Counseling Center

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I wanted to comment on something very significant that was reported in the media on Good Morning America. They showed a former Ku Klux Klan apologizing to a former Freedom Rider with Martin Luther King 40 yrs ago. The former Klan's man said that someone asked him if he died today where he would go, he replied: to hell. That question started him on a journey to apologize publicly to as many people as possible that he hurt 40 years ago as a Klan's man. He said that he was wrong. He also said that he did not vote for Obama but he is happy to see him as the Commander in Chief. The Klan's man and the former freedom rider hugged each other and the freedom rider told the former Klan's man that he forgave him. The story caught my attention because I believe that in the midst of this recession and all the pain in the world, God is touching human kind in a way that I have not seen in my lifetime. To me, that was the ultimate of forgiveness. It calls all of us to a self examination as to where we are in our walk with God. Forgiveness is a good place to start in order for healing to take place in our own personal lives and in our nation. Please comment.

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MANAGING STRESS IN A TIME OF CRISIS - second Installment (go to archives for first installment)

As we noted in our first installment every living organism comes under some form of stress especially when there is danger in its environment. So the question is not whether we will experience stress but how will we cope when placed under severe stress. What coping mechanisms do we have to bring to bear on the presenting situation that is causing the stress.

Whatever your coping mechanisms, I believe the following suggestions can help us to get that measure of control in managing stress.

Do not let anybody place on you their own agendas of anxiety. I have seen that a great deal of the stress people go through has to do with the extent to which they take other people's troubles into their own lives. There are some people who seem to be in a perpetual crisis and they will invite people into their lives so they can dump on them their own pains and disappointments. The invitation is often subtle and if we are not careful we can be easily sucked in by them. Before we know it we can be caught up in their chaotic and crazy world.

We have to be careful how much we are prepared to bear other people's burdens or the extent to which we are going to allow our lives to be driven by the anxiety of others. We all want to help at some point but there are just some situations that cannot be helped however generous we may think we are. Be careful of the superman myth. The graveyards of our world are littered with the bodies of those who lived with the belief that they could right every wrong in the world. Acknowledge that there is a limit to which you can help people in their own situations. Know that oftentimes their problems are beyond your own competencies to deal with, then practice drawing lines and enforcing them.

Know how and when to say "no." This is a big one that I was slow in learning myself. The problem to say no often arises out of a context to please, to let people think well of you. Many of you would rather work yourselves to a frazzle to show that you care when you know deep down that you do not have the time or the energy to do the things you promise. This can cause further frustration and stress and may hurt your integrity as a reliable person. The sad thing is that sometimes your best efforts are not even seen or rewarded by those whose attention you seek.

Experience has taught me that you should be very careful of people who tell you that they have a lot of time to do a myriad of things. The truth often is that they have not mastered the art of time management. They have a lot of time because they are not productively engaged. Conversely, the person who seems to have little time tends to get the work done. They are able to prioritize and use their time wisely. They are busy persons but they achieve much because they have learned the art of time management. They know that time cannot be found, because it is never lost. They know that how they manage time is essential in keeping stress out of their lives.

It is this latter type of person that I feel comfortable working with because they will not take you for a ride. I know a lady who once promised all the resources needed for a fund-raising dinner only to disappear when the time came for her to account for these items. She knew she did not have the resources in the first place and only had to say no when asked. But, she is the kind of person who does not like to hurt anybody's feelings, even if hurting her own integrity in the process.

This point can also be made for those who feel that their sense of importance is enhanced by serving on every available committee or organization. They cannot say "no" because they want people to think well of them, to pat them on the back and to let them feel indispensable. People often commend you not because they want to but because they want to further exploit your labor.

The older I get, the more I find myself scaling back on the commitments that I give to serve on organizations. The truth is that you can stretch yourself so thinly, you are no good to any of them. I choose the ones that I can best give my talents to and once the choice is made my "no" to other groups from there on becomes adamant and almost cast in concrete. This is particularly so when you have family commitments. Major in the things you are gifted in and pursue them relentlessly. It is not easy to say no but the more you practice it the more you become accustomed to it.

Be careful of the kind of persons you allow into your life. I got this one from a movie I watched in which one of the characters chided another for being the kind of person who would drink a gallon of gas and then urinate on his camp fire. You have to be careful of the kind of persons you allow into your life, whether as business partners or as an intimate friends. Do they share your core values and your fundamental beliefs concerning life? Be assured that if they do not there is going to come a point where your values will clash and you will have one big bonfire in your life to extinguish. This is more than just having a healthy skepticism. It is ensuring that you do not leave yourself so open to the predation of other persons that they mess up your life and ruin your day. You do not need the stress that they may introduce into your life and the personal failures that may result. Be careful.

