Linda Clark-Borre

Drop-Dead Stress and What to Do About it Now

05/16/2013 11:52


 At a recent workshop I learned that thanks to the line of business I'm in, I can expect to die earlier than my peers in kinder, gentler professions.

Buzzkill alert. It just so happens that two distant professional colleagues recently died in their forties, each wonderful women with separate lives in separate states basically doing the same kind of work I do. Each had young children.

Human service enterprises, especially those supporting the aged infirm, mentally ill, and developmentally disabled, depend on the vagaries of political decision-making for the basic bread and butter of their existence. In the area of services to the disabled, it is more like crusts and Crisco. Yes, we get to worry all the time with good reason if we choose to.

Political challenges abound. Resources shrink. In crises, it is always up to those of us in this line of work to hold services, programs, and people’s paychecks together. So we are advocates and ad-hoc everything we need to be in order to help other human beings thrive. I refuse to think of “survive” as a goal here. I truly want all my people, employees included, to thrive.

Social service workers and leaders are indeed mightily stressed--but chances are you are, too, especially if you are responsible for the lives and well-being of others (hello, moms and dads.)

The only way people thrive through the challenges of my extreme stress or yours is to have hope. So, on to the positive side of the research, which to my mind is more practical that the usual “don’t-worry-be-happy-count-your-blessings-and-say-your-affirmations” advice often given.

Here’s what to think and do about it now. (Note: I’ve included a link to a nice summary of both the science and the rationale for the points below at the bottom of this page.)

  • We humans tend to remember negative experiences more clearly than positive ones because the brain processes positive and negative emotions in different hemispheres. There's more to the biologic story than that, but the bottom line is that we are wired to ruminate over negative experiences.
  • “Bad” stereotypes are more rapidly formed than “good” ones in our vulnerable minds, as are negative emotions. We tend to ride worry trains of thought. We also tend to hold grudges.
  • Negative happenings stay with us.  Thus, unhappy childhoods and marriages, terrible losses, and so on remain somewhat, if not seriously, top-of-mind at the drop of a hat – or something else that randomly triggers a bad memory.  Flashback episodes can surprise us anytime, driving us deeper into feelings of sadness, frustration, steeling ourselves against further pain, etc. 
  • Studies reveal a tendency for us to think people who have a negative perspective - the cynical and sarcastic -  are smarter than average, and we may even be attracted to these “uber-realists.” They affirm what many secretly believe is true about life—it’s one not so great thing after another, sparked occasionally with brief flashes of happiness.

Scientists suppose there is an evolutionary basis for all this, but the bottom line is we all benefit by figuring out how not to ride the rails of the stress and worry train.

Empowered as we are with this knowledge, here’s how it’s suggested we go forward.  I saved the most practical thing we can do right now for last, so we both can apply our newfound intelligence in a meaningful way ASAP.  If you happen to already know this stuff – let this help as a reminder of how easy it can be to jump off the pain train into Hopeville when we’re willing:

  • When a barrage of self-doubts or fears assail you, just stop and breathe. Yeah, just stop, to be continued later if you must, but then, repeat the cycle: Stop. Breathe. AND DON'T STOP BREATHING. That sounds so basic, but about twenty years ago I realized when I was scared, angry or confused I held my breath.
  • Most worries, doubts, and concerns have levels of immediacy. Project managers use cool tools called cause-effect and if-then diagrams. They aren’t complicated – the key is to do them. Use of such tools lead us to say things like, “If this happens, then I…” and “This happened, and to prevent it, or prepare myself for the future, I will…” and so on.  These tools are possibility-generators, and the application to the concerns of the project we call Life are obvious.

My husband once went so far as to construct an Excel-based worry matrix for me a few years ago. I wasn’t allowed to worry about, say, concern number 3 until its precedents, number 1 and 2, had been addressed.  He was helping me to pace my very real worries. Simplified example: you really can’t worry about how many fish you will catch for dinner before you 1. find a pole somewhere and 2. get yourself to a water hole with fish in it. So, you are not allowed to consider a worry before its time. In our example, if you can’t get a pole and there is no place to fish, it’s better to figure out something else for dinner than worry about if there are enough fish to go around for the meal. Remember:“Like fine wine, no worry before its time!”

So here is something to do now. At the next negative thought or experience – and remember even minor negatives like people cutting you off at the pass can incite a sense that the world is hopelessly full of mindless twits - think three positive thoughts. It has to be three to counteract the spell of the negative. Still more research shows that the balance of positives to negatives in our lives is crucial to health, to a sense well being, and to a hopeful, more optimistic perspective.  A bad mood would make us less inclined to even bother, as would deep grief, but the key is to make the effort to go there by whatever means works for us even if it feels impossible. The only way to get ourselves into a healthier realm of possiblity is to sometimes drag ourselves there.

I am inspired by a technique using Ozzy Osbourne’s Crazy Train. I hear the first chords in my head as soon as I hear, see or experience a bad thing that stays with me.  I let it sound as a warning.  After about ten chords I stop the annoying ear worm by considering three good things. I do this even if I have to then deal with the badness, or can’t get out from under it. I still neutralize it with as much goodness as I can muster. So, say someone cuts me off to the point I am aggravated at the close call. I take a deep breath, glad I am alive. I think of an upcoming trip I will take to see my family. I glance at the rearview mirror, noting how shiny my hair is today. And then I might cuss, but more quietly, because it’s just another piece of life to deal with. No one but a talking red button ever promised any of this day-to-day stuff would ever be easy.

Profound grief is something else. It never leaves us. But I have to think, along with poets and sages who have inspired me, that the patina over a lifetime burdened by loss deepens if the joy-part of what, or who, once was, is emphasized in personal memory - not the pain of separation. I have never heard anyone who has lost a loved one say they wished they had never had the experience of having had that person in their lives. Of course it's alarmingly easy to recall those isolated times we weren’t the person we wished we'd been when that person was alive; but it is far better to remember the goodness of relationships that once were, and are, available to us today, and bring the wisdom of our reflections and insights over to this side of life while it is still possible.

Ah, the realm of the possible. Priceless.

It's worth a try. If a bad thing or thought happens, or a worry emerges, let three good thoughts wash over it. Rinse and repeat as necessary.

I can think of a few cynical asides here, but I just washed each of them out with nine positive thoughts. (Following the prescribed ratio of 1:3).As I mentioned, studies show that less cynical people are perceived as not as intelligent as their sarcastic peers, but most days that seems a fair trade-off to me for a mind that’s more or less at peace with the way things are.