Managing stress

Decades ago, when I was leading stress management workshops for the Wholistic Health Care Center in Hinsdale, Illinois, I used to imitate Granger Westberg’s example of a lost sock to illustrate the five stages of grief. I know that Kubler-Ross added two steps to make it seven stages and others have enumerated 12 stages, but for the purposes of the workshops a simple illustration worked well.
Denial: That sock must be around her somewhere.
Anger: Damn it! Why do I always lose the good socks?
Bargaining: If I find that sock, I’ll organize my sock drawer and keep things neater.
Depression: I guess I’m never going to have any good clothing long enough to enjoy it.
Acceptance: Well, I can always wear these socks.

The silliness of the example helped participants to think of many different kinds of losses in their lives instead of thinking that death of a loved one was the only source of grief. We used the Holmes and Rahe stress scale as a tool for participants to evaluate the level of stress in their lives and to understand how the grief associated with rapid change can contribute to an increase in illness.

I don’t remember all of the items on the scale, but I do know that retirement ranked right up there with being fired from a job and that change in the health of a family member was not that far from personal injury or illness. Moving from one home to another, changes in financial state, death of friends all are sources of stress Even positive things such as awards and personal achievements, vacations and holidays can add to stress.

I was thinking that it might be interesting to fill out the social readjustment scale in the light of the Coronavirus Pandemic. There has been a lot of loss and stress in our world in the past few months. People have lost the freedom to go about their days as they used to do. They have lost the freedom to visit with loved ones or have lunch with dear friends. Young people have lost one and perhaps two years of school in the usual manner, making friends, socializing and learning. There has been a lot of loss.

It is one of the paradoxes of illness in general. Illness has the capacity to make one feel more ill. The stress of having an illness and contribute to increased depression and illness in an individual. It is true also of a group. Our society is not just ill from Covid-19, we are ill from the process of dealing with a pandemic with no end in sight. The stress is showing in our political leaders, who are expressing more and more anger in the face of the rising illness. Simple steps to limit the spread of the pandemic have become hotly contested political issues.

I notice people who are not wearing masks in places where masks are common, such as the grocery store. However, I don’t even speak to those people. I assume that they have a reason for their behavior, but I don’t know what that reason is. I’m afraid of hearing an angry diatribe about wearing masks. I’ve heard enough things from acquaintances and neighborhood members about their passion towards wearing or not wearing masks.

Because we are not thinking about the stress on our society in the terms of stress management, we are surprised by the anger. Anger is a normal part of the process of grief and we are grieving all kinds of losses. The result is a lot of anger that needs to be appropriately managed.

We have been so conditioned to think of stress in terms of individual experience and behavior that we are not aware of how much stress is a social phenomenon. We are all in this together. I’m in it with everybody else. I’m struggling, and I’m not the only one.

It is not, of course, the first time this world has experienced stress on a large scale. the 20th century brought two world wars and a number of pandemics. History teaches us that humans are amazingly resilient creatures. We can learn to live with incredible stress and pressure.

We may not like the circumstances in which we find ourselves, but we can decide to live with the conditions of our lives. We have choice. We have agency. Often, however, we forget it. We feel like we are only victims of forces that are beyond our control. But we are not totally helpless. We can’t control the pandemic. We can’t control the choices of our leaders. We can’t control the virus. But we do have some things we can control. We can control our personal behavior. We can control our choice to engage in physical exercise. We can control how we invest the time of our days. We can control how we reach out to others. We can allow ourselves to feel sadness and grief in the midst of loss. We can control the decision to pick ourselves up and go to work at the things that are most important.

There are some lessons from those long-ago days when I led stress management workshops that are still relevant to my life today. I can acknowledge that I am grieving and allow myself to grieve, but I don’t have to give in to being overwhelmed and despairing. The losses are piling up and we are sad. And we have to remind ourselves that grief is normal. It is a healthy, human response to loss. It is OK to feel sad. We don’t have to be disabled by our grief.

When we taught stress management, we avoided using “coping mechanisms.” Instead we spoke of coping skills. We have abilities that can be strengthened through practice and we can increase our skills with work.

This is a moment in history where we all need to work at practicing our coping skills. Put a plate of cookies in front of a neighbor’s door. Offer to go shopping fro a friend. Make an extra phone call to check in on a loved one. Practice the kindnesses that remind us that we are all in this together. Ask your loved ones, “How are you doing? How are you?”

Grief is not a state. It is a process. We get through it.

We’ll get through this.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!