Effective Stress Management

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By David Fawcett PhD, LCSW

Stress, with all its numerous sources and serious consequences, is unfortunately chronic in our society. It impacts our quality of life, and it is estimated that 75% to 90% of all doctor visits are directly related to it. Diseases such as cancer, diabetes, breakdowns in the immune system, cardiovascular disease, decreased short-term memory, and even addiction can be directly related to the effects of stress.

Everyone can identify predictable sources of stress such as the death of a spouse, divorce, or major injury or illness. But it is also important to remember that positive events can cause stress, as well. Things such as a marriage, a job promotion, or some other happy occurrence can increase life’s intensity and create a level of stress that equals or even surpasses the stress caused by negative events. The Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, developed in the 1960s, is regarded as a useful tool in measuring the amount of stress in one’s life. Points are assigned to critical life events, and one’s total score predicts the level of stress for that person.

Stress is commonly understood to be a condition or feeling people experience when they believe that demands placed upon them exceed their personal and social resources. It is noteworthy that an event that one person might consider stressful may not be for someone else. Much of this depends on the individual’s subjective perceptions about the situation and his or her ability to manage. When addiction is involved, stress increases and the individual’s ability to manage that stress is limited by the addiction itself.

There are many generally recognized techniques for managing stress. Here are a few important ones:

  1. Avoid unnecessary stress. Many addicts have a hard time saying “no” and overextend themselves with people-pleasing behavior. It’s therefore important to set appropriate boundaries, speak up for oneself, and say “no” when necessary. It is also important to avoid people who you find stressful and for you to take control of your environment in other ways, such as reducing the sources of stress in your life when possible. Other examples of limiting stress might be avoiding hot button topics in conversations with friends or colleagues and reducing the number of items on your “to do” list.
  2. Alter the situation. Both addicts and their partners often find it difficult to express their feelings comfortably. Improving one’s ability to interact with others in a way that reduces stress is important. Examples of this could be an increased willingness to compromise, learning to be more assertive (as opposed to aggressive or passive-aggressive), and trying to manage your time more productively.
  3. Adapt to the stressor. Addiction fuels stress as it takes over one’s life in a way that pushes everything else aside, increasingly limiting objectivity for both the addict and loved ones of the addict. It becomes necessary to learn how to reframe a situation or problem. Reframing means taking a step back, looking at the bigger picture, and seeing if there are other ways to view this situation. For example, could what seems to be a disaster actually be an opportunity? Those dealing with addiction eventually learn to focus on negative aspects of a situation to the point where it is extremely difficult to notice positive aspects. Being mindful of the entire situation, both positive and negative, reduces stress.
  4. Accept the things you cannot change. This portion of the Serenity Prayer is familiar to anyone in a 12-step program. Because these words are recited so frequently, they can begin to seem like a cliché. Yet this phrase is extremely important in helping us discern how to react in stressful situations. For those affected by addiction, it’s critical to recognize that, despite great effort, we cannot control the uncontrollable and certain aspects of our lives cannot be modified by force of will. Acceptance means identifying where you should (and should not) attempt change/control, looking for the upside in any situation, actively sharing your feelings with others, and embracing both self-compassion and forgiveness for oneself and others.
  5. Make time for fun and relaxation. One of the most difficult challenges faced by addicts in recovery is learning how to relax and have fun. So much time is spent trapped in the addictive cycle that the ability to enjoy recreation, leisure, or simply tolerate unstructured time can be a new experience. Most people find they need to consciously set aside time and learn how to enjoy leisure activities, especially in early recovery. This may mean not waiting for spontaneous fun but rather designating relaxation time in which you can be by yourself, with your family and friends, your pets, or whatever else gives you pleasure. It can also be a useful strategy to do something you enjoy every day, all the while retaining your sense of humor.
  6. Adopt a healthy lifestyle. Time has become a premium in our society, and we have begun to take shortcuts in terms of healthy self-care. This is especially true for anyone impacted by addiction. Many addicts consume cigarettes or diet sodas along with large amounts of refined sugars. Learning to value oneself in recovery means changing these habits to incorporate more loving self-care in diet, exercise, and healthy living. One aspect that many addicts find difficult is sleep, which can be an issue for months. This is one of the biggest frustrations that people have after they give up addictive behavior. Quality of sleep can be enhanced by going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, avoiding stimulation before sleep (such as caffeine or the watching the news), and practicing techniques such as progressive relaxation, visualization, and other ways of quieting one’s mind before bed.

We cannot escape stress, but we can certainly improve our ability to manage it by increasing our resilience and following the simple techniques outlined above. In so doing, we can greatly increase the pleasure of each day in recovery.