There are several techniques for coping with stress. A relaxing walk, a distracting creative effort, a good workout and others can help relieve symptoms. But coping is not curing. To deal effectively with chronic stress – the type that is severe and long-lived – it’s necessary to examine its twin roots.
Stress is the result of both external and internal factors – what happens combined with how you evaluate its seriousness and your ability to cope. A lost job, a dissolved marriage, a serious illness or any of hundreds of other circumstances can prompt stress. But for those to result in stress, especially long-term, an individual has to evaluate them and him or herself in a certain way.
A person who feels confident in his or her ability to quickly overcome hurdles (and at a modest ‘cost’) is much less likely to feel stress for long. A person who identifies situations realistically, and who believes they have the capacity to deal with life’s inherent difficulties may feel challenged. But that is normal life and a healthy reaction, it is not stress.
Chronic stress is harmful and very few harmful conditions are ‘natural’ in the sense that they are inevitable, nor are necessarily devastating, or can not be overcome. If life were predominantly disasters we couldn’t cope with, insurance companies wouldn’t make the fortunes they do.
So, to deal with chronic stress well it’s necessary to have an objective view of the actual damage external circumstances entail. Many situations in life result in a loss of values, a loss (temporarily) outside our control. But companies that experience business reverses do recover, injuries heal, relationships mend or form between new partners, new friends are found.
Even losses that are permanent – an amputated leg, the death of a loved one, a bankrupt business – are not equivalent to the loss of life or hope. Individuals can, and do, compensate. Time alone doesn’t heal all wounds, but thought and effort can go a long way toward doing so.
When an individual focuses on what is valuable and possible, acute stress is minimized. When thought and effort combine with a realistic attitude toward the inherent hurdles in life, chronic stress is all but impossible.
It isn’t advisable to have a Pollyanna attitude that ‘everything is always ok, no matter what’. Bad things do happen and realism requires seeing that. But that same realism can be the basis for seeing things in perspective. Things may be, in fact, as bad as they seem. But, they rarely have to stay that way.
Acknowledging what is real and recognizing that it’s possible to create or acquire new values to replace a loss are key to avoiding long term stress. Long term stress, which often accompanies or leads to depression, tends to be self-reinforcing. You feel bad, so things look bad. Things look bad, so you feel worse.
Objectivity and re-committing oneself to the achievement of values is essential for breaking the cycle. But recognize that gaining those values is an achievement, one requiring thought and action. Rarely do they simply arrive in some equivalent of a winning lottery ticket.