Stress: the bane of life. Richard S. Lazarus puts it concisely: stress is what we feel when demands of life exceed our available resources. In 2007, a poll by the American Psychological Association revealed that one-third of people in the United States experience high levels of stress. No one is above risk.
Stress isn’t necessarily evil, however. It’s a tool for motivation. When ﬁrst introduced to human DNA as the body’s physical response to perceived threat, it was meant for a specific purpose: the survival of the species. When the body senses imminent danger, it reacts by releasing stress hormones, which switches the body’s ‘ﬁght-or-ﬂight’ mode on. This internal alarm mechanism helped our ancestors from being killed by predators. In modern life, this system helps us juggle multiple responsibilities or compete in the rat race.
But if stress stays in the system too long, it can be detrimental to health and relationships. Some are unaware that they’re stressed out until they have a heart attack. When acute anxiety becomes chronic stress and starts interfering with daily life, it is time to take action.
When we get hit by a wide array of stressful life events, it’s important to identify the triggers and causes to prevent them from developing into illnesses. Why are some people better equipped at managing stress? They have the appropriate tools and a better support system.
These are the top life stressors—major sources of stress and anxiety that often lead to addiction, and suggestions for managing them. Consult your doctor before starting a regimen of diet, medication, or exercise.
- Death of a loved one
- Divorce or other relationship breakdown
- Relocation (includes sale and purchase of a new home)
- Serious accident/injury or illness of a family member/self
- Getting married
- Pregnancy (especially unplanned), delivery (or abortion, or adoption), and birth
- Celebrations: holidays, anniversaries, birthdays (especially of deceased loved ones)
- Peer pressure: being forced to join a gang
- Fall from grace: being thrown out of the family home for addiction or inﬁdelity; excommunication from one’s religious aﬃliation; scandals
- Marital (or other relationship) problems: domestic violence, sexual dysfunction
- Retirement, especially the ‘forced’ kind
- New activities: beginning a new job or relationship, attending a different school, launching a business
- Toxic workplace: harassment, discrimination, botched promotion, hazardous work environment
- Unemployment or underemployment
- Being a crime victim
- Financial problems: mortgages, loans
- Legal problems
- Emotional/mental illness
- Departure of children from the home (‘empty nest’ syndrome)
- ‘Problem’ children (‘black sheep’ complex)
- Problems with in-laws
- Dealing with relatives or friends staying with you
- Caring for elderly, ill, disabled or differently abled family members
- Living in a bad neighbourhood
- Natural disasters
- Threat of insurgency/war or terrorist attack
What about the less fortunate?
When we are depressed, we only see our problems. People who are experiencing severe depression are incapable of looking beyond their desolation, so they are unintentionally blind to tragic global issues like world starvation, war and homelessness. When we are in that state, we do not see the forest or the rainbow. We only focus on the weeds growing beneath our feet, taunting us in our misery.
Where grass isn’t always greener
All of our problems are valid, no matter how insignificant they seem to others. But if we look at the world at large, we realize how minuscule our dilemmas are compared to others. We’ve often been told it’s not okay to compare, but many people do benefit from considering those who are worse off than themselves.
For example, people who have suffered a job loss could take a moment to reflect on the fact that unlike those in war-torn nations, they have opportunities to find another job. Someone who is newly separated could find it helpful to take stock of what supports they do have – children, parents who can shelter them, friends they can confide in – while recognizing that some people lose their partners in devastating ways, such as war or natural disasters. Parents who have given up hope turning their difficult children’s lives around could take a moment to think about parents who no longer have their children.
On the other hand, this line of thinking can be too difficult to contemplate for people who are dealing with severe depression or PTSD resulting from rape, domestic violence, a life-changing accident or some other trauma. There is always value in acknowledging the plights of others, but no one should ever be made to feel guilty about feeling depressed, anxious or stressed.
The Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale
Stress may seem to hit you on an emotional level, but it can aﬀect other areas of life and lead to physical ailments. Psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe proved this in 1967 with their stress-measuring questionnaire. Also known as the Social Readjustment Rating Scale
(SRRS), it was used to determine the correlation between stress and illness. Through analyses of medical records and interviews with 5,000-plus participants, the doctors asked if they experienced any of 43 life events in the past year. Each life event was called a ‘life change unit’ (LCU) and designated a score and stress level. Anyone can access the youth or adult scale online and answer 43 questions. The total score will tell you if you have a low to moderate chance (30%), a moderate to high chance (50%), or a high or very high risk (80%) of becoming ill in the near future.
