In 2007, a young man at Virginia Tech killed a number of his fellow students. Many were quick to suggest that he was "stressed out," upset or having a bad day. But as details emerged, we learned that this was not a case of someone who was "pushed" over the edge and "couldn't take it" anymore. Instead, what we learned is that the killer was a deeply disturbed and chronically troubled individual whose emotional life was punctuated by morbid rage and twisted anger.
A disturbance of this intensity is absolutely not something that could just happen to any of us. But it reminds us that we should all pause and think about the stress factors we face in our own lives. Even as memories of this event fade, we should all reflect on the pressures we face and how well we are doing in maintaining a sense of well-being. It is always a good time to ask: "what is stress?"
Psychological stress is not one thing. It involves four factors.
1. First, it involves the way our bodies react to events and prepare to respond or take action. When your body is in a constant state of activation, without adequate time for rest and recovery, physical and psychological harm can result.
2. Stress is also defined in terms of the events we are reacting to. Sometimes it is a big life change event (like losing a job or failing a class). Stress can also develop from life's "daily hassles" - like finding a parking space or dropping your cell phone and finding it broken.
3. Although events matter, our perception of events is also critical. Maybe it was a good thing you lost that job you actually hated. Rather than a setback, it might be an opportunity. The failed class? Perhaps the failure taught you something you might never have otherwise realized. Stuck in the grocery line? A great chance to relax and read the tabloids. Can't find parking? Maybe that spared you from the first ten minutes of a dreadful lecture. What you view as a hardship might be perceived by another as a challenge to be faced. We thrive on challenges and we find events to be stressful depending on how we interpret them.
4. Finally, stress is mediated by the adaptive skills and the coping resources we bring to bear in any situation. One such skill is the ability to recognize when we need the help of others.
Given this formulation, there are four things you can do to combat stress:
1. Change the way your body is reacting. Get some exercise, eat right, get more sleep, and learn some relaxation techniques.
2. Change the events in your life. Do that assignment early, rather than at the last minute. Quit the job that is killing you. Take the parking space at the edge of campus, and then enjoy the walk.
3. Change your perceptions. Think about it again: was it a setback or an opportunity, a burden or a challenge, a loss or a relief? The bad thing is that your computer died. The good part is that you can now justify getting that new one.
4. Enhance your coping skills. In essence, that is what you are doing in school, learning how to perform new tasks and expanding your skill and knowledge base. You might also need to improve your social skills or your time management abilities, or perhaps your language or your writing skills. And you may need to learn when to ask for help. Talk to the professor if you are failing a class. If your work life is miserable, talk to the campus career counselor. And if you are feeling stressed or depressed or upset, go to the Campus Health Center and speak to a counselor. Therapy is a relief. You don't need to be ill or disturbed. Most therapy is short-term and for help with the ordinary problems of life and the ordinary difficulties of adjustment. Talking helps.
Is stress about to do you in? The answer to that question depends on your Sense of Coherence.
(This article was written for an electronic newsletter at California State University, Sacramento, in the aftermath of an event and at the request of the editor.)
Copyright, Paul G. Mattiuzzi, Ph.D.