There are two kinds of external demands and pressures: physical and psychosocial. External physical demands – gravity, air pollution, noise pollution, extreme weather conditions, crowding, etc. – affect the body directly. External psychosocial pressures and demands include work, family, personal, social, environmental and financial issues, and are what most of us think about when we think about stress.
All these pressures compete with one another for our attention, generally all at once. Psychological research, however, has shown we can only pay attention to seven items, plus or minus two, at a time. Something has to give, so we set our own subjectively defined priorities as to what we’ll pay attention to, and when.
Those external competing and conflicting demands and pressures – that big mass of items we “have to do” – combine with our internal stress – those things we carry within us. In our graphic, the things clamoring for attention from inside the person’s head include:
- Physiological demands are those such as hunger, thirst, fatigue, pain, sexual desire, needs for elimination, etc.
- Psychological pressures include your views of who and what you are, what your rights and privileges are, expectations of yourself and others, psychological baggage from the past, etc.
Let’s take a look at how these effect you in your day to day life…
Your job can be the number one source of stress in your life. Economic and employment volatility create fear, uncertainty, and doubt (the FUD factor) for the unemployed, those about to be unemployed, and those who still have jobs. No one is immune. Beyond the FUD factor, a sense of powerlessness can create additional stress on the job. Burnout, poor job fit, and traumatic events on the job are other major contributors to job stress.
The first step in getting control of job stress is insisting on a negotiated, written job description. Next is developing a set of skills including job skills, organizational skills, goal-setting skills, time-management skills, self-assertion skills, communication skills, conflict-resolution skills, social skills, and reality-testing skills. Once you’ve developed a comprehensive set of skills, you’ll be in a much better position to deal effectively with stress on the job.
Should you leave your job by choice or otherwise, take advantage of all the help you can get in finding a new one. Decide what you really want to work at and what you have to do to prepare yourself for that kind of work. Upgrade your skills. Get retraining if necessary. Employment agencies, outplacement agencies, and headhunters can help you find opportunities for employment.
Above all, don’t tie your identity and self-esteem to what you do for a living. Enjoy the other elements of your life.
Family life can be a major source of stress, but there’s a lot you can do to manage it effectively. First of all, you can improve your communication skills. Understand that communication is more than just talking to other people; listening is even more important. You can become a much more effective communicator by learning to be a better listener. When someone is talking to you, focus on what they’re saying, not on what you’re going to say in response, or in self-defense. When they’ve finished, ask them to extend you the same courtesy. Where communication has been particularly difficult, you might want to try having the other person speak uninterrupted for a fixed period of time (five or ten minutes) and then take your turn. With a little practice you’ll improve your communication skills dramatically. The key is to listen and focus on what the other person is saying.
Assertiveness skills are also important in reducing stress in the family. You need to learn how to stand up for your own rights without trampling on the rights of others. Check the bibliography in The Stress Solution for some good books on assertiveness training or take an assertiveness-training course if you think you need more help.
Money is a stressful focus in many families. Learning to budget and manage your money more efficiently is yet another way of lessening the stress in your family life.
Conflict is a fact of human existence and no family is immune from it. You need effective conflict-resolution skills to keep family fights from making your home life more stressful for you than it need be. Try to stay cool and reasonable and listen to what the other person has to say. Communication is critical in conflict resolution, but understanding that there can be different ways of looking at a situation and that other ways can be as valid as your own is even more important. Try looking at the conflict from the other person’s viewpoint. Try to state the issue in their terms. Ask them if you’ve got it right. Think about it from their viewpoint. Then ask them to extend you the same courtesy. You’ll get better at conflict resolution with practice.
Sharing is important to family harmony. Practice sharing yourself, your resources, and your skills with the other members of your family. The returns on your investment can be enormous.
The more organized your family life is, the less likely it is to be stressful. Take the time to get things organized around the home. Divide chores and responsibilities. Be clear about who is responsible for what. Make lists. Organize family routines such as meal times, bed times, etc. Make schedules and stick to them. Organization also means keeping the house neat and tidy. Everyone needs to do their part, though you may have to be the prime mover in getting things started. It takes effort, but it’s worth it.
If you have children, parenting can be an incredibly stressful experience. You may need to develop parenting skills. The major guidelines to effective parenting are consistent limits, love, warmth, understanding, and communication. There are many excellent books on parenting skills.
Every family has its difficult people. The only way to deal with difficult people who show no indication of changing is to develop a capacity for forbearance. They are part of your life, part of your family. You’ll just have to put up with them. Understand they’ll probably always be difficult and learn to live with it.
