Everyday Stress

There was the making of an ugly scene on one of the city's streets the other day. Two men were vying for the same parking space. One of them made a rude gesture to the other and the second responded with a string of insults. The first man got out of his car. He looked determined, as if he were going to punch the other guy in the nose. As he walked over to the second man's car, he paused and then turned around and went back to his own car. You could almost see the effort that this took. The second man meanwhile was blowing his horn non-stop. Finally, the parking space was vacated and the first man parked, got out of his car and walked away. I'd been walking my dog and as he walked up the street, I said to him "You'd better watch your car. You could find a flat or worse when you come back." "I've got his license number," he said, "and you don't know how hard it was to walk away from that fight. I wanted to break that man in two." And he could have. "I'm steaming mad," he said, "I'm so angry I feel as though the top of my head will blow right off."

It's All About Stress

Stress is what he was talking about. Using other words, what he said was "I don't know what I'll do with all this stress." He was living out the fight or flight syndrome and had wisely decided against the first alternative. Most people don't get into street fights. They walk away. Most people don't tell their bosses to go jump in a lake when they feel they have been badly treated. They don't want to lose their jobs so they remain quiet and just take it. Nonetheless, in these situations, the adrenalin gets flowing as it always does when we feel challenged or in danger.

What is the fight or flight syndrome? In earlier times, the adrenalin surged when fight or flight were demanded. It served a purpose. Today, the adrenalin goes charging through our bodies for a variety of reasons. Most frequently it does not find a quick and ready release but remains within the body leaving traces of damage. There are as many ways that stress and the adrenalin it produces make themselves known in your body as there are ways of causing the stress in the first place. Perhaps the strain is on the heart or the digestive system; perhaps it shows in a stress-induced rash or nervous tension; perhaps drinking or drug abuse are ways its presence becomes known.

What Causes Your Stress?

Once you have identified the culprit as stress you can address and resolve the problem. At Park East we have a two pronged approach: through interview and questionnaire we identify as many of the sources of your stress as is possible. Then, with your help, we put them in one of two categories: stress you can minimize and stress you need to learn to handle and control. In the first category, there are probably many unsuspected stress inducers that can easily be modified. John, for instance, leaves sufficient time to get to work in the morning as long as everything goes smoothly. Too often, though, he is confronted with a traffic jam or bad weather conditions that cause him to be late...and stressed. Thelma finds those early morning hours stressful too. She has to be at work at 8:30. Her three young daughters have to dress, eat and have their lunches ready for her 8 A.M. departure. It seems that no matter how early she gets up, she can't do it all and is frequently late...and stressed when she gets to work.

Evaluate Your Options

What is required in some situations is environmental adaptation...or changing those aspects of the environment that continually evoke the stress response. John needs to evaluate three options that are available: investigate other perhaps more reliable means of getting to work, leaving earlier on a regular basis or arranging his work hours to start a bit later and end a bit later. Thelma needs to re-organize her early morning priorities: perhaps her children should shower and lay out their clothes the night before; maybe she can make their lunches on a weekly basis and freeze them. Or, like John, perhaps she can arrange to arrive at work somewhat later.

The second kind of stress is not in most instances amenable to environmental adaptation. Rather, it involves controlling the sense of panic within you which has been evoked by external events that are largely out of your control. For instance, Toby's firm is moving out of the area. She does not want to relocate for a variety of excellent reasons but fears that she cannot find another job as good as the one she's got. Every time she thinks of her predicament, that panic button goes off releasing adrenalin and disabling her. Dan has spent the past three years in an almost continuous state of crisis. His mother has been ill with Hodgkin's Disease, a serious but treatable form of cancer. She lives alone and depends completely on Dan to provide her with moral support, to take her to the doctor for her regular appointments and to attend to all her other needs when she feels too ill or too weak to take care of them herself. Each emergency puts Dan in a state of stress with all of its potential for both psychic and physical damage.

Learn To Modify Your Stress Signals

What can be done in situations like these? What we have found at Park East is that controlling the adrenalin surge through therapy changes the fight-flight syndrome before the stress builds up. Thus, though the distressing situation may not change, bodily wear and tear decreases significantly and people learn how to change from the active, alert functioning that fits the fight-flight body signals to the slower and mellower alpha brain waves that lower stress levels.