Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Effect of Worrying and What to do About It

An excerpt from my book, The Spiritual Journey of Family Caregiving:

When it comes to stress we usually like to think that something outside of ourselves has made us be stressed out, and often there IS an outside event that sets the process in motion. However, our reactions to stress actually stem from a very complex interrelationship between our physical heredity or current level of stamina, our thoughts about the situation we are dealing with, our past history, and a multitude of other factors, both environmental and internal. How we perceive the situations we find ourselves in is related to all of the above factors which explains why one person might handle a confused or ill-tempered relative with ease while another dissolves in tears of frustration.

Whenever a person perceives a threat to their well-being (real or imagined) there is a chemical reaction that occurs in the brain. Part of your brain called the hypothalamus sends a signal to your nervous system to release epinephrine and norepinephrine (also known as adrenaline and noradrenaline) and related hormones. The job of these hormones is to prepare you to respond effectively to danger. Your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate and muscle tension all increase which is exactly what you need to have the power to fight a battle or run away.

However, in the world of caregiving, many of our challenges are not the kind we can fight or run away from. When stress hormones are not used by the body to cope with an emergency, or released in some other way (see below), they build up. If we go beyond the capacity of our body's ability to cope, a wide assortment of physical ailments result ranging from headaches and stomach upset to heart disease and cancer.

So What Can We Do About This?

Because the source of our stress is often more complex than it might appear on the surface, the process of reducing stress is most effective when it addresses these multiple levels of experience. Here are a few approaches that may work for you. Mix and match at will.

The Physical Approach: Many people find that the most effective solution is to use those stress chemicals for the purpose they were designed for -- fight or flight. Hit a punching bag, run around the block, do a few jumping jacks, join a dance class, or swing a tennis racket. Do anything that gets your body moving actively at least once or twice a week. My mom's technique was to clean the house. We had the shiniest windows and floors around when she was upset!

The Emotional Approach: It has been found that the tears of a person crying because they are sad contains stress hormones that are not present in the tears of someone cutting onions so it is theorized that crying is how the body discharges these excessive chemicals. During the release of fear or anger perspiration and respiration may act the same way. So find a safe place, where you won't needlessly hurt the person you care for, and let it out! Cry, laugh, shout. Express how you feel. Sometimes just the process of telling your story to another person who cares can help. Join a support group, call a friend, call a therapist, write in your journal, get on-line and write to a discussion group, pray or talk to God -- do anything that helps you release the tension of struggling emotionally by yourself.

The Do-Something Approach: My personal favorite stress reduction technique is to do something that will keep me from being stressed by the same situation in the future. If there's something I can change to keep from having to feel these feelings again, I do it if I can. This entails seeking the root cause of your emotional reactions and creating an action plan to address it. For example, if you blow up when stuck in traffic and the reason is that you have so little time to handle your many responsibilities, one solution might be to get help with those chores. Perhaps you can call on family, friends, or community agencies to fill in for you or pay someone to do them.

The Mental Approach: Sometimes the best way to reduce tension in our lives is to change our mental attitudes and expectations. There is only so much we can do and sometimes there is no great solution to our problems. So then the change we seek is internal. We give up on our preconceived notions of perfection, of how things "have" to be and adapt to how things are instead. Changing negative thought patterns into positive ones takes time and practice but the rewards can make all the difference. Think back to a time when you handled a stressful situation with ease. What was different? Chances are, you were different. For example, one day last week every little thing I tried to do went wrong. I felt aggravated all day long. The next day started out exactly the same way but, instead of fighting it, I burst out laughing. "I give up! This is obviously beyond me -- it must be in the stars, a bad day astrologically!" I normally wouldn't believe that but it changed my attitude and I immediately felt better.

The Spiritual Approach: Studies indicate that people who have some kind of spiritual focus to their lives cope with stress better and have a higher level of well-being than those who do not. Trusting in a power greater than yourself that you can draw on for guidance and support is the key here. If you have no spiritual beliefs or religious practice, a similar benefit can be attained by cultivating the attitude that the world is basically benign and that by utilizing all your internal and external resources you can handle anything that comes your way.

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