Develop and use the skills we’ve described to reduce stress in your family life. If they don’t get the job done, go for help. Family therapy, assertiveness training, parenting training, and bibliotherapy are all options you may want to consider if you have difficulty managing family stress on your own. When all else fails, there’s always the legal system. Family life doesn’t have to be stressful; it can be a primary source of support and a buffer against the stress in other parts of your life.
Your Personal Life
Personal stress develops from situations that affect your relationship with yourself. A strong and positive sense of self is a powerful asset in coping with life stress. Events or experiences that shake your self-image impact how well you overcome external challenges in your life. Discomfort with how you see yourself is also a major source of stress point in and of itself.
Personal stress can come from success and achievement as well as personal setbacks and failures. Trauma such as an injury or illness, being assaulted or robbed, or minor violations of the law, such as a speeding ticket, test your endurance and well-being, creating personal doubts, self-examination, anxiety, depression, and illness. Worries about attractiveness, weight, aging, or physical changes as a result of personal injury, illness, or time destroy peace of mind and affect your relationships with yourself and other people.
Personal stress is difficult to address with self-help measures. You’re so close to the concerns causing your stress, they’re hard to see. Often, you’re unaware that stress influences how you see yourself and how you feel about what you see. And even when you become aware of personal stress, you’re often so enmeshed in its causes, you feel powerless to do anything.
The most pervasive aspect of personal stress is trying to meet obligations to yourself. Some people feel guilty about being “selfish” while simultaneously feeling resentful about getting “shortchanged” by life. This conflict is created by being over-involved with career, family, fame, fortune, the needs of others, or maintaining your lifestyle. You are never alone with yourself, or get personal things done, or pursue your personal goals and aspirations. It comes from feelings of failing to live up to what you really are, giving up on your dreams, “selling out,” or “settling.” Shakespeare expresses this universal truth in Hamlet, “To thy own self be true.”
Loss of self-esteem and self-respect or regaining it is a persistent theme in art. Edward Hopper’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Willie Loman and his eldest son, Biff, in Death of a Salesman are examples of how loss of self-esteem and self-respect makes life empty and meaningless. The movie Rocky, on the other hand, portrays the joy and deep satisfaction that comes from following your dreams and living up to your potential.
Limitations on personal freedom – going where we want, when we want, and how we want – and autonomy are the second most common type of personal stress affecting our clients. Personal freedom is central to most of us. Biological limits on personal autonomy are particularly troublesome for women. An unwanted pregnancy, for some women, is like nine months in jail. Sexual difficulties or starting menopause can be equally stressful.
Jail or prison terms, by definition, limit our personal autonomy and freedom. Changes in recreation or religious activities often reflect a loss of freedom of choice. Limitations on our personal autonomy are so stressful for of us that we will fight to the death rather than tolerate them. The New Hampshire state motto, for instance, is “Live Free or Die.”
Change always creates stress and life always involves change. Change is an inevitable part of normal development and growth. As we grow and mature from childhood to adolescence to adulthood to maturity and senescence, we go through changes in residence, in our living conditions, personal habits, interpersonal relationships, and recreational activities. Each change involves leaving something familiar behind and moving on to something new and unsettling in its uncertainty.
Often, the demands and pressures of life changes create further personal stress by diverting our energies and resources. Sometimes we have difficulty meeting our obligations to ourselves. Drug and alcohol problems develop as we seek relief from the stress.
In our culture, we over-emphasize appearances. If you compare yourself to the airbrushed, slick magazine versions of masculine or feminine “perfection,” you’re bound to be disappointed. Nobody looks like that. Many people try and end up feeling miserable when they fail.
The narcissism of failed perfectionism is a particularly difficult area of personal stress, because it leads us to feel ugly, undesirable, fat, or old and worn out.
Almost everyone has their own ideas and convictions about how the world works and their place in the universe. There may be an explicit set of rules or a code of conduct, or the rules may be vague and unspecified. Some of us are rigid and unyielding about our particular views and myth systems, others are flexible and frequently change views.
Philosophical or religious preoccupations, questions about our basic beliefs and conceptions, concerns about right and wrong, and personal morality, make up an element of personal stress. Our views relating to these basic issues are part and parcel of who and what we are. When they are challenged by circumstances, ourselves, or others, the threat is to something basic and vital about ourselves.
The key to handling personal stress is to build your self-esteem. Write a list of ten things you like about yourself. Pay yourself compliments: “I really did a good job on that,” “I may not be the best, but I’m awfully close.” If you have difficulty accepting compliments, keep practicing until you can. Look at yourself in the mirror and say the things to yourself that would make you feel good if someone else said them to you. Another way of altering your personal stress is to try looking at your situation from a less immediate perspective. Take a long-term view of life, particularly your own. Nothing in your life is wasted, every experience prepares you to cope with situations later on.