It is not every battle that is worth fighting. Select the ones you can win and go for them. There is perhaps no greater energy-depleting activity than to fight battles that you cannot win. There are just some issues that you have to confront, but there are others you can walk away from and they will not hurt your life. This is particularly true of issues over which you have control.

I have known people who have used up the best years of their lives in internecine war, especially with members of their own household. The issue is often about land or some form of inheritance. Nobody wins in this kind of conflict. At the end of the day families are destroyed and reputations ruined. In the most extreme circumstances people are likely to be severely hurt physically, if not killed, as has happened in some instances.

This is not to say that you must not deal resolutely with the challenges that face you, but to minimize stressful situations, it would be wise to select your battles as far as you have control over them. Those that you do not have any direct control over have to be handled with maturity. Practice the art of compromise. There are times when you are clearly in the wrong and the wise thing to do may be to swallow some pride and see how you can best work out the issue with your antagonist before things escalate into the stratosphere. This is not easy but this is what maturity demands.

One other thing: do not fight your perceived enemy with his or her weapons. If you are not good at throwing stones do not come up against a person who is skilled at doing so. You may end up being blinded. Try another tactic or strategy knowing that you cannot always have your way. Be wise to back away if a strategy is not working. One of the best methods that I have found is to be respectful of my opponent. Not to do so is to take him for granted and the worst thing you could ever do is to take your adversary for granted. To do so is to become self-absorbed in your own sense of invincibility, which is where the stress mounts, failure sets in, and you begin to lose the fight.

Challenge self-defeating attitudes and beliefs. Don't support the labels that others make of you. One of the greatest sources of stress in people's lives is accommodating self-defeating thoughts and attitudes. We often accept the labels that people place on us. We accept their judgments as given and buy into their assessments of our worth. We become easily deflated by what people think or say about us. We are easily put down and driven into small corners as we allow others to define for us the boundaries of our own operation. If we have boundaries, they are at best insecure and porous. Those who would seek to do harm easily invade them. When invaded our privacy is violated and our sense of well-being shattered because we are not strong enough to tell people when they have crossed a line. Just like advice given, people also have a tendency to judge us within the context of their own limitations. Remember, that some people are severely limited. A person who is a persistent failure is not the kind of person who can help any of us to face our future with confidence.

Yet, we need to develop self-confidence to combat the self-defeating thoughts that lead to stress, and ultimately, failure. Barbra Streisand, who is today far from being a failure, recounted her own craving for approval from her step dad and her mom. She was told consistently that she was too skinny and would not amount to anything much. She struggled with this self-negation all her life and sought to prove that she could indeed amount to somebody. She came to realize that if nobody thought highly of her, she had better start thinking highly of herself and of her abilities to become great. Look at what she has become today: a multi-millionaire and one of the world's greatest singers, actresses and social activists. This is a far cry from when she was just a child.

The desire to absorb self-defeating thoughts and buy into the negative descriptions that people make of us is in my view one of the principal reasons why many people subject themselves to cosmetic surgery to look good. The "look good" industry is a multi-billion dollar industry today. It is an industry spawned by self loathing to an important degree, but it is also rooted in the fact that many people are not comfortable in their own skin and give too much validity to what people have to say of them. Those who criticize us and label us are often struggling themselves to come to terms with who they are. We should never allow people to make us victims of their own misshapen view of life, or put us into a cubby hole of their own insecurities. That from which they should yearn to be released themselves is that into which they would cause us to be further imprisoned. We do well not buy into it. We enjoy life so much more when we develop the freedom to celebrate the beauty that lies within.

I often tell people that it is not the beauty of the dress that matters but the beauty of the person in the dress. I have known people who dress beautifully and yet when you get to know them I have seen a dark, evil side that you never knew existed. I get to find out that they are struggling with their own demons, with their own pains and discomforts. Dressing well is a way of subduing the hurt that they feel inside.

Learn to deal creatively with criticism.
People put themselves under stress by the ways in which they react to criticisms, especially unjust criticism. However much we try we will never escape criticism. This is one truth. Another truth is that I am yet to meet a person who likes to be criticized. Even if he or she pretends to like it, the truth is that deep inside the person is smarting and is quite good at masking his or her own feelings.

Yet criticisms are important for our own growth and for the growth of society, in general. No one viewpoint can be viable. The way an organization grows rests ultimately on the interplay of ideas and the use of those ideas that can best advance the prospects of the organization.

This is also true with regard to our own personal lives. We do not live in isolation from other people. What they say of us, and more importantly to us can be very beneficial in helping us to assess our own progress in life. Positive criticism is beneficial to us. It must be admitted that we may not readily see a criticism as positive, and we often lose the beneficial aspects to be reaped from it.

