If you haven’t noticed, there are no longer saber-toothed tigers roaming State Street. The good news here is that there is no real need anymore to be crouched down on the corner of State and Fig with a spear in hand.
Yet the reality of life today is at odds with our inherited genetic response, according to Dr. Jay Winner, head of the Stress Management Program at Sansum Clinic. In his newly published book, Take the Stress Out of Your Life, he writes that, “The appropriate response to a stressful situation (these days) is simply to grin and bear it. And that’s the problem : because those stress hormones, triggered by ancient genes, still scream at us to do something physical. The stressful tension created by that inner urgency, and the inability to act on it, isn’t just uncomfortable, it exacerbates almost every type of illness you can think of.”
Dr. Winner, an M.D., is surprisingly psychological in his approach to dealing with stress. I was curious about how a man from a profession trained to throw a pill at someone with stress could deal with such “esoteric” concepts as attitudes and the importance of changing them. Does the physician “heal thyself” in these ways?
I asked him, and he assured me that he has tested all of his many practical strategies in the book himself: “When I get to the end of the day and see a stack of dictations to do, I let go of the complaining thoughts and instead dictate one word at a time. When I’m at the grocery store in what turns out to be a slow line, and I start getting frustrated, I reframe the wait as a time to take a break from the busy day. I remind myself that when people are rude, they are usually suffering in one way or another. I routinely remind myself of blessings in my life for which I can be grateful. I notice my temptation to argue just to be right and instead aim to communicate effectively and empathically.”
One chapter in the book that I found particularly important was the one on keeping life in perspective. As a psychotherapist, I have noticed that most psychological ills and challenges are indeed stressful and that an important skill to counteract that stress is to find perspective. Whether one is dealing with a marital crisis, a serious illness, or a teenager’s contention that she hates you, everyone can lower the stress decibels by putting things into perspective.
Dr. Winner proposes a five-step approach to keeping things in perspective when life becomes stressful:
Find gratitude. He points out in his book that our brains often lose sight of what we have to be grateful for because the stressors demand so much of our limited reservoir of attention. Making gratitude a conscious focus of our attention can bring a stress-freeing perspective to our lives.
Discover purpose and altruism. Research has shown that people who do meaningful volunteer work live longer (and are presumably less impacted by stress) than those who don’t. As Dr. Winner writes in the book: “Helping others shows you what is important and quiets your mind from its preoccupation with complaints about relatively small problems.”
Find humor in life. Of course we all know this is true, which is why we love to listen to comedians. It is a great diffuser of stressful situations, a great stress buster, as any of us know who have burst out laughing in the middle of a funeral. Dr. Winner reminds us in his book: “If it will be funny in 10 years, it’s funny now.”
Make accurate assessments. One sure way of increasing stress is to miscalculate risk. If you think flying in a plane is really more dangerous than driving down the highway, then you are needlessly pumping up those stress hormones when in flight. Also, as Dr. Winner points out, so can perfectionism, which almost never accurately assesses reality and its expectations.
Remember that things change. Simply put: This too shall pass. If we remember this, then we have perspective on the ever-changing, fluid nature of reality. Closed doors make for open windows, but, as Helen Keller observed, we often spend so much time looking at the closed door that we don’t even notice the open window and what it can bring into our lives.
Dr. Michael O.L. Seabaugh is a licensed clinical psychologist with a psychotherapy practice in Santa Barbara. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org and visit his Web site/blog at HealthspanWeb.com for more information.