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Stress: Healthy Coping
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | January 18, 2019
The flourishing life is not stress free. It is stress resilient. The flourishing life minimizes stress through healthy action and properly copes with the stress inherent to living.
A shocking realization for many is that life, at every stage, is stressful. We keep soothing our fears by imagining that around the next corner we will finally be able to relax. In some ways, this may be correct. The anxieties of the teen age years wane and morph into the worries of a newly emerging adult, those anxieties give way to the stress of raising a family, only to subside when worries over retirement, aging parents, and troubled adult children move into the spotlight. Eventually, we hit those golden years where are cognitive powers and physical strength decline. Friends and loved ones proceed us into the grave and we must process these sorrows along with our own fears of death. Health, relationships, and finances accompany us on the tremendous journey of life, giving great joys and heavy heart aches with each step along this glorious path of life. By mustering the strength and skills to resiliently manage stress, we find greater joys without the constant pain of overwhelming anxieties.
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Stress is an ever-present element in our lives. It comes in varying intensities. At lower levels, we process the annoyances without skipping a step, moving through the strain towards our goal. At higher intensities, the stress isn’t so easily ignored. The unplanned interference knocks us from our plan, requiring a more detailed plan of recovery. An effective stress response increases our ability to enjoy life. Unfortunately, many responses to stress are maladaptive, relieving the weight of resistance momentarily without creating a more sustainable future.
"The unplanned interference knocks us from our plan, requiring a more detailed plan of recovery. An effective stress response increases our ability to enjoy life."
Our coping strategies fall within two general groupings: primary and secondary adaptations. A primary adaptation is a behavioral response to resolve the source of stress. We find different employment away from the narcissistic boss, we learn relationship skills to improve our marriage. A secondary adaptation provides relief from the stress, preventing overwhelm without address the underlying problem. We dream of a better future, we lose ourselves in an addiction, we practice mindfulness.
Neither primary nor secondary adaptations are inherently wrong. Each has a proper place and purpose. Some stressors will continually revisit our lives, pushing or pulling us from our desired paths and there are no clear resolutions. Constant rumination, searching for an answer that doesn’t exist, exhausts our systems and depresses our souls. These battles, fraught with uncertainty, often lead to a collapse into depression and helplessness, leaving the victim beaten and alone.
We see this pattern expressed in hopeless charges for perfection. A person shaken in confidence, seeks to address the internal stress through detailed and unwavering goals intended to solve the unseen sense of not being enough. The achievements only provide momentary relief and new, more demanding goals are set. Eventually, this stress response to an internal condition will fail in exhaustion and depression. Success can be found in addressing the confidence in more direct ways, understanding that, in this case, the lack of confidence is more likely caused by faulty psychological processes than limited achievements. Others, however, may benefit from more challenging goals and enjoyable life-boosting successes—a better job, a happier relationship, improved health.
Secondary adaptations address stress through round about means. We conserve our energy to address stressful events by changing our perception of the event. Perceptions can enhance or lessen the power of an event. A repeating stressful event that has overwhelmed in the past, gains power. A threat of the returning event threatens our survivability. We remember the power and the consequence from the past. The stress of the event is compounded with additional stress from anxiety worrying about the approaching storm. Secondary adaptations may prove helpful to lessen the impact of stress rising from the anxiety. We can confront the anxiety with mindful breathing techniques, distraction, or momentary pleasures.
Secondary adaptations have drawbacks as well. Distraction escapes can lead to addictions. Too many overwhelmed from life find relaxation through sneaking into our chemical pleasure systems, achieving momentary satisfaction through artificial means of altering the functioning of the mind. Non-prescribed or poorly prescribed drug interventions wreak havoc on our futures. The changing pleasure threshold, and unaddressed stress combine to create a future destroying force of more problems and less satisfaction from the protecting intoxication.
While we will never have complete control over the cross winds that will blow us off course, we can prepare and adjust to the stressful events. We do this through by placing many arrows in our quiver. Sometimes we move forward with proper action, other times, we dodge and recover. Sometimes we engage and sometimes we disengage.
We also prepare for these inevitable moments through strengthening our coping resources with other staples of healthy living. We build strong relationships, we eat healthy diets, we schedule proper rest into our days, and we exercise. The basics can’t be ignored in any discussion of well-being.
Each new stage of life can bring joys. Our childhoods, young adult discoveries, our families, careers and retirements all bring thrilling and wondrous enjoyments different from the previous stages of living. Right living during the previous stages invites dreams into realities as we progress through life. We flourish when we master the challenges of the unplanned storms.