Negative criticism that is intended to destroy have no merit. It tears down rather than builds up. It subtracts from life rather than adds to it. One of the things that I have noticed in life is that people are most likely to gloat over our demise than praise us for our successes. It seems that the natural inclination in many people is to see the worst in others rather than their best; to take delight from their weaknesses instead of celebrating and praising their strengths. They will criticize especially if they have failed in achieving what they see other people achieve. I believe it was George Bernard Shaw who said that the greatest art critics are those who have failed at art itself and that dramatic art critics never leave any turn "unstoned."

People who suffer from weak coping mechanisms are likely to buckle under the weight of these kinds of criticisms. They can be the greatest stressors in a person's life. It is true that a positive criticism may be interpreted as negative given the circumstance in which it is given, but by and large negative criticism is easily seen for what it is. It is the kind that I am concerned with in this section.

The truth is that short of slander or libel you cannot stop people from saying or writing what they wish about you. This is particularly true if you are constantly in the public glare. It is interesting how politicians become incensed at what they perceive to be negative criticism and how elated they are when people speak well of them. Perhaps the only way you can escape criticism is to lock yourself into your closet and not ever let the glare of the sun reach you. Even then, there are those who will criticize your social isolation and your lack of interest in people. As we all know you do not have to do anything to be criticized.

The key to combating negative criticisms is to develop a strong and healthy affirmation of self regardless of what people may think, say or write about you. This is not easy especially if there are other factors in your life fighting against self-affirmation such as self-hatred, lack of self-esteem or other psychological factors that need to be addressed.

But a healthy self-affirmation will help you to sift through the criticisms with a critical eye, absorbing and putting to good use that which is helpful and discarding what is just fluff and unworkable. A lot of what you are likely to hear is just that, fluff. President Lincoln who was severely criticized for his attempts to emancipate the slaves and hold the union together, gave the sage advice to his detractors that if they were not willing to change something they have no right to criticize it. All critics would be mindful of the dictum from Mark Twain that it is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.

Exercise, exercise, exercise. The exercise industry has become a multi-billion dollar industry today because the need to exercise has become a powerful factor in health management. Its relationship to managing stress has been well documented and substantiated.

It is sufficient to point out that when you exercise you should do so wisely. Also, you can relieve stress through exercise by using relatively inexpensive methods (such as taking a brisk half hour walk) rather than indulging the expensive hype that comes from the aerobic industry. It is hardly worth the effort if you have to go through a great deal of stress to pay for an exercise regime. The indebtedness that some people incur in doing this is not worthwhile but is a larger stress factor in itself. The key to exercise in stress management is consistency. Essential to consistency is self-discipline, and self-discipline is what many people do not have.

Allied to an effective exercise regime, however small or limited, is proper nutrition. Again, we do not have to go overboard to develop optimal health. We need to be very skeptical about a number of the fad diets that are being advertised all over the place. There is no magical formula to maintaining good health and here again self-discipline is of the utmost importance.

Obesity is a strong stressor, and no one can seek to lose weight through exercise while at the same time paying little attention to what goes into their mouth. Since exercise is not done only to lose weight, thin people who are also faced with stress should realize the need for exercise as a tool of proper stress management. In the end, it comes down to personal choice, and the more practical and realistic the choices the greater the chances of success.

Pray and meditate.If you are a person with religious faith, prayer and meditation are important sources of stress reduction. One of the reasons that the twelve step program in recovery from alcoholism is so effective is that by the twelfth step, the level of stress that is often the reason for alcoholic addiction in the first place, is considerably reduced. As you reach into a higher power through prayer and meditation you become relaxed and your stress level is reduced. The same is true of fasting and other spiritual disciplines that lead to relaxation.

You do not need to be a religious person to be a spiritual person. Spirituality is a way of reaching into your inner self and identifying powerful resources that you did not know you possessed. Religion and a sense of God can enhance your spiritual quest, but is not itself the sine qua non of the effective spiritual life. Whatever your conception of God, prayer lifts you beyond the immediate problems that you face and is effective in bringing temporary relief. Prayer fails, however, if the intention is to dump your problem into the lap of the higher power with the belief that your woes are now ended.

There are various forms of meditation that people find effective. Eastern yoga techniques have proven themselves effective for a growing number of people in the West. Buddhist meditation practices are particularly attractive. These techniques need not be confused with narrow religious sentiments as to their correctness or validity. Meditation is not necessarily a matter of faith, but many people have found that they derive greater strength from them when they are done in a faith context. Whatever form one adopts, it is good to begin with a brief breathing exercise. This is important in lessening anxiety and focusing the mind more precisely on the meditation.