Strategies for coping with stress
Delay or take action?
If an activity is too stressful, like moving house, postpone it if possible, until you’re strong enough to withstand turmoil. But for heavy problems like legal and ﬁnancial issues, act immediately. Consult professionals if you’re overwhelmed as a consequence of these events. Rally friends and family for support. In stressful situations, especially the death of a family member, one should not be alone (unless solitude is preferred).
Call on a higher power
Prayer is a source of immense comfort and resilience. Those not aﬃliated with organized belief systems may opt for meditation.
Learn to say no
As if the daily hassles of life and consequences of these stressful events aren’t enough, if you’re empathetic, people tend to approach you for help. If you ﬁnd your time being eaten up by others’ dependence, let them know how you feel. You can’t save everyone all the time. Put up the stop sign. If you can’t decline a favour, accept part of the activity, then pass on the rest to someone else.
Rate duties according to importance. Do the hardest ones ﬁrst. Don’t get bogged down by minor events. Resolve issues that require further investigation, but delegate non-essentials. Break a big project into smaller tasks. Ticking items oﬀ a checklist can be satisfying.
Watch out for stress-eating
Avoid junk food. Instead of fad diets, opt for a more achievable balanced one of complex carbohydrates, whole grains, lean proteins, fruits, and vegetables. Avoid excess fat, salt, and reﬁned sugar—often responsible for chronic conditions and negative health outcomes. Add vitamin and mineral supplements, which reduce cravings, depressive symptoms, chronic pain, and irritability.
It might be tempting to respond to a stressful event by pouring a stiff drink, or to escape from emotional turmoil by taking a sleeping pill, but this can quickly lead to a full-blown substance abuse problem, or in the case of people who have already overcome addiction once, a relapse. If you feel that you need medical intervention to deal with the life events you have been dealt, talk to a medical professional or therapist.
Exercising the mind and body is integral to a holistic approach to wellness. A comprehensive assessment combines various modalities for mental, emotional, social, and physical health. These include yoga, Ayurveda, t’ai chi, qigong, hypnosis, and mindfulness meditation. Busy people can use meditation apps. Bodywork is another aspect of complementary medicine and includes acupuncture, acupressure, massage, physical therapy, and chiropractic.
This includes martial arts and other self-defence techniques. Swimming is especially beneficial, as it works out the major muscle groups, and running generates a rush of endorphins known as “the runner’s high”. Older persons benefit from sports, which promote successful aging.
You don’t have to ﬂy to some exotic destination. For city folk, a long drive to the countryside will do. A simple change in environment can do wonders for the psyche. If you can’t aﬀord trips, redecorate your living space. If on a budget, just adding ﬂowers or plants brings much needed oxygen and cheer. Change the look of a room by moving furniture around, repainting a wall, or switching drapes.
These include cognitive behavioural therapy, psychotherapy, neurolinguistic programming (NLP), music and art therapies. Consult your doctor for a referral. Most addiction treatment centres oﬀer these.
Coaches teach skills like stress and anger management, conﬂict resolution, guided imagery, and, on the death of a spouse, bereavement counseling.
Aggressive techniques for controlling substance abuse
- Medication-assisted treatment (MAT): For alcohol lovers, doctors administer disulfiram (brand: Antabuse). This synthetic compound makes drinking alcohol very unpleasant, forcing abusers to quit.
- Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS): This noninvasive brain stimulation technique turns oﬀ the appeal of alcohol and drugs to chronic users by changing the brain’s perceptions of them. Prior neural imaging shows the functional status of the brain to help doctors determine the right course of action.
Headsets and apps transport stressed individuals to a scenario of their choice away from their troubled environments.
For those with funds, a spa oﬀers the perfect escape. The frugal can soak troubles away in their bathtubs, don face masks from the pharmacy, or use the jacuzzi at the recreation centre.
Dancing, journalling, playing musical instruments, reading, karaoke, crafts, scrapbooking, painting, board games, chess, going to the theatre/movies/opera are great stress-busters. Some can double as social events or opportunities for connecting with family. Video games and TV are good distraction tools, as long as they’re not used to excess.
Shopping is a good distraction mechanism if done in moderation.
If you prefer anonymity, opt for support groups and online forums. But many prefer the company of family and friends—cheerful ones, not the negative kind. On the ﬂip side, others need to be with those who underwent similar experiences, as they can relate. Unless you have experienced the same event yourself, you cannot sympathize 100% with the sufferer—this is especially true for people who are grieving.
