— By Assia Mortensen
We all deal with stress, whether it’s a traffic jam, screaming children or a hectic schedule without much breathing space. However, it becomes crystal clear how well one copes when serious life stressors come into play. According to Dr. Seth Meyers, these kinds of major challenges can include a death, serious injury or the end of a relationship. Dr. Meyers is a Los Angeles-based clinical psychologist, who does individual and couples therapy. “A serious illness, for instance, often leads to all kinds of emotional symptoms,” explains Dr. Meyers.
“What happens to your body when you are under a great deal of stress for a long period of time is that here is a physiological reaction by the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system says, ‘there is danger near,’ so your heart rate increases and your palms may sweat,” Dr. Meyers comments. According to Dr. Meyers, the body is ‘smart’ and this is actually meant to be a survival (protective) mechanism.
“However if this goes on for long periods of time, you can suffer from serious physical problems;” Dr. Meyers warns. “When you are seriously stressed, your body releases cortisol. There can be long-term consequences for extensive amounts of cortisol; your immune system doesn’t function as well, so you can develop something as simple as the flu or as serious as a heart attack,” he says.
It may be time to seek some professional help when one feels that the stress is starting to interfere with their job functioning, relationships or when the stressor is becoming such a preoccupation that it’s something you “can’t blow off,” according to Dr. Meyers. “This is because there may be some central parts of your personality — almost like the gears of a car — your body naturally wants to shift into. You can program yourself not to shift into those gears, but at times you may still feel the temptation to react a certain way.”
Dr. Meyers further explains that it may take a great deal of mental work to become more conscious of your reactions. “People who are known as ‘Type A’ personalities often try to control everything in their environment, and that’s just unrealistic. So they would have to do a great deal of work regarding looking at their central belief systems.” He says, for the chronically stressed, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy may help because it focuses on the ‘umbrella’ thoughts that are present. “I also recommend psychodynamic therapy, if people want to long-term personality change,” Dr. Meyers says. “Psychodynamic therapy derives from the work of Freud. He recognized the role of the unconscious–that we can say things or do things and be unaware of the motivation. Dr. Meyers adds, “The goal of long-term therapy is uncover what’s really going on. ‘Why are you having unhealthy relationships?’ Or ‘why are you staying in the same job you hate and afraid of change?’”
Additionally, there are coping mechanisms which can be very helpful in producing more relaxation. These include deep breathing exercises, visualization exercises, mediation, and ‘self-talk;’ “These sound very fancy, but they are actually pretty simple. ‘Self talk,’ for example, is just learning to say statements to yourself when you’re in anxiety-producing situation. You can learn to say statements to soothe yourself like ‘I know I will be okay,’ ‘I know I can survive this,’ instead of saying, ‘I can’t handle this,’ ‘I’m going to die’—which is an example of ‘catastroph-izing,’” Dr. Meyers explains.
There are many other coping tools as well. “One is just sitting in a chair and doing nothing; Taking a nap, or writing an email expressing one’s feelings to a friend can be an example of journaling. Exercise can be a key coping mechanism — but every body and mind is different,” says Dr. Meyers. “Some people who are recovering from addiction find that mediation makes them more anxious, because they feel they have to do something. So for them a walking mediation is more helpful.” Dietary changes can be ‘key’ as well, according to Dr. Meyers. “Excessive Sugar and caffeine are often going to elevate your heart rate and increase anxiety.” He adds: “You want to get your body to a baseline, so that your body pretty much stays stable most of the time.”
According to Helpguide.org, a highly-recommended resource for the frayed and frazzled, here’s a guide to measure your resilience:
How Resilient Are You?
Your ability to handle and bounce back from stress depends on many factors, including a:
- Sense of control
- Optimistic attitude
- Strong support system
- Healthy body
- Ability to adapt to change
- Ability to handle unpleasant emotions
- Belief in a higher power or purpose
- Confidence in yourself
- Sense of humor
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