"The ultimate goal is to see and deal with your stress-makers as soon as possible after they appear."
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Episode 137 -- August 5, 2021Four Tips for Reducing Stress by Dealing with Feelings
In his book Feed Your Head: Some Excellent Stuff on Being Yourself, Earl Hipp offers a framework for recognizing and dealing with feelings that can come with uncertainty, loss, and crisis. Originally written for teens and young adults, his insights apply to all of us who are working to be ourselves in a world doesn't always seem like it's on our side.
We all know stress. We experience it on various levels. In this excerpt, Hipp vividly describes the way stress feels—like many rubber bands squeezed around our head. As we add more and more rubber bands, we get closer to becoming the emotional equivalent of the watermelon that succumbs to the pressure and explodes.
Those of us in recovery have a sense of this kind of self-applied pressure. We add to our rubber bands when we feed our addictions. But we also subtract rubber bands as we get clean and sober. Removing one after another, one day at a time, we can feel relief. Since there will always be stress in our lives, even as we move further into recovery, Hipp offers us techniques for reducing stress and gives specific tips to guide us through problem management. We can use these tools to help navigate the difficulties we face in recovery and our daily life.
This excerpt has been edited for brevity.
What Is Stress?
Imagine that you were a strange sort of person who, whenever you came across a rubber band, you put it around your head. Some rubber bands would be big and fat and others small and thin, but on and on they'd go, one on top of another. Before long, your head would resemble a weird, giant rubber ball...and the pressure on your brain would be tremendous.
Stress can slowly build up in us like this too. Imagine that each fear, problem, or worry we have is one of those rubber bands. Some are big and others small, but each contributes nevertheless to our overall discomfort. Because our worries and fears come to us gradually, over time, we usually don't realize they are piling up. But as they do, we just unconsciously adapt to more and more pressure, while at the same time trying to function normally—like we always have.
As the pressure builds, a number of things can happen. Just like we wouldn't feel each of those rubber bands individually, we don't feel and experience every individual fear or worry, either. But when we get enough of those worry, fear, and pressure "rubber bands" wrapped around us, we sense there's a major danger out there somewhere—though we just can't say where. Instead, we become GENERALLY more anxious and fearful—and we tend to be more on guard with everything. Like a cat or dog in an unfamiliar neighborhood, we're always nervous and on the lookout for problems or danger.
Keeping our guard up all the time puts an enormous strain on our whole body—it's a lot of work. Eventually our body complains and begins to send out signals that something is very wrong.
In addition to physical problems showing up, our good attitude begins to wear thin too. With less energy, enthusiasm, patience, and good humor, we can no longer function at our best. Because we don't feel good anymore and life seems generally pretty scary, we're likely to withdraw more and more from the world.
Unfortunately, that choice takes us away from what we need the most, like support and love. So this circle gets tighter and tighter: we feel worse, withdraw more, and down we go in an ever-increasing negative spiral.
The better choice? Get rid of the old "rubber bands" of stress, and then stop adding new ones.
Dealing with the Feeling
It's not fun to feel stressed out, and it's natural for people to want to escape feelings of pressure and discomfort. Any means a person uses to avoid stressful FEELINGS is called short-term coping. Why "short" term? Because it only works for a little while. Whenever we stop our escape attempts, our life is there again, just waiting with the same stressful feelings. There's no place, no way, to hide from them for long. The old saying is really true: "Wherever you go, there you are." We just can't get away from ourselves for very long.
Unfortunately, no matter what method we choose to escape from feeling bad, IT DOESN'T FIX THE PROBLEM.
So while we are busy escaping, our problems remain unsolved and are probably getting worse. We create a crazy circle for ourselves: the more we run away from our feelings, the worse our problems get, and the more we feel the need to run away. As a result, we increase the amount we drink, eat, smoke, gamble, work, study, have sex, or whatever it is we're doing to not feel the ever-increasing pressure.
As the cycle continues, our behavior can get pretty weird and even self-destructive. As the pressure builds and our life gets worse, we usually find it necessary to lie to cover up our escape behavior. Some of us get so good at lying about our behavior and do it so often that we can't tell what's true for ourselves anymore. When we don't know how bad our life has gotten because of all the escape behaviors we're using, it's called denial.
When we continue to use escape behaviors in spite of harmful consequences, we could have a serious problem—a behavior disorder or addiction—that needs outside help. Unless we get help and really start looking at what we're doing, over time stress, denial, and the need to escape will continue to increase. This can go on a long time—usually until something in our life goes very wrong.
Not everybody becomes addicted to a substance or a behavior to deal with stress. Some of us, however, just seem to be made in such a way that alcohol, other drugs, and mood-altering behaviors trigger an addictive cycle. When this happens, we need major help. Fortunately, there are lots of self-help groups to turn to when things are tough. If you sense that you MIGHT be caught in a destructive coping cycle, reach out for help. There are better ways to deal with feeling bad, and the price you are paying is way too high.
Problem management means recognizing, working through, and getting rid of as many old fears, worries, and pressures as you can—and then trying not to add new ones.
The ultimate goal is to see and deal with your stress-makers as soon as possible after they appear. If you do this, you can pretty much keep stress-caused pressures from building up in you at all. Here are a few things you can do to reduce the stress you feel:
Make a List of Your Stress-Makers
It is helpful to be aware of the things in your life that cause you stress. Writing them down on paper can help you see your problems more clearly and even reduce some of their power over you. Your feelings won't be so vague or mysterious, and you'll have a better idea how to take positive action.
Sorting It All Out
On your list of problems, fears, concerns, and pressures, you'll find some things you can do something about, and others that remain out of your control. Once you know which is which, you won't need to put too much energy into the ones you can't do anything about. Look at the ones you think you can work with, and then decide which ones deserve attention first.
At first, pick some of the little things. They will be easier to handle, and besides, it's nice to have a few early successes at making a positive difference in your life. It helps you build up the courage to tackle the bigger issues.
When you have problems, the most important action you can take is to talk to someone you trust. Because you are so involved with your problems, you just can't be really clear and objective about what to do. And talking to someone you trust about what is making you afraid, confused, or ashamed is the best way to reduce the uncomfortable feelings.
Getting your feelings and problems out in the open, feeling cared about by friends, hearing an objective viewpoint, or just learning you are not alone with your concerns—these are just some of the benefits that can come from sharing your fears and worries.
Imagine you'd been putting stress "rubber bands" around your head for fifteen years—one for every worry and problem and fear you'd had and kept inside. Imagine how good it would feel to have those old rubber bands gradually removed. Imagine getting so healthy and skilled at handling problems and feelings as they come up that you never put another one on your head. Imagine having ten trustworthy friends you could call whenever you felt a little stressed out. That is what problem management is like, once you begin tackling your problems as they come up.
About the Author:
Earl Hipp has a bachelor's degree in psychology, a master's degree in applied psycho-physiology, and a background as a clinical psychotherapist. Earl has written seven books about and for adolescents, which together have sold more than a quarter of a million copies. His books are on themes such as coping with the stresses in kids' lives, moving through grief and loss, and how adults can offer support groups for teens. Earl's latest book, Man-Making—Men Helping Boys on Their Journey to Manhood, is written for men, and of interest to anyone interested in calling men into service to young males.
As a professional speaker, Earl has spent the last eighteen years delivering educational and motivational programs on the topics of his books and business themes to a wide variety of audiences, including corporations, associations, teachers, parents, and youth-serving professionals. Today, he is using these motivational skills with conference audiences, at community meetings, and in organizational training.
© 1991, by Earl Hipp
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