Look at your parents’ lives or their friends’ lives. Draw on older people’s experiences for examples of how changing your perspective can reduce the stress of your current situation.
Be assertive about your personal privacy, freedom, and autonomy. Examine your goals and directions, make sure you’re doing what you want to do, going where you want to go. Are your goals your own or someone else’s?
Decide what you want to be doing and where you want to be in five years, then figure out what will get you there. This can be tough on personal relationships and you may have to decide which is more important, your relationship or your freedom.
If you’re feeling bad about not meeting obligations to yourself or berating yourself for being a failure and not having lived up to your potential, take time out for a reality check. Who are you competing with? Who are you comparing yourself to? Young people often compare themselves to people ten or twenty years older than they. Whose aspirations are you reaching for, yours or someone else’s? Your parents’? Your spouse’s? Your teachers’? How much of your feelings of failure have to do with disappointing others? Quit competing, quit comparing, and follow your own dreams. Make a list of your achievements, successes, and accomplishments. Chances are you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much you’ve done.
How much of your personal stress has to do with impossibly high standards others have set for you or you’ve set for yourself? How much comes from overestimating your own talents, abilities, and capacities? Do you tend to overestimate, underestimate, or accurately estimate what you can and cannot do? Get in touch with reality. Ask someone you trust and respect for an honest appraisal of your abilities. Get checked out by a career counselor or headhunter. If you’ve got it, go for it. If you don’t, back off on your standards and give yourself a break.
If too much success is the problem, just slow down. You don’t have to live up to an image of success. You don’t have to exhaust yourself to live up to your past success. Take it easy and don’t assume more success than you can handle. You don’t have to live up to someone else’s ideas of how much is enough or what you should do with success when you get it. You might want to take a look at whether your success is worth the hassles it brings.
Develop a multi-faceted personal identity. Learn to look at yourself in many different ways. Don’t limit yourself to being just one thing. Search for balance among work, family, friends, recreation, and hobbies.
Altering personal stress can be a daunting task and everyone needs a little help with it from time to time. Tap your friends or family. If you need more support, get in touch with a good counselor or therapist.
Your Social Life
Your social life (or lack of one) can be a big source of stress for you. Either too much or too little social stimulation can be stressful: too little and you feel lonely, estranged, and isolated; too much and you get overwhelmed by social demands and the needs of other people. There are a number of ways to make social situations less stressful, but they all boil down to a few basic principles.
- Be assertive but gracious. Stand up for your rights but do it in a way that doesn’t alienate others. This is particularly applicable when people want too much of you or your time.
- Seek out people who share your interests, people you understand and who understand you.
- Remember to smile. Be open with people and be yourself. Allow other people to be themselves.
- Work on your social skills and use them. Talk to people and be friendly.
Reducing your social isolation and loneliness calls for a plan of action and requires a number of skills. One way of avoiding social stress is by staying in touch with people you already know. Keep the friends you’ve got. There will be times when people won’t like you no matter what you do or don’t do. When it happens, don’t take it personally. Develop a thick skin. Take pride in your ability to tolerate isolation, alienation, and social conflict. Remind yourself that self-respect and integrity come first. To be alone is not necessarily to be lonely. You need to develop a set of skills to help you deal with your social stress effectively. Skills such as good etiquette, self-assertion, cognitive flexibility, public speaking, listening, conversation, delegation, leadership, self-esteem enhancement, and behavioral flexibility are particularly helpful.
Our environment is both a concern and a potent source of stress for many of us. Destruction of animal habitats, vanishing wildlife, shrinking rain forests, pollution, acid rain, oil spills, and their implications for future life on this planet, distress us all. But less obvious environmental destruction includes violent crime in your neighborhood or any environmental circumstance that threatens you or your loved ones.
American society underwent sweeping changes over the 20th century and stress is an unavoidable byproduct. Geographic, social, and financial mobility have disrupted the semi-settled society of 1950, leaving us with the challenging and highly stressful task of forging a new society for the 21st century. Conflicting political agendas, competitions among societal factions, breakdown in the social order, constant flux in our cities and neighborhoods, discordant community values, and shifting social mores all contribute to social discord.
You experience the stress generated by societal discord in everyday neighborhood hassles. As population densities increase, our neighborhoods become increasingly crowded and stressful. Construction work disrupts our daily routines and brings the stress of noise, dust, and dirt to our doorsteps. Declining quality in local schools, inadequate public services, and dilapidated recreational facilities further disrupt the ordered routines of daily life.
Neighbors who fail to maintain their property, or are noisy or unfriendly, make a neighborhood unpleasant. Add violent crime, vandalism and other minor crimes, and neighborhood stress becomes intolerable. When this happens, good people move, bringing even greater disruption and stress for those left behind.
