Monday, April 22, 2013

Storing and Releasing Stress

Today is Monday, April 22, 2013.

A few years ago, Harold Klemp, the spiritual leader of Eckankar, admonished ECKists not to store stress in the body.  Whenever we become aware that we are storing stress, we are advised to "let one thing go."  This might sound like a strange thing for a spiritual leader to say, but it's a fact that when we are under stress, it's hard to go with the flow and thereby accept the help and protection provided by Divine Spirit. It's hard to get a grip on our problems, much less solve them, when we are under stress.

The causes of stress are many, especially in our modern world with its hectic lifestyle.  One of the things that I was looking forward to when I retired was getting rid of all the work-related stress that I was under.  The last few years I taught, when I happened to meet my friends who were recent retirees, I noticed that they looked great, especially after a couple of years of retired bliss.  One fellow had missed so many days of his last year of teaching that I think he must have ended up working only half-time.  I remember also that he walked slowly with a cane that year, his body all bent over.  When I chanced to see him in the mall a couple of years later, there he was without his cane, and standing tall and straight. He looked fabulous.  That was the first time I really noticed this particular benefit of retirement, and I began to notice it more regularly thereafter.  I was surprised to learn that there are stressors in retirement, as well.  They just aren't as bad as the ones we are typically under when we are working. 

I know for a fact that stress was one of the causes of my cancer. I remember two or three times in the months before my diagnosis when I snapped completely, frightening some of my friends in the process.  I was frightened, too.  Still, I soldiered on without making very many changes until my body crashed.

What is it that ties us in knots?  There are some general causes that can apply to anyone. They include a threat to our safety, fear of the unknown or of a negative outcome in the future, uncertainty about what may happen in the future, and cognitive dissonance, or the stress we feel when we hold two conflicting thoughts in our mind at the same time.

Certain life situations cause stress:  the death of a spouse, family member, or close friend, a serious injury or illness, pregnancy, a new baby, an argument with a spouse, family member, a close friend, a colleague, or the boss, marriage, separation, or divorce.   Victims of crimes such as theft, property damage, and sexual molestation feel stress.  Those who live with alcoholics, drug abusers and those who do self-harm store a lot of stress, too.  Physical changes such as new work hours, a promotion with increased responsibilities, moving to a new town, or lack of sleep can cause stress.  So can a new school, or a new job. Being thrown in jail causes stress – that seems obvious – but even going on vacation can cause stress.  Money causes all kinds of stress, whether you have lots of it or not.  Investors store lots of stress when their investments go south in the stock and commodities markets.  

Since I am not married and have no kids, many of the things listed above are ones that I won't have to worry about.  I've had arguments with friends and family over the years, but I haven't had to deal with any incidences of crime or a family member with drug or alcohol problem. My health issues have always been a source of stress, however.  The whole cancer experience was a huge stressor on so many levels.  As a cancer survivor who is always cognizant that cancer can come back, I analyze each and every little ache and pain, wondering each time if this one is something I need to worry about.  Naturally, the aches and pains show themselves at night and keep me awake for hours.

Moving has always been stressful for me, and having to move twice in the last 12 months has been particularly hard on me.  Having to leave my teacher friends, writing friends, church friends, and flower arranging friends was tough, and I have been so grateful for Facebook, where I have been able to keep up with many of my friends.

Money issues have been big in retirement, too, because I've had to cope with a significant decrease in salary, which means I have to worry about paying the bills and that I no longer have the financial resources to get out and have some fun whenever I feel like it. 

When I think about the amount of stress I had at work, I am no longer surprised that my body responded by allowing cancer cells to grow.  For many of us, the amount of paperwork we are required to do can be very stressful, as is handling staff who don't pull their own weight or refuse to follow the rules.  Both of these were problems in my job.  I had over 90 kids on my case load at school, and the paperwork was enormous, including testing and data entry for each student and filling out report cards for parents, as well as internal reports for my department.  As the ranking member of the English as a Second Language staff at my school, I was responsible for what my less senior colleagues did.  I remember one time when the principal was so mad at something the other ESL teacher did that he called me into his office, yelled at me, and threw some papers at me.  Of course, he was doing battle with his own stress, and since I knew he was facing quadruple bypass surgery soon, I didn't escalate the situation by screaming back, even though I felt like it.  As a testing coordinator for my building, I was under orders to make sure that all of the rules were followed, no matter how dumb they may have seemed.  When I read about the big standardized test cheating scandal in the Atlanta schools and saw that several building test coordinators went to jail, I realized that the threats of reprisal if we didn't follow the rules was very, very real. 

Sometimes at work, we realize that we have gone out on a limb and are no longer getting support from our colleagues or our supervisor, and that's another source of stress.  That happened to me a few times in my career.  It is stressful  no matter whether we choose to forge ahead without support and risk failing miserably, or whether we backtrack and try to make as graceful an exit as possible. I experienced both situations, and neither one was comfortable.