Flora and fauna
Gardening and ﬁshing give the same comfort and positive response that crocheting and knitting provide—plus vitamin D and fresh air.
Pets give joy to the most cantankerous person. If your building doesn’t allow pets, visit the dog park, zoo, pet shop, or pet owners. There are restaurants where people who can’t have pets socialize with cats and dogs over a meal. Studies have shown that stroking or playing with pets lowers stress levels and promotes faster recovery from personal illness and injury. That’s why some hospitals have animal ‘happiness ambassadors’.
Remember the basics
When we experience stress, we don’t take the time to take good care of ourselves, especially when we have dependents. But self-care is an important factor in recovery. Catch up on sleep. Hydrate. Despite difficulties, schedule regular work or study breaks. Do manual labour to channel negative energy into positive consequences. There’s a positive correlation between practising daily gratefulness and tranquility.
Dreading the holidays
Those in charge of preparing for celebrations are usually run ragged, especially if helpers are incompetent or lazy. Recognize that you can’t do everything. Delegate or let others take over. Indulge in some ‘me time’. Even an hour of recharging your batteries will leave you refreshed and able to tackle more challenges.
Lower your expectations. Insisting on perfection breeds disappointment. No holiday is perfect. To lessen stress, simply aim for a ‘pleasant’ atmosphere with minimal disagreements. If you anticipate an argument brewing, change the topic, or bring out the dessert earlier. Get a head start and impose a rule before dining: positive conversations only. If a negative sentence crops up, the source of this unpleasantness should put a dollar (or other agreed-upon amount) in a ‘charity jar’. Plan fun activities in advance to prevent potential ‘killjoys’ from disrupting the peace. Have teenagers produce audiovisual presentations to entertain children.
Remind people about the real significance of the holiday season and not the commercial hype that comes with it. This is especially useful when money is tight and you can only aﬀord cheap presents.
If you don’t have family or friends—or social events to attend—regard this as a privilege. You don’t have the responsibilities that plague many people, nor the obligation to attend gatherings. Why not share time with people in need? Volunteer at a charity for the homeless, donate to your local food bank, or participate in activities at your religious institution. If you don’t have your own people to feed, then feed other people. Many soup kitchens need a helping hand at holiday time.
Need a quick ﬁx?
Zap your stress away with these on-the-spot steps:
- Shake it out. Stretch. Flail your arms in the air. Rotate wrists, neck, feet, shoulders. Jump up and down. Sway your hips. Jiggle your thighs. Just a minute or two of physical movement will reboot your body back to a stable state.
- If angry, thwack a punching bag. If you don’t have one, punch a pillow. Or scream into it. if alone, shout at the top of your lungs.
- Breathe. Sneeze. Grunt. Fart. Belch. Talk to yourself. Yawn without covering your mouth. In short, do those things you’re not allowed in polite company.
For long-term results…
Accept and acknowledge that events will take place whether we like them to or not. They do happen for a reason—which will manifest at some point, whether a week from now or decades later. Because of this uncertainty, we should not task ourselves with mastering the mysteries of
the universe. Leave this to the scientists, sages, and scholars. Just try to live in the present. Authors like Gary Zukav and Eckhart Tolle have written about this. Some ﬁnd their teachings unrealistic and diﬃcult for the masses to understand or achieve. But in simple terms, what they are merely saying is, don’t worry about the future or get stuck in the past. Just do what you can with the resources you have now to improve your current situation.
What if I feel myself slipping?
We all have different levels of resilience. Many people can successfully navigate stressful life events by using one or more of the strategies listed above. But some people find themselves slipping into ever-increasing drug or alcohol use. If you see this happening, either in yourself or a spouse, child or other loved one, seek help immediately.
We cannot provide solutions to all these problems, especially global ones, but we hope at least one suggestion can alleviate your stress. It’s best to consult your doctor, religious/community leader, or support group appropriate to your circumstance. Professionals oﬀer strategies tailored to diﬀerent degrees of resilience to help achieve a stress-free existence.
Holmes, Thomas H. and Rahe, Richard H. “The Social Readjustment Rating Scale”. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, vol 11-2, 213-218. August 1967.
“Stress and health disparities: Contexts, mechanisms, and interventions among racial/ethnic minority and low-socioeconomic status populations”. American Psychological Association, APA Working Group on Stress and Health Disparities. 2017.
Photo credit: Jesper Sehested. This picture has a Creative Commons attribution license.