But even those who move do not escape. Moving takes time, energy, and money. New neighborhoods can be more stressful than old ones. You have to adjust to your new neighbors, new traffic patterns, new stores and new schools. No neighborhood is hassle-free. You have to deal with unfamiliar problems with depleted resources. You may look back wistfully to the old neighborhood you couldn’t wait to escape.
Think globally, act locally. Controlling environmental stress begins at home. For most of us home is a haven, a safe harbor, where we can lick our wounds, rest and restore our energies before returning to the fray. Hassles in the house rob us of this haven. When the kitchen is piled with dishes, the table is covered with magazines and mail, the floor is strewn with toys, and the cat box hasn’t been emptied all week, home is no haven. When you don’t bother to clear the bed off, but just slip in between the sheets, you know you’re in trouble.
Most of us have strong feelings about money. Just thinking about it generates anxiety, depression, and anger, the three stress emotions. When 20,000 people were asked what emotions they associated with money, Psychology Today found that 71 percent chose anxiety, 52 percent listed depression, and 51 percent picked anger (multiple choices were permitted). Money is more than economics. Rightly or wrongly, for many of us it is also the currency of self-worth. Uncertainty about our financial future translates into uncertainties about ourselves and our own value.
More family fights are over money than any other issue. Worry about money is a primary source of stress. And it doesn’t have anything to do with how much money you have. It’s a problem on all socioeconomic levels. Not having enough money to meet basic expenses is particularly worrisome. Financial ups and downs are emotionally devastating. When we can’t pay our bills, we’re ashamed and humiliated.
Money won’t buy you love or happiness, but it eliminates worries about food, shelter, clothing, educational opportunities, etc. Money influences where and how we live, who our friends and associates are, and even those we marry. In many instances it becomes the final arbiter of value and worth of property, goods, services, other people, even of ourselves.
Few events are as stressful as a financial setback or loss. When it’s tied in with loss of a job or a demotion, it is doubly stressful. Financial reversals are stressful due to the changes they engender in our lives and lifestyles. These changes, however, are exacerbated by blows to our dignity, pride, and self-respect. When there is not enough money to pay bills, women tend to get stressed and anxious, men tend to get stressed, angry and depressed.
In general, the higher your income, the lower your stress. However, a major financial gain such as an inheritance, large winnings at the track, roulette table, stock market, or the lottery could be just as disruptive and stressful as a major financial loss. The secret of happiness is the stability of your income. The more stable it is, the fewer changes you’re likely to make in your lifestyle.
Here are some practical things you can do to get things back under control if you are having financial problems: 1) make a budget; 2) construct a realistic five-year financial plan; 3) hold family business meetings; 4) get financial advice from someone trained and equipped to deal with finances, such as a banker, accountant, or contact the Consumer Credit Counseling Service in your area.
Protect yourself from the further aggravation and stress of fending off bill collectors. You have rights, even if you are short on cash. You are protected from harassment by bill collectors by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which prohibits them from bothering you at unreasonable hours, annoying you at work, or otherwise hounding you. You can get a copy of the Act from the Division of Credit Practice, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, DC 20580.
Perhaps the best way of dealing with financial stress is by avoiding it. There are a number of ways you can do that. Number one is building the habit of living within your means. Don’t over-extend yourself or your budget.
Number two is putting money aside each paycheck for emergency budget busters like auto repairs, trips, medical bills, etc. If you have a little “cushion,” you’re much less likely to fall apart when something out of the ordinary happens. You’ll save money much more easily and painlessly if it’s automatic and regular. Join a payroll savings plan and put a percentage of your paycheck into savings. If you can manage it, 10 percent is a good figure to shoot for; if you can’t, try 5 percent.
You should also have inviolate, untouchable savings that are separate from your emergency fund. Long-range savings for a home, retirement, education, etc., provide a means for improving your quality of life; emergency funds are a means of continuing it.
If your finances are such that it’s impossible for you to save, look around for a job that pays more. If that’s not an option, take a hard look at your expenses to see what you can cut out or economize on. Change your shopping habits by trying different stores and looking harder for bargains. Cut back to bare necessities if you have to, but balance income and expenses so you can put something aside.
Think about a sideline or a part-time job to make a little extra. Check the help-wanted sections of your local paper. Brainstorm with friends and family to come up with ideas to earn extra money. It could even be fun to do something different with your spare time.
The most important element in accepting financial stress is finding a more accurate and reliable way of measuring your self-worth. Friendships, community work, religious or spiritual involvements, teaching, etc. are more reliable and constant elements in the calculus of self-esteem than money. Quit measuring your worth in dollars. Money and what it buys are poor barometers of your value as a human being.