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When Life Overwhelms Us: Responses to Stress

Written by: Lane Gormley, EdS, LPC, NCC
(*Clients are not identified by their real names.)

 Did you know that stress can be good?  Healthful stress is called eustress.  Without it, some of us would be bored.  Eustress might be the result of facing a desirable challenge in a positive manner.  Examples: taking a test for which one is well-prepared; climbing a mountain if you are an experienced climber; going on an Outward Bound expedition with close friends; getting a new job; going back to school.  Eustress might also happen if you have a lot going on – all of it good.

Negative stress, sometimes called distress, is a frequent factor in physical and emotional illness.  This type of stress happens when the environment is giving us absolutely all that we can handle.  Example: divorce + pressures at work + financial danger + a physical injury + grief issues.  One more thing will be too much; it will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

When that one thing happens, crisis occurs.  Crisis is a noticeably unstable state that could, unaddressed, lead to danger for an individual, a group, a country, or our world.  I worked for a long time on hospital crisis units where my Clients’ stress levels had exceeded safe limits.  This was indicated by dangerous behaviors (alcohol or drug-related risks to self and others, suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, mania, paranoia, psychosis, or homicidal thoughts).

The highest degree to which stress can escalate is trauma.  In cases of trauma, the degree of stress to which the individual has been subjected is so extraordinary that meaning can be lost.  The traumatized individual may not remember what happened or may have concealed the memory somewhere deep within the mind where it remains blocked until triggered by certain stimuli.  When that happens, there could be flashbacks — sudden and all-enveloping memories of the trauma event.  I had a frequently hospitalized Client who was a homeless Vietnam War Veteran.  He refused to live in the housing that we repeatedly found for him and wandered the streets of the inner city.  When he heard a car backfire or a loud bang! of any kind, he dropped to the ground and covered his head.  Sudden loud noises transported him to a previous time, a faraway jungle, a mind zone of deadly danger and crippling terror survived long ago. This is flashback.  It is one symptom of trauma.

Twenty years ago, my neighbor, Jerri, got up one morning and dressed for work.  It was a beautiful autumn day in New York State, so she decided to walk the short distance into town to her job.  As she crossed a side street leading to a wide tree-lined avenue, she was hit by a speeding car.  Seven months later, she woke up in a hospital bed in a rehabilitation facility with no memory of the accident or of the intervening months.  This, too, is trauma.  Other things that might cause trauma are physical or psychological abuse, imprisonment, rape, torture, or surviving a catastrophe.  Sometimes trauma workers are, themselves, traumatized by dealing with the trauma of others; this is called vicarious trauma.

Theoretically speaking, then, we have a fairly clear concept of stress, its potential for escalation, and its effects on the human mind.  Subjectively speaking, when it comes to the individual – you or me for example – stress is less easy to identify or to categorize.  This is because people are so different from one another.  They are unique.  What one person finds stressful may be barely noticeable or even exciting to another, depending on their personality, background, support network, and tolerance level.  Here are three examples of stress that feature a similar stimulus: graduation.  They will illustrate what I am talking about.

Each year in August, many young people leave home for the first time to further their education in a college or university.  This event can be very stressful for students and/or their parents.

Graduation: An American Tragedy

Jennifer N. (* not her real name) had grown up as a lonely child in an unhappy and disconnected family.  Her life’s dream came true when she married and gave birth to a son.  Evan was everything to her; her activities were centered on him as she volunteered at his school, worked with the scouts, chaperoned school and band trips, and responded to his every need.  In his senior year in high school, Evan received a music scholarship to a good university and got ready to graduate.  Jennifer came to therapy for the first time in preparation for this event.  She was already dreading the “loss” of her only son to the large Midwestern university.  She had read several books about the heartache of the “empty nest” syndrome.   In session, she could not stop crying as she imagined her daily life without her son.  She and her husband drove Evan to school and bought a comforter and a small refrigerator for his room.  Jennifer was hurt when, after walking his parents to their car, Evan said, “Bye, Mom.  Bye, Dad.” and walked away with his new roommates.  “He just walked off.  He never even looked back”, she said tearfully.  For several months, Jennifer remained under acute stress as she processed the “loss” of her son.

Graduation: Free at Last, Free at Last

In her third and youngest child’s junior year in high school, Anna H. (*) came to therapy.  Having spent an insecure childhood with parents unable to relate to her emotional vulnerability, Anna was, perhaps, overly sensitive to her own children’s needs.  If any of the three of them was upset for any reason, Anna’s stress level went through the roof.  She felt that their wellbeing and happiness were in her hands.  It was a heavy load to carry.  There were few moments when something was not going on with at least one of them.

Her brilliant only son had a narrow escape from a bad drug trip.  The middle daughter was charming but headstrong and demanding.  Now, the youngest, Malika, was turbulent, defiant, verbally abusive at times, getting uncertain grades in school, and reluctant to consider leaving home for college.  “All I want, Anna told me, “is for her to go to school and leave me to my own life with my husband.”.  It was touch-and-go for the remainder of Malika’s high school career, but she was accepted at a good college.  Her mother then worried about taking her to the school, about the trip itself, about the possibility of a disastrous good-bye scene.  “What can I say to her to get through these final days?”, she asked in session.  I said, “Tell her that you love her.  Tell her that you are proud of her.  Tell her that it will be difficult for both of you to separate from one another…” — and here Anna interrupted me: “…And never to call us again.”  Naturally, Anna was joking.  At least, I’m pretty sure she was joking.  I mean, she had to have been joking, right?

Graduation: Taking Aspirin for Pain

An eighteen-year-old boy on suicide watch was my Client in a hospital crisis unit.  Karl (*) came from an family where emotions were never expressed.  He found it impossible to tell his high school companions how much it hurt him that soon they would go their separate ways.  His parents seemed happy that he was going to college; a close friend was even going to the same college.  His friends gave no sign of feeling as he did.  They were celebrating wildly all over town.  One night after a good-bye party for graduating band members, feeling alone and lost, Karl went home.  In a bathroom, he opened the medicine cabinet above the sink and saw a giant bottle of aspirin from CVS.  He took one and then another and then another until he had taken all of them.  Karl was taking aspirin for pain.

Different mothers, different children.   How many reactions can there be to the same event?  I don’t know.  What I do know is this: it is important for you to know what you find stressful so you can protect your mental and physical health.  Do you think you know?  So do a lot of my Clients.  They may know some of the sources of stress in their lives but be unaware of others.  Some people do not know how much leftover stress they still carry from childhood.  Some love their jobs and yet come home tense and irritable.  Some people find vacations more stressful than staying at home.  Some people simply cannot relax.  Do you know your personal stressors?  Are you able to balance them off against relaxing activities?  We live in a stressful world, so it is good to think about stress management as a primary component of health.

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