May 11, 2013

Positively Stressed

Mental health tip: Just cause it's positive doesn't mean it isn't stressful.

One of my friends is planning her wedding. She just sold her condo and she and her fiance are moving into their new house next month. Meanwhile, she was offered a promotion at work and her first short story was accepted--pending revisions--for publication in a national magazine, pending revisions. We recently met for dinner after not seeing each other for a couple months and when she told me all her news, I said something like "Wow, you must feel on top of the world!" Instead, she tearfully confessed "I'm so stressed out I can barely breathe. I've been taking sleeping pills almost every night to try and get some rest, and worst of all--I know I should be happy and enjoying all this!"

One of my mindfulness students is about to finish medical school. After four arduous years, he's going to graduate next month and is nailing down his plans to move to another city for his dream residency. In the meantime, he's training for his first triathlon and he and his girlfriend are expecting a baby in the fall. When he told me all his news, I remembered my friend and said, "Wow, that's a lot of stuff. You must be kind of stressed out." My student tearfully admitted that he hasn't been eating or sleeping well and is constantly picking fights with his girlfriend. "The worst part," he said, "is that I know I'm so lucky and that I should be happy instead of stressed out!"

What's going on here?

Both my friend and my student were compounding their stress with the erroneous belief that positive events should create only positive feelings. This idea meant that they were adding guilt on top of stress, making it worse.

Two things that helped:

a) Sharing the definition of 'stressor' that I use in teaching mindfulness-based stress reduction: "Any threat, demand, pressure, or change in the environment that requires the organism to adapt." Notice that this definition does not assume that stress is caused by negative events, but rather by pressure and change.

b) Introducing the Holmes and Rahe stress scale. Developed by two psychiatrists, this scale yields a total stress score based on life changes and experiences in the past year, including things like marriage, retirement, Christmas, change in personal habits, and change in number of family reunions.

Getting married, moving, changing jobs, morphing from student to professional, and preparing for a baby certainly all qualify as demands, pressures, or changes requiring adaptation, and almost all of them are listed in the Holmes and Rahe scale. My friend and my student were relieved to know that just cause it's positive doesn't mean it isn't stressful; acknowledging that positive stress is still stress allowed them to cut themselves some slack, decreasing the unnecessary additional stressor of guilt.

The next time you're feeling stressed out in the midst of an avalanche of good news or positive events, remember that just cause it's positive doesn't mean it isn't stressful.

NB: This first step will probably in itself make you feel better. However, an important second move is to take concrete steps toward stress reduction. My friend booked a massage, cancelled her bachelorette, and negotiated a week's vacation prior to beginning the new position at work. My student registered for a 10k race rather than a triathlon, and decided to stop collecting new baby gear until after the move. 

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