Stress & Why I Can't Deal, or Maybe I Can Learn
By Rita Arens on January 31, 2012
BlogHer Original Post
I began my stressing career early in life. My first clear memory of stress involved Little League softball. I played right field back when nobody ever, ever hit to right field. I thought it was my responsibility to pray over every pitch, that if I forgot to say a prayer for that pitch and we lost the game, that it would be all my fault. Perhaps this was stress, perhaps delusions of grandeur -- I'm sure we could all have a lot of fun with armchair psychology with this story, but my point is that when it comes to stress, I'm a black belt. (Don't worry, I've learned to stop wasting my prayers on minutiae.)
I've read the literature, and I've drunk the Stress Kool-Aid. I've exercised four days a week for the past four years. I've finally learned to meditate. I make sure to get at least seven and sometimes up to ten hours of sleep at night. I saw a psychologist and analyzed my anxiety and how best to control it. (For me, anxiety and stress are difficult to separate. All I know is that they feel the same.) I've written about turning my pessimism into optimism and reframing and meditating. Kids being stressed? Check. Parents being stressed? Check. Work stress? Check. It would appear that I can't stop writing about stress -- and just thinking about that is stressing me out.
That said, I've spent most of my stress-fighting career thinking about how to handle stress rather than what caused it in the first place. Things are rough all over, Ponyboy. And I've blamed myself a lot for not being tougher.
I recently read Stress Less (for Women) by Thea Singer, a book that appeared in the mail for review. One passage struck me in particular -- one that talked about stress research being flipped on its head when researchers stopped thinking about stress or age atrophying parts of the brain and instead studied whether people who stressed more started out less equipped to deal with the stress in the first place:
The vulnerability hypothesis of stress -- that is, that a smaller hypocampus, whether due to genes or early exposure to stress -- can predispose you to the damaging effects of stress, rendering you more vulnerable to age-related memory loss and disorders such as PTSD.
So that's the bad news -- a stressful life event when you were a kid can make you a less effective coper when you're an adult. My mom had cancer when I was in middle school, which was more than a little stressful.
I eagerly read on, wading through quite a thick bit of scholarly summations and fifty-cent words. I learned about the stress dieting puts on your body. (Um, yeah, I had an eating disorder for years.) I learned about telomere loss (?!) and finally arrived at the part that explained the gist of the scientific mumbo-jumbo -- just as you can become less able to deal, you can also become more equipped to face stress. And then it went into stuff we already know helps, like exercise, social support and fish oil. I already knew that stuff would help me deal with stress, but I didn't know what wouldn't help me deal with stress in the first place. For some reason, the whole package made me more hopeful again. I couldn't control all the stuff that happened when I was a kid that might have blown my stress-fighting cool, but I can control how I treat my body so it will help out my mind to be a more effective stress-fighter now.
Does it change my behavior? Not really -- I was already popping fish oil and reaching out to my friends to vent and working out and all that. What surprised me even after all this writing about stress was to learn that my inability to deal -- especially when I wasn't treating my body well back in my teens and twenties -- might have been partially caused from my body and brain's reaction to some childhood trauma, like my mom's cancer. That part really blew my hair back, because I've been beating myself up for not dealing well with stress for a long, long time, even before I knew I had anxiety disorder (which doesn't help, natch). I'm not excusing myself from anything -- but it really sucks to already be upset about stress and then be extra upset because you're upset. You know?
What do you think? Does all this surpise you? Do you think you deal well with stress? What helps you deal better?
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