mind for me when sitting down to write this column, not Passover cleaning, since my family has had all of these lovely stressors in the past year – plus a few unwanted ones like family illness, and a death.

We missed out on a few of the things on the list of most stressful life experiences, like imprisonment, a change of jobs, or retirement (which actually sounds great right now if it would involve a trip to a remote desert island), but we definitely have had more than enough on our plates to handle. I remember learning about the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale in grad school, a scale developed in the 1960’s which assigns a rating to various life events and their correlation to illness.

Psychologists who regularly work with stress know that stress isn’t just in the mind, but is definitely expressed in the body as well, and can potentially be very dangerous. Looking at my patient population, the most common issues I treat all have stress at the core. Much that goes on in our daily lives and keeps us awake at night involves stress and at times it adds up to “super stress”.

How we perceive our stress is in part determined by the number of issues we’re dealing with, and the nature and impact of these on us, now and for our future. What causes overwhelming stress in one person may be seen as irrelevant for someone else and what’s stressful today may be a non-issue tomorrow. When the challenges of dealing with an event exceed our ability to cope with that event, we feel out of control and overwhelmed, leaving us “stuck” and unable to act.

If we are “lucky”, we feel it in various places in our body: our heads, hearts and the rest of our bodies don’t seem calm or happy and we develop various aches and pains, which hopefully bother us just enough that we seek help in order to feel better.

Our ability to cope depends almost entirely on how we “choose” to understand our situation. Let me give you two personal examples.

When, in the midst of a huge winter storm, I was told my mother had under 48 hours to live, at the same time my father-in-law (in another country) had a serious cardiac episode, and my son developed pneumonia, I understood what depression and helplessness could feel like. Another time, when I found myself experiencing pounding chest pain in the middle of the night, I realized I was experiencing anxiety and not a heart attack.

Although I don’t advocate that a surgeon have their liver removed to know how it feels, as a clinical psychologist it is not such a bad thing, from time to time, to get a better understanding as to just how my clients might feel.

Both situations reminded me that it was time to take back the sense of control that I suddenly and definitely felt that I had lost and that was keeping me feeling overwhelmed. Fortunately, it did not take that long to move into action mode.

In the first scenario, while I realized that I couldn’t save my mother, I believed that I could make her remaining time as good as possible by making her comfortable and following her wishes, give her time to get home and have some closure.

Doctors are not prophets and my mom actually lived eight weeks longer than expected. Compared to the 48 hours we counted down, each day felt like a gift. Given that we never know when we’re taking our last breath, making each moment count is critical and not cliché.

The weather cleared, my husband was able to go for a short trip to see his dad and my son got antibiotics. Life was far from normal, but we worked to restore control over what we could and make the situation more manageable and that was the key. We turned around a situation of helplessness by making an organized plan and taking control.

As for my chest pain, once I stopped to listen to my body, figure out that I was feeling “done to,” with things happening to me too quickly and with too many choices, leaving me with no sense of control, I knew I had to step back, ask what it was that I wanted, and then determine how I was going to achieve it.

Once I did this, I first experienced a sense of relief followed by a lessening of the symptoms. I could literally and figuratively “breathe a sigh of relief” and I was back in control, making my own choices.

Sometimes, we don’t know what we want or what we need, and our thoughts are racing so quickly, or we freeze and can’t respond at all. When we’re able to truly slow down, calm ourselves through easily learned breathing techniques and get back in touch with our body, we really can handle our stressful situations - whether good or bad, big or small, one at a time or in multiples of three, be it a minor physical complaint or a devastating illness - in a way that enables us to lower our stress and deal with the situation at hand.

My job as a therapist is to help facilitate this growth in others, because in the end only you can do the work that will take you to a place of calm and happiness at home, on the job and elsewhere, with less anxiety, fear and pain and more quality to your life, with better sleep, more quality in your relationships and a feeling of greater self-worth.

While we have more at our disposal now than ever before to make our lives easier and save time, we are more stressed and have significantly less time than ever before. Only you have the ability to work on your personal vision to de-stress your life.

A version of this article suitable for printing is available here.