Having depression can make you more sensitive to stress, but coping skills will help you shake off minor frustrations before they have a major impact.
By Sasha Kildare
All of us face moments of grand upheaval—moving into a new home, losing or starting a job, adding a child to the family, mourning the passing of a loved one—that may trigger a period of debilitating stress and exhaust our coping skills.
As if in compensation, though, notable life changes often bring extra support from others in our lives to comfort us and help us adjust.
Then there are the routine daily events that rub the wrong way but net us little sympathy. Each little annoyance may seem insignificant, but how you handle them can have a big impact on your emotional well-being and your risk for chronic illnesses.
“Most of the stress in our lives doesn’t come from big things. We lose our keys and we are late for work, the toilet is plugged, and so on. It adds up,” says Gary Felsten, PhD.
A retired professor of psychology at Indiana University, Felsten taught a class on stress and health for 30 years. His current research into stress and cognitive function looks at how restorative activities improve the ability to cope with mentally demanding situations and activities.
His past work has shown that how well we shake off relatively minor frustrations has more impact on our mental health than the nature or intensity of the stressor itself.
Or as Felsten puts it, “My studies support that stress reactivity was a better predictor of symptoms of depression than total stress.”
Stress reactivity, not surprisingly, is a measure of how strongly you react to stressful events. One assessment tool called the Daily Stress Inventory documents an individual’s responses—from “was not stressful” to “caused me to panic”—to small-scale crises such as an argument, car trouble, or performing poorly on a task.
Dealing with traffic is one of those common daily stresses that puts our Zen to the test. For a Minnesota woman who goes by etta, cursing at other drivers during her commute is a clear sign that it’s time to recharge her inner battery.
She practices a spiritual discipline with others in her recovery group that helps her restore her emotional balance. She also credits the work she does in group with not letting things get to her in the first place.
“I have learned to worry about only what I can control,” says etta, who is a health care professional. “If it’s a patient calling me names or another driver, I can only control how I react.”
LET IT GO
In a study published in 2013, stress researcher David M. Almeida, PhD, and colleagues argued that when individuals retain strong negative feelings about “seemingly minor events,” the accumulation of such stressors could have as powerful an effect on long-term mental health as major life disruptions do.
The study involved more than 700 participants and found that those who couldn’t shake off the petty upsets of daily life were more likely to have higher levels of emotional distress 10 years later.
Other research has linked how people respond to day-to-day annoyances to future physical health problems, too.
There’s a bit of a Catch-22 if you’re already dealing with a mental health condition, says Ken Porter, program manager for the Mood Disorders Society of Canada.
“Individuals prone to anxiety and depression are more sensitive to everyday stressors. They have a lower level of resilience,” he says.
The growing science of resilience demonstrates that you can nurture the ability to bounce back from negative experiences with supportive relationships, mindfulness practices, and other skills for coping with stress.
To protect your well-being, you need to recognize what tends to stress you out the most and become aware of how you cope—or don’t.
“The first step is always understanding and identifying an issue,” Porter notes.
To assess the impact of daily stressors, David Kaplan, PhD, chief professional officer at the American Counseling Association, recommends keeping a log.
“The simplest method … is the best method—iPad, phone, piece of paper, or whatever works best for you,” Kaplan says. “Note when you feel down, what it feels like, what is going on, the thoughts going through your head, and how frequently you have these thoughts.
“Sometimes you can notice a pattern, such as, ‘These negative thoughts all happen to me when my mom invites me over.’”
Douglas of Utah learned that he typically felt terrible when he didn’t meet his moving target for the day’s achievements.
“I discovered that panic was brought up from failure to accomplish my goals,” says Douglas, who blogs about depression and ADHD under the title A Splintered Mind.
An easy change—simply listing what he wants to get done every day—has helped him stay calmer.
Your typical methods for dealing with stress may not be doing you any favors.
“Problematic approaches cause more problems than they solve,” Kaplan points out.
Do you try to relax or escape your feelings by binging on mindless entertainment or indulging in junk food or intoxicants? Those aren’t the healthiest choices for your overall well-being.
Do you take out your irritation on the people around you? Not so great for your relationships. The other extreme—trying to stuff down your distress and pretend you’re hunky-dory—has its own unhappy consequences.
“I always had trouble expressing myself. If someone did something that affected me or hurt me, I tended not to say anything. I would minimize the emotion,” says university student Myriam of Montreal, who has been in treatment for depression since her teens.
