The challenge of stress reduction

By Margaret Jordan, PhD, Clinical Psychologist
Stress is a natural part of life, but one that can easily become a problem. In 2007 the American Psychological Association’s survey, “Stress in America”, found that a third of the respondents said they had extreme levels of stress. Almost 20% reported having high levels of stress 15 or more days per month.

It is well established that extreme or prolonged stress can lead to physical and mental health problems, ranging from heart disease to depression. But reducing stress levels is often easier said than done. For one thing, it is an assumption in our culture that success goes hand-in-hand with being busy. Doing things, going places, and producing results are accepted signs that one is leading a good life, and most people feel some pressure to achieve. Yes, relationships with other people are considered important, too, but they are often farther down the priority list in daily life, and relationships themselves can add to stress.

An important consideration in any attempt to lower stress levels or manage stress better is that the best solution may not be the same for everyone. The person who uses commuting time to prepare for the day or to decompress before arriving home probably does not feel as stressed by driving in traffic as an individual who feels angry at other drivers or impatient to get to the destination. Often a source of stress is the list of “shoulds” someone carries around, and some of these may be pressures the person is not even aware of. So in making an attempt to manage stress better, it is essential to assess responsibilities, circumstances, personality, and expectations on an individual basis.

Two techniques that have been shown to help reduce stress are exercise and meditation or other contemplative activities. Both of these require consistent practice, however, and it often is difficult for people who are highly stressed to develop the habits that would likely help them the most. Sometimes it takes a crisis, perhaps deterioration in health, to bring about enough attention to the problem that will lead to a significant change in stress levels for the better.

While it is common to complain about or lament the stressfulness of everyday life, what is usually not said is that many people are drawn to stress, and some may be addicted to it. The rush of adrenaline that accompanies stress is for some people a pleasurable, compelling feeling. These folks may be perpetual procrastinators, because the tension of getting things done at the last minute feels good to them, even as it also takes a toll. Others may be avoiding feelings that would come to the surface if they stopped being overly busy and had quiet time in their lives. And some may find that being stressed gives them an outlet for bottled-up anger, because they can use the source of stress as a target of “justifiable” anger.

So we see that the subject of stress is not so straightforward, after all. For some, cutting out unnecessary activities, putting limits on troublesome relationships, exercising regularly, and building quiet time into their lives will work to reduce stress and create a more pleasant life. For many people, though, it is not as simple as that. Then the question arises: What is keeping me from doing what I need to do to reduce my stress? Often the answer is not apparent.

In this situation it is useful to get help. A psychologist or other licensed mental health professional can assist in uncovering the barriers to making lifestyle changes that will reduce stress. Even more important, a qualified therapist can identify the inner sources of stress, such as perfectionism or difficulty with conflict, and help with working through these issues. If family or marital problems are significant stressors, therapy can help bring about changes that will reduce stress for the whole family.

Bringing stress levels down is challenging, but health often depends on it. It is better to work proactively to create a healthier life than to have to react to a crisis. In either case, working with someone who can assess an individual’s situation and uncover the unique contributors to stress can make a difference between success and failure.