Stress and the Need for Control
This is an article from the Winter 2020/21 issue of Combat Stress
By Robert Kallus, MS
You have probably heard the old saying that there are only two sure things in life: death and taxes. However, there is at least one more; that is, stress… physical, emotional, and mental stress. It comes to us all sooner or later. And for some of us, it’s much worse than it is for others.
You may have also heard that a stressful situation includes a number of components. First, there is the event; then the time and place, the circumstances, and the people who are involved. We call those “stressors.” There is your perception of what happened, your interpretation of its meaning, and your attitude towards it. Finally, and most importantly, there is your response to the stressors.
Any source of frustration, disappointment, and failure can become a stressor. Finances, all things work-related, unhealthy family dynamics, politics, and so much more can contribute to our levels of stress. It is important to know that the common factor among these stressors is that so many of them are beyond our ability to control. Even when we are aware of that fact, we are at risk for allowing such situations to “stress us out.”
The most glaring current example of a situation over which we have little control is the COVID-19 pandemic. It has increased stress levels dramatically and the isolation we are experiencing in our efforts to stay safe has compounded the problem. Since isolation fosters depression and anxiety, this is no time to wait for others to contact you. If you’re not the type to reach out to people, it may be time to challenge that habit. Personally, I dislike talking on the phone. But, if we’re going to stay calm and balanced, we can’t depend on others to reach out to us. So, I prefer to initiate human contact rather than sit around feeling sorry for myself. If you take the time to reach out, you might be surprised at the positive response you’ll receive.
Further evidence of the pandemic’s impact has shown up in my psychotherapy practice. Requests for couples’ therapy have risen greatly. This might not come as a surprise if we consider the tension that any two people might feel if they are not accustomed to being confined together for such extended periods of time. As for children and adolescents, one of the major issues seems to be boredom. Think back to your teen years. Do you remember the stress of monotony? In fact, boredom and tedium are some of the highest stressors that teenagers face. Combined with the tension between mom and dad and the constant presence of parents, the outcome will not always be rosy.
Now we come to the purpose of this article. I would ask you to consider the proposition that our response to frustrating and stressful situations determines the intensity of our resulting feelings.
For the sake of discussion, we can categorize frustration scenarios into four types:
- You want to acquire something, to accomplish something or to achieve something, but you can’t obtain it or you can’t do it.
- You get a result that you do not particularly want.
- You have a desire to communicate something important, but you are not able to do so; you don’t know how to express yourself or you’re afraid of doing so. Perhaps you believe nobody would listen or you have no one to speak to whom you can sufficiently trust.
- You have a legitimate expectation that something positive will happen, but it doesn’t.
All of these situations can produce frustration that leads to unwanted thoughts, actions, sensations, and emotions. Let’s look at two major points that will help you improve your ability to manage stress effectively.
First, it is essential to understand that all these parts of our humanity – our thinking, including our beliefs and convictions, our emotions, our actions and our physical sensations are closely linked.
This is what we call “the mind-body connection.” Among these four parts of our being, only two of them are subject to our direct control: our thinking and our actions. Emotions cannot be controlled directly. Physical sensations, barring the effect of hypnosis, also lie outside the realm of our ability to control. The good news is that when we exercise control over the two aspects we can control – the actions of our mind (negative self-talk, self-limiting, self-defeating beliefs), as well as our actions, habits, and behaviors – difficult emotions and unwanted physical sensations, can also change.
Secondly, the person, situation, or events that we consider “stressful” are not the real problem. The problem lies in the manner in which we respond. When stress accumulates and we feel helpless, confused, or overwhelmed, our response can involve all four aspects of our being: our thinking (including attitudes), emotions, our physical sensations, as well as our overall health and our behavior. These, in turn, will affect our social lives and our personal relationships.
Think about the way you respond when stressors appear. Do you have dark thoughts? Do you react on impulse, without thinking? Do you experience physical symptoms, such as tightness in the chest, agitation, shaking, or muscle tension? Please keep in mind that any one of these responses can affect all of the other responses. For example, an emotional response will affect your speech and behavior; a mental response, such as thinking, “Who does he think he is?” will affect your emotions. A “killer” tension headache will definitely impact your attitude and emotions. It is not difficult to see that trying to handle stress without the proper understanding of the nature and elements of stress can affect every aspect of one’s life. It can destroy a career, ruin a parent-child relationship, lead to physical conflict, divorce and be the cause of compulsive and criminal behaviors and addictions… the list is practically endless.
Fortunately, there is good news.
Since it was discovered, nearly one hundred years ago, that outside stressors influence physical and mental health, many treatment options have been developed.
Among them is the use of supplements like vitamins and herbs; electromedical devices, such as the Alpha-Stim AID, good nutrition, and exercise. We are learning more about the importance of a good night’s sleep and the unlimited benefits of meditation, prayer, and other activities that can improve our outlook.
Of course, medication may be indicated, but it need not always be the first choice. The use of medication in the management of stress-related problems is a controversial one. It is not a black-and-white issue. For some people, medication has been proven safe and effective. Some even believe they can’t live without it. Others have had bad experiences with psychoactive medications. Among them are extremely unpleasant side effects and the fact that the body can develop a tolerance for the medication, requiring an increase in dosage and/or the addition of other medications. Furthermore, so many mental health medications are available today that only a highly experienced medical professional is equipped to prescribe accurately. As often as not, it becomes a trial-and-error process. Additionally, not everyone has easy access to a good psychiatrist. So, while medications may play an important role in the management of stress-related problems, it’s not always wise to rely on them alone. Medication without therapy may have limited benefits.
