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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Mind-Body Connection: Responding Instead of Reacting to Stress

Stress is a normal part of life. As long as we're alive, we'll have a certain amount of stress in our lives. An optimal amount of stress is often helpful to motivate us to accomplish our goals. But what happens when stress exceeds the optimal level and we feel overwhelmed?
Mind-Body Connection: Responding Instead of Reacting to Stress

Many people who become overwhelmed by stress have maladaptive ways of coping. Rather than responding to stress by taking a moment to catch their breath, they react in negative ways that cause them to feel worse. Usually, their maladaptive reactions aren't intentional. It's more a matter that they've never learned healthy ways to manage their stress.

The following vignette, which represents a composite of many cases to preserve confidentiality, illustrates how you can learn to respond rather than react to stress:

Tammy:
By the time Tammy came to see me in my private practice in NYC, she described her life as being "a complete mess." She appeared tense and exhausted. Her marriage was on a downward spiral. And boss was threatening to fire her if she didn't get help.

Mind-Body Connection: Responding Instead of Reacting to Stress

Tammy said that, up until two years ago, her life had been "fine." Her 20 year marriage to Tom had its "ups and downs," but they were generally happy.

But when Tammy's company began laying off employees due to the recession, she was faced with having to take on a lot more responsibilities and spending more time at work. This meant that she spent a lot less time at home with her husband, and she hardly saw her friends. At first, her husband was understanding, but as time went on, her husband began to complain that he hardly ever saw her.

Tammy tried bringing work home, spending early evenings with her husband and then focusing on her work late at night after he went to bed, but then she was exhausted and irritable the next day. After a few days of this, she could hardly get out of bed, and she began snapping at home and at work.

Tammy didn't know what to do, so she tried just working harder, but she kept feeling that she was falling further and further behind in her work. Her boss was complaining at work, and her husband was complaining at home. She felt completely unappreciated by everyone and as if she was caught in this vortex that she couldn't get out of no matter what she did.

She knew that her relationship with her husband was deteriorating, and she worried about this. But she said she felt like a hamster on a wheel--like she was running, but staying in the same place.

When she tried to talk to her boss about it, she completely lost it and began shouting at him. She said she was just as startled by her reaction as he was. Since he knew that this was uncharacteristic of her, he told her that he would overlook her outburst for now, but she had better get help. He also told her that he was going to redistribute some of her work to other employees because it was obvious that she was overwhelmed by stress.

Initially, Tammy was relieved that her workload would be lightened, but then she began to worry about this. She described herself as a "perfectionist" and she felt that she "should" be able to manage all of her work assignments as well as maintain her relationship with her husband. So, even after Tammy had more time to relax, she still felt like she was on a never ending treadmill because her mind kept churning, berating herself for not being able to handle everything. She just couldn't give herself a break.

Before Tammy came to see me, she had never considered what she could do to manage her stress. The concept of stress management was completely foreign to her. Initially, when we began to talk about it, she seemed skeptical. This didn't fit in with her idea that she should be able to handle everything and she shouldn't have to do anything to manage her stress. She felt that if she had to engage in stress management, she was "weak."

But after Tom spoke to Tammy, telling her that he was considering a separation, Tammy began to seriously consider that she needed to make some changes. She didn't want to lose her marriage so, with some hesitation, Tammy became more open to learning how to respond to stress rather than becoming reactive. She also had to learn to manage her harsh and rigid expectations of herself, which meant doing some family of origin work where these unrealistic expectations were first developed.

Tammy began by learning to observe her breath. She was surprised to observe that there were times when she was hardly breathing or she was breathing in a very shallow way. Learning healthy breathing techniques helped to calm her down significantly.

After she learned to breath properly, Tammy and I worked on helping her to observe herself in stressful situations. Over time, she realized that she often reacted to stressful situations without thinking, which often made these situations worse for her and for those around her. She learned some simple techniques for stopping herself from reacting and shifting out of her reactive mode into a more responsive mode. She learned that by stopping, sometimes for only a few seconds, she was able to modulate her emotions, calm herself, and respond on a more even keel.

As Tammy learned to be more responsive and less reactive, she began to feel better about herself and more in control. She was also getting compliments from her husband, her boss and her colleagues, who noticed the positive changes in her.

Mind-Body Connection: Responding Instead of Reacting to Stress

During this upward spiral, Tammy became more willing to explore other ways to manage her stress through meditation and yoga. And for the first time in five years, she and Tom planned a vacation together to rekindle their relationship.

Getting Help in Therapy
Without realizing it, the negative effects of reacting rather than responding to stress can creep up on you until you find yourself in an unmanageable situation.

Rather than waiting until stress feels overwhelming, it helps to work with a professional who can help you to change the way that you're handling stress. Very often, once you learn to respond to stress rather than becoming reactive, your overall sense of well being improves and so do your relationships.

About Me
I am a licensed psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, Somatic Experiencing therapist, and EMDR therapist in NYC.

I have helped many clients learn to respond rather than react to stress so they could lead more fulfilling lives.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me: josephineolivlia@aol.com.