If you find yourself snapping at friends and family, losing sleep, suffering headaches or feeling depressed—just some of the symptoms of stress—you're not alone.
Fully 64 percent of people responding to a recent American Psychological Association survey said "money issues" cause them the most stress. Next in line was national security, with 44 percent choosing it as the most stress-inducing aspect of their lives, followed by job security, with 31 percent.
Trying times—caused by money issues, job changes, health problems, troubled relationships, the death of a loved one or any number of difficult situations—all can cause stress and the physical and emotional symptoms that come with it. But some psychologists say with work, you can learn to respond and adapt to stressful situations more successfully.
As Robert Brooks, a psychologist on the faculty of the Harvard Medical School, points out, there are differences in severity and duration of stress. Stress during tax time, for example, may be short-term, ending with the filing of a return. Psychologists refer to this as acute stress. The stress of dealing with a long-term illness, in contrast, is ongoing, or chronic stress. But when it comes to your health, what may be more important than the source of stress or its duration is how you respond to it.
"The kind of trauma is not as much an indicator of how a person will respond as how the person perceives, interprets and associates to the trauma," says Anie Kalayjian, professor of psychology at Fordham University and a specialist in disaster and mass trauma. For example, Kalayjian says, take the responses of two people to a common experience: getting a wisdom tooth pulled. A person who has had dental problems in the past may anticipate a horrendous event, she says, and may suffer symptoms such as nightmares. Another may see having the tooth out as nothing more than inconvenient.
"In almost every case it's about the person's way of perceiving," Kalayjian explains. "It's 90 percent your attitude and 10 percent what happens to you."
But can people learn how to change their attitudes about what happens to them? Can they build up their ability to be what some psychologists call "resilient" or "hardy"?
"That," says Kalayjian, "is the $6 million question."
Brooks, who with psychologist Sam Goldstein is the author of "The Power of Resilience: Achieving Balance, Confidence, and Personal Strength in Your life" (Contemporary Books, 2004), believes people can learn to respond more effectively to stressful situations, from dealing with a divorce to adjusting to a new job. His book outlines steps to build what he calls "a resilient lifestyle." The first is to realize you can change the way you respond to stress, he says, and to stop repeatedly using your standard methods of coping even when they don't work.
"You have to really focus on what you have control over and then develop a plan of action," Brooks says, mentioning one study that has suggested that people who feel they have more control over their work situation report feeling less stress than those who feel they have little influence. The key may be to do what you can to take control of your response to a stressful situation.
For example, Brooks says, if you're concerned about a short-term situation such getting your taxes completed on time, take control by filing for an extension. If the problem is chronic—you're continually struggling with financial difficulties, for example—a first step in your plan may be to make an appointment with a financial advisor.
"You may have no control over the situation that occurs," says Brooks, "but you do have control over your actions."
More on how to cope with stress
The American Psychological Association offers these suggestions on how to cope with stressful situations:
- Establish good relationships with family and friends, and accept help from the people who care about you.
- Set goals, but make sure they are realistic. Take small steps toward solutions rather than setting overwhelming goals.
- Keep the situation in perspective. Try not to blow events out of proportion.
- Take action. Get started on addressing the causes of stressful situations.
- Take care of yourself. Don't neglect your own needs, or give up activities you enjoy and find relaxing.
Kathleen Donnelly lives and works in Seattle. She writes on topics that include health, medicine and nutrition. She has written for MSNBC, WebMD and The San Jose Mercury News.
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