Distressed by stress?

Many are distressed by the pervasiveness of stress, and for good reason. For it is not lack of exercise, poor eating habits, or artery-clogging cholesterol that is the major cause of heart attacks and strokes. No, the major culprit is stress. In fact, according to The American Institute of Stress (http://www.stress.org/), 75 ~ 90% of visits to family doctors and clinics are for stress related illnesses.

We are indebted to Hans Selye (1907 ~ 1982) for shedding so much light on the harmful effects of stress. A Canadian endocrinologist of Austrian-Hungarian descent, Dr. Seyle devoted 50 years of his life to studying the causes and results of stress. He also wrote 30 books and 1,500+ articles on this same subject. Two of his major works are still available at Amazon.com. They are “Stress without Distress” (1974) and an updated, revised, and expanded version of his 1956 classic, “The Stress of Life.”

Both physical and mental stress can be harmful. But the primary cause of illness and premature death is mental stress. We have mental stress when we resist, fight, or struggle with something we dislike but cannot change. At such times, we experience frustration, anger, and resentment, which are toxic emotions that eat away at our well-being.

But what is it that we dislike? Aren’t all of our dislikes nothing more than personal preferences? For example, if I dislike cold weather, when it gets cold, I will be frustrated, unhappy, and stressed out. But it is not the cold weather that causes my stress, but my decision to dislike it. In other words, it is not external events, but my thoughts, preferences, and attitude that create stress.

So, it is not the weather that needs changing, but my own negative thinking. But how can I learn how to change my thoughts and reduce stress to a harmless level? Well, two approaches immediately come to mind. The first is rational or cognitive and the second, holistic.

My favorite rational or cognitive approach is Dr. Albert Ellis’ “Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy” (R.E.B.T.). Thankfully, his classic 1988 treatise that was written for laypersons has recently been revised, updated, and released. The title of his new book describes its contents very well: “How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable about Anything. Yes, Anything!” (Citadel Press, Kensington Publishing Corp, 2006). If you wish to clear your head of “stinking thinking,” this book will teach you how!

The weakness of the rational / cognitive approach is that at the very moment you need it most, you will find it difficult to focus and have little energy to work with. That’s because you need to apply R.E.B.T. for relief when you are under stress, but stress drains your energy and clouds your thinking, making it hard to apply the therapy. I’m not suggesting that you should forget about R.E.B.T., but merely alerting you that it may take a little more effort and patience. So, don’t be discouraged, for you’ll be well rewarded for your efforts.

The holistic or mind-body approaches incorporate breathing techniques. The advantage of this approach is twofold. First, regardless of our level of stress, we can always control how we breathe. Second, by switching to slow, restful, and calm breathing, we remove our attention from our problems and automatically trigger what David Harp calls the Relax-and-Release Response, which is the opposite of the Fight-or-Flight (Stress) Response.

In 1976, borrowing from Transcendental Meditation and other techniques, Dr. Herbert Benson introduced The Relaxation Response. It was specifically designed by him to be an easy-to-use, stress-reducing practice. You can learn all about it in his book “The Relaxation Response” (Herbert Benson, M.D and Miriam Z. Klipper). The book is available at Amazon.com and libraries everywhere.

More recently, Matthew McKay, Ph.D. and David Harp, M.A. released their book, “NEURAL PATH THERAPY, How to Change Your Brain’s Response to Anger, Fear, Pain & Desire” (New Harbinger Publications, 2005). This small, fun to read book is packed with wisdom and a five-step procedure to reduce stress. Learn how we get stuck in a rut by the neural networks that our “stinking (negative) thinking” creates, and learn how to reverse the process.

Two more excellent books on reducing stress are “TRANSFORMING STRESS, The HeartMath Solution for Relieving Worry, Fatigue, and Tension (Doc Childre, Deborah Rozman, Ph.D., New Harbinger Publications, 2005) and “OVERCOMING EMOTIONAL CHAOS, Eliminate anxiety, lift depression, and create security in your life” (Doc Childre, Deborah Rozman, Ph.D., Jodere Group, 2002).

The disadvantage of learning a holistic approach from a book is that it is difficult to evaluate how well we are mastering a particular technique. Of course, over time, we will have an idea how successful we are by the results we get. Yet, it can never compare with the ultimate way to learn, which is biofeedback.

In biofeedback, we use a sensor to hook up ourselves to a computer, and a software program reveals, in real time, our level of stress. That is, it allows us to watch our stress level change from moment to moment. We can observe our stress fall as we breathe properly and see it rise as we get distracted, annoyed, or excited. The feedback is also precise and measurable, so we not only see our progress, but also know exactly how much or little progress we are making. Once we train ourselves to reduce stress on command, we can apply what we have learned to our everyday encounters with stressful situations. Because of the pervasiveness of stress, we begin to think of it as normal. How stressed are you now? Probably far more than you imagine. This is another advantage of a biofeedback device because you won’t be able to underestimate your stress level. Neither will you be able to overestimate how well you cope with stress.