“I now take 10 or 15 minutes to talk about something that bothered me if I need to.”
It may take some experimentation, or even outside help, to find better substitutes for shredding stress.
“A good therapist can really help someone develop positive coping mechanisms … to deal with common, everyday stressors. There are many effective therapies,” says Porter.
“It’s very easy in today’s world to be drawn into negativity…. You have to make the most effort you can to see the world in a positive way and interpret what’s going on around you.”
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and other psychotherapies that emphasize problem-solving and skills building can help you develop fundamentals for shrinking the negative impact of daily stressors. Although it doesn’t happen overnight, you can change some of the ways you think with practice and guidance.
One approach is reframing—shifting your perspective by looking at the situation in a different light. For example: You hate your commute. But hey—that time could be your chance to listen to your favorite audio books, catch up on phone calls, or make a new friend by carpooling.
Reframing interactions with rude individuals by applying compassion has been useful for etta.
“Now I can have empathy for whoever it is that is being rude to me. I stay in the moment and realize that’s their stuff. I try to react as calmly and clearly as possible without emotion,” she explains, adding, “That’s not how I handled those situations in the past.”
Douglas has embraced the principle of “learned optimism,” which holds that individuals can shift their outlook by retraining their responses to adversity. The trick is learning how to challenge your pessimistic attitudes and catastrophic thinking.
As an example, Douglas recalls his mistaken assumptions about how people would react to artwork he posted online.
“If you had asked me, I would tell you that I received nothing but hate mail,” he says.
Then he conducted an experiment by creating one folder for positive comments and another folder for negative comments. The first month he received 30 positive comments and one hateful one. The next month he received 31 compliments and one hateful one.
“I realized I had a perception problem,” he says.
Another fundamental skill is self-efficacy, which is essentially confidence that you can handle the challenges life throws at you and belief that you have the ability to reach your goals.
Myriam’s nerves get frayed by her tendency to be disorganized, but she’s come up with a system that gives her more of a sense of control.
“When I forget what I am supposed to do, I feel sad and bad and my feelings can cycle down that day. I can end up saying to myself, ‘Stupid, why did I forget this?’
“I now try to have a very precise schedule that includes everything I have to do, so that I can have time for myself,” she reports.
Serving on the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s youth council has also given Myriam more of a sense of community and resourcefulness. The council addresses mental health issues such as stigma, homelessness, and the challenges youth face.
“I can do things in my life that can make me feel better and improve my mood,” Myriam says.
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Tools for stress relief
Exercise: Exercise boosts your endorphins, your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters. It relaxes you, serves as a distraction from negative thoughts, and can help to improve your sleep, which further helps you fight stress. Running, hiking and other forms of physical activity are “one of my biggest coping mechanisms,” reports etta, a health care professional from Minnesota.
Meditation: There are umpteen ways to meditate. Simply narrow your focus to your breathing, a particular object, information from one your senses (touch, scent, etc.), a phrase (mantra) or prompt, or physical movement such as stretching or walking. Mindfulness meditation decreases stress because it derails your jumbled thoughts and helps you relax.
Prayer: As a tool, prayer can work by letting you let go. “If I have a resentment, I say a prayer and keep praying about it and turning it over,” says etta. Otherwise, she says, negative emotions become draining. Douglas of Utah also finds that prayer helps him to stop dwelling on the negative and instead concentrate on finding a solution.
Progressive relaxation: Also known as a body scan, progressive relaxation involves tensing up one muscle group at a time, then relaxing those muscles, then proceed to the next muscle group—either from your toes up or your shoulders down. The physiological release encourages a mental and emotional release as well.
Self-expression: Journaling in whatever form feels comfortable—individual words, lists, long screeds, drawings, collages—provides an outlet for overwhelming emotions. For Myriam of Montreal, getting her feelings out helps keep her from overthinking. When necessary, she carves out an hour to express herself through writing or painting.
Savoring: If you practice fully experiencing and enjoying a positive event, you can draw upon that feeling in the future. The recollection will not only give you a mental boost, but also remind you that good things do happen in your life. Fix warm, happy, and relaxing moments in your memory by noting as my physical sensations, sensory details and emotional nuances possible. “Savoring is really mindfulness applied to positive experiences,” says stress researcher Gary Felsten, PhD.
Printed as “It’s the little things,” Winter 2019
via Esperanza – Hope To Cope
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