When supervisors make changes without giving staff adequate time to understand and prepare for them, the stress level rises all around.  This happened every single year that I taught.  There was one period where the school district changed report cards every year, and the sixth graders had a different format report card for each and every year of their elementary school years.  Some years the teachers were not even shown the new report card until only two or three weeks before we had to have them all filled out for the parents.  It was a mess. Each year, some new initiative was piled onto our plates.  No wonder teachers burn out at the end of their careers!

Workers who are required to do boring or mundane work or who work long hours suffer from stress.  When there is lack of communication in the workplace, or bullying going on among the workers, stress levels rise. Dissatisfaction with salaries and benefits also cause stress.  My job was far from boring or mundane, in the main, but I do remember that I had to do a lot of copying and preparation of samples for kids to look at and from which they could model their work.  Fortunately, I was not affected by bullying, but I was affected by certain staff members who were on a very short emotional leash, and who were apt to lash out in anger over petty things.  The term "office politics" doesn't seem to fit public schools, but there are as much politics and office intrigue in public education as in the world of for-profit business.

A certain amount of stress in our lives is unavoidable, and if you think about it, a life totally free from stress would probably result in a fairly dull life with no adventure and no growth.  Looking at the graph at right, as long as we stay in the green and yellow areas and remember to maintain a balance between those two, we are fine. In a normal lifetime a person gets into the orange area a few times, but ideally this stage doesn't last long, and the situations that elicit this level of stress are few and far between.  When we enter the red zone, we become a danger to ourselves and to others.

Sometimes it's very obvious that we are feeling stress, but occasionally we go into denial about the level of stress we are under.  When this happens, we stay in the orange zone too long. As the illustration at left shows, there are four main areas in which symptoms of stress can appear.

In the body, stress leads to headaches, frequent infections and illnesses, skin irritations such as eczema, muscle aches and twitches, general fatigue, and trouble breathing.  When stress is held long enough it can lead to colds and flu, asthma, heart disease, stomach ulcers, and cancer. 

Symptoms of stress in the mind include excessive worrying and negativity, muddled thinking, impaired judgement and having trouble making decisions.  At night we are plagued by nightmares and resulting lack of sleep.

Signals of stress in the area of emotions include depression, apathy, alienation from our friends and loved ones, general crankiness and sudden bouts of anger.  Full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can result from extreme chronic stress.

Behavioral signs of stress include either loss of appetite or binge eating, loss of sex drive, insomnia, restlessness, smoking and drinking to excess, and being especially prone to accidents.

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A story I read on Facebook today clarified for me the point at which the various problems that crop up in our lives turn into stress.

"A psychologist walked around a room while teaching stress management to an audience. As she raised a glass of water, everyone expected they’d be asked the 'half empty or half full' question. Instead, with a smile on her face, she inquired: 'How heavy is this glass of water?'

"Answers called out ranged from 8 oz. to 20 oz.

"She replied, 'The absolute weight doesn’t matter. It depends on how long I hold it. If I hold it for a minute, it’s not a problem. If I hold it for an hour, I’ll have an ache in my arm. If I hold it for a day, my arm will feel numb and paralyzed. In each case, the weight of the glass doesn’t change, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes.' She continued, 'The stresses and worries in life are like that glass of water. Think about them for a while and nothing happens. Think about them a bit longer and they begin to hurt. And if you think about them all day long, you will feel paralyzed – incapable of doing anything.'

"It’s important to remember to let go of your stresses. As early in the evening as you can, put all your burdens down. Don’t carry them through the evening and into the night. Remember to put the glass down!"

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 OK, so how can we "put the glass down"?    

To prevent stress from building up and being stored in the first place, we can listen to uplifting music, learn to manage our time (and carve out specific periods of time for relaxation), spend time outdoors enjoying nature, practice yoga or t'ai chi in addition to other types of exercise, and meditate daily for at least 20 minutes, either at the beginning of the day or just before bedtime.

We can turn an interest into a hobby that will take our minds off stress in our work and at home.   We can treat ourselves to any number of spa treatments, ranging from a manicure and pedicure (and if you are male, this applies to you, as well), to a facial, various types of massage, or other treatment, such as hydrotherapy tubs, saunas, steam baths, a salt glow treatment, a or body scrub.  Rates for spa services are often lower in winter than in summer, and lower during the week than on weekends. 

For those who have the luxury of paid sick days or personal days, don't be afraid to take a "mental health day" or a "stress vacation" once in a while.  I did this several times during my teaching career, but I still wish I'd done it more often.  

The end of winter and early spring are a tough time for those of us who live in cold climates.  This year has been especially hard on many of us, psychologically.  The reason I started to think about stress was because I was getting kind of negative about today's forecast for 3 to 5 inches of snow.  I guess it wouldn't hurt to think about spending more time outdoors when the weather warms up.  It would also be a good idea for me to meditate more regularly and add a hobby.  I have actually started a new one: making bead jewelry.  I'll spend a bit more time listening to music, too.  There's no sense in letting the weather forecast unhinge me.  :-/

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