In addition to these options, here is an idea that might help you re-think the very idea of stress. I propose that our experience of stress – physical, mental, emotional, behavioral – is directly linked to our need to be in control. The more control we demand, the more we are liable to feel frustrated and stressed. On the other hand, when we are willing and able to let go of situations we can’t control, we do better. Consider the story of Senator John McCain of Arizona. During the War in Vietnam, he was held as a prisoner of war for more than five years, much of that time living in a small cage. In some way, he was able to let go of the bitterness and hatred he must have felt and to go on to live a productive life of service. Perhaps an even more dramatic example is that of Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned for some twenty-seven years because of his fight against apartheid in South Africa. As he tells it, he never held anything against his captors. Not long after his release, he was elected President of South Africa. How much differently might these men’s lives have turned out if they had remained bitter and hateful?
Is it easier said than done? Absolutely. We are bound to face obstacles. One obstacle is the product of our own minds. Our ability to handle stress effectively could be hampered by just one self-defeating belief; that is the belief that letting go leaves us vulnerable, foolish, or weak. Ask yourself if the thought of letting go would violate your self-image. Few of us wish to relinquish that control, especially not someone who has been trained to dominate and to conquer. The go-to attitude becomes one of holding on to the need for control in every situation, including relationships. The outcome here is rarely desirable.
The belief that letting go exposes us to discomfort is just one of numerous distorted beliefs that contribute to personal problems. A few other examples of distorted beliefs include: this is just the way I am and I can’t change… you can’t trust anyone… as long as I’m not drinking, gambling or cheating, you can’t tell me what to do… kids ought to fear their fathers. This is just a brief list of the erroneous thoughts and beliefs that can literally destroy a life. Fortunately, multitudes of people have proven themselves resilient enough to get past all that negativity.
People can, in fact, change their ways of thinking. All kids have had the experience of changing a deeply held belief. Once upon a time, we believed in the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, and the Tooth Fairy. We are all capable of changing our thoughts and thought patterns. If you’re interested in that, you might do a search for the topic of neuroplasticity. This is the concept that the human brain remains open to change through every stage of the life cycle, even into old age.
If you were to dig a little deeper into the question of letting go, you might encounter a paradox: contrary to one’s expectation, letting go is actually a way to maintain control. Bruce Lee, the legendary martial artist, described what he did as, “Fighting without fighting.” In fact, the more you hold on to negative energy, such as jealousy, envy, and anger, the more those emotions control you and the less free you become. There is so much more to say than one article can cover. You may wish to further explore the philosophical nature of this discussion, using the vast resources of the internet.
We will probably never perfect the ability to handle stress optimally in every situation. Since we are all flawed individuals, incapable of absolute perfection at all times, aiming for perfection as a result should not be the goal. Rather than thinking “result,” think “process.” Growing in maturity and self-control is a continuous and life-long process, which requires your attention with every dawning day.
If you would like to increase your ability to handle stress, why not start right now by reminding yourself every morning of the “The Serenity Prayer,” written by the great theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. The following is the famous abbreviated version.
“God grant me the serenity To accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.”
The wisdom to know the difference is the key. Regardless of your spiritual beliefs, just for today, if a stressor should appear, take the time to notice whether this is something you can or cannot control. In the latter case – another person’s bad behavior, for example – you can choose to remind yourself that you can do nothing about that person’s negative attitude and actions. Remind yourself to be grateful that you can stay positive and not allow their energy to undermine yours.
Another very important point: one of the best things you can do for others is to take care of yourself. If you have ever flown on a commercial airplane, you know that just before take-off, the flight attendant instructs all passengers, “In case of a loss of oxygen, a mask will drop down in front of you. If you are traveling with someone who needs help, places the mask on your face before you place a mask on the person who needs help.” If we are unable to cope with a stressor and are in the grip of the fight-flight-freeze response, we are incapable of making wise decisions and acting responsibly. In other words, we are of no help to others.
Now here is something that should grab your attention. Strong evidence exists that people who fail to manage stress effectively, often operating in a fight-flight-freeze response pattern, are at high risk for developing early-onset memory loss and dementia. I was recently told of just such a case by a client who indicated that his angry and abusive father had passed away at the age of sixty-three. Long before that, he had suffered early-onset dementia. To learn more, do an internet search of “cortisol memory loss.”
If we utilize current knowledge about the brain, a fate such as that of the angry, abusive father can be averted. While we still have much to learn, the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and other stress-related problems has improved greatly in recent years. Any individual who is grappling with these issues can now choose from a broad menu of treatment options.
I have been fortunate to be able to use cranial electrotherapy stimulation (CES), delivered by the patented and unrivaled Alpha-Stim AID device. The relief that I have observed in my clients has been nothing short of miraculous. The research proves – as matched in my practice – that more than 80 percent of those who use this device obtain quick relief from anxiety and insomnia. Relief from depression requires three to six weeks of daily use. In addition, I have found that using eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR), which is also rigorously researched, has been highly effective in helping people recover from traumatic events. As a member of the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis and having practiced meditation since 1971, I have taught meditation and self-hypnosis to many of my clients. Most of them find these practices to be a revelation. These are just a few of many therapies from which one might select.
Practice gratitude daily and you will notice how it tends to neutralize stressful thoughts, attitudes, and feelings. Start with one little change to your thinking and your attitude and then evaluate how this affects the quality of your day. Here is how: when you lie down to sleep, turn your attention to three things that you are grateful for – any three things, big or small. Do this every time you go to sleep. Then notice what happens to your attitude as the days and weeks go by.
Finally, to our Veterans and those on active duty: God bless you, thank you for your service and love of America, your respect for the legacy of our founders, and for honoring the sacrifices made by all patriots throughout our history.