LET’S TALK: About coping with stress

You may notice that some days just go along quite smoothly, and you hardly notice any emotional or physical discomfort. Other days, you may find yourself feeling agitated, irritable and even a little sick, or on the other hand, excited, exuberant and anxious. These may just be the normal ups and downs of life, or even symptoms of catching a cold.

If you can imagine two parallel lines with rounded peaks and valleys moving in between these lines, generally we gravitate back to the middle, equilibrium, maybe a metaphorical “meadow,” not too high and not too low. But unless we live in a monastery somewhere, life happens and we respond.

Life events can range from a) slight disturbance, b) a stressor, c) life-changing trauma, or even d) disaster. And according to our previously discussed (in the Oct. 18-31, 2012 issue of the Nichi Bei Weekly), “Daruma Psychology,” being aware of how we respond to these events can strengthen our mental health resiliency skills.

In this week’s column, I’d like to focus on “stress” — what it is, how our body reacts to it, and what we can do to respond to it in healthy and positive ways. In future columns, I will talk more about the more severe life events of trauma and disaster. According to Webster’s Dictionary, stress is “… a specific response by the body to a stimulus, as fear or pain, that disturbs or interferes with the normal physiological equilibrium.” So when we are stressed, our resources, both physical and emotional, are being strained, pushed out of balance.

I was at a local Japanese grocery store just before New Year’s (so you know how stressful that was) when I overheard a very angry exchange between a middle-aged Sansei and her elderly father. “Don’t get mad at me! It’s your fault I don’t know how to make that soup!” Besides the Nikkei generation gap that we will talk about at another time, I was aware of the strain that both parties were experiencing as we all faced the holidays, especially Oshogatsu, in the noisy, crowded store where the mochi was flying off the shelves. This incident may have been a momentary flare-up, or it might have been an ongoing chronic state of stress. A lost temper is one thing, but if it was more a reflection of the burden of long-term caregiving of an aged and infirm parent, or a lifelong conflicted relationship between a disappointed father and his daughter, the two people were finding it difficult to get back to equilibrium between themselves, and inside themselves, as she marched out the door empty handed, old man following.

Chronic dis-stress can lead to many health problems as stress hormones are released into the body in response to threat, and if not de-stressed, can wreak havoc on our immune system, making us vulnerable to illness and premature death.

So what can we do? First, as always, it’s important to evaluate our life circumstances and recognize where and what the stressors are. Chronic stress is like the shaken snow globe that never stops being stirred up. To make this evaluation, it may be helpful to examine three sources of stress. 1) Externally-imposed stress is much easier to recognize, such as driving in heavy traffic, pressures from work deadlines, a night-time barking dog. 2) Next, relationship-imposed stress is not quite as easy to recognize because often people get used to the heightened level of arguing, or children fighting, or parental demands. 3) And finally, the more difficult, is the self-imposed level of stress such as not being able to say “no,” berating one’s self for mistakes made or not living up to other’s expectations.

External stressors can often benefit from a problem solving approach. What can I do to change the situation to reduce the stress? I can take rapid transit, change jobs, call the dog owner. These are common sense steps that a person can self-activate.

Stress that is caused by interactions in a relationship can be more challenging because, of course, we are always hoping that the other person will do the changing.

Complicated, long-held issues may need the intervention of a third party, possibly a professional, but it is possible for amazing systemic change to occur when one person decides to stop a negative behavior and refuses to engage in the patterned way. This could be a spouse who decides to make a request rather than criticizing, a parent who decides to stay calm during a child’s angry outburst, an adult child who decides to express appreciation and ignore the complaining of an aging parent.

Finally, self-imposed sources of stress are usually outside the person’s conscious awareness so even more difficult to address. Often embedded in early childhood messages received or perceived, identifying these self messages is an important first step. If I find that I can’t say “no” to people and end up feeling overwhelmed and resentful, I need to examine what I believe will happen if I did say “no.”
Maybe people won’t like me, need me, respect me, want me, etc. And because these self beliefs are often formed very early in life, once examined, we may find that they no longer hold water.

This may all sound a bit simplistic, but stress never really “goes away,” it’s how you respond to it that can make all the difference in your mental health.

Satsuki Ina, Ph.D. is a licensed marriage and family therapist practicing in Sacramento and Berkeley with specialization in intergenerational trauma. www.satsukiinatherapy.com. She is also a filmmaker (“Children of the Camps” and “From a Silk Cocoon: A Japanese American Renunciation Story”). The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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