When you think about it, stress doesn’t really exist.
Stress only exists if we make it so.
What do I mean by that?
Well, things happen to us – events, relationships, conversations – and that’s what makes up life. Some things that we experience bring us happiness, others make us sad, angry, bored and so on.
How an event, say, a person’s wedding, makes us feel depends on our past experiences. If we have experienced that person as a close, supportive friend that we love dearly, attending the wedding is likely to fill us with joy for our friend’s happiness.
If the person is a distant relative of our partner, whom he or she doesn’t really know very well, the wedding might be a fun occasion and we feel happy for the couple, but it’s not going to fill us with the same degree of joy.
Yet another guest might find the wedding incredibly stressful if it brings up memories of her own beautiful wedding day, yet the marriage ended in bitter divorce.
How we respond to life’s challenges depends on the way we think about the world and ourselves, and our practical skills and resources.
When a company closes down and there is widespread job loss, each person will react differently.
Some may become bitter, angry and unable to move on, their stress is overwhelming, while others accept the situation, go home, start work on their resumes and begin the job hunt, knowing that they will find another job and that that new job might just be better than the one they lost.
Events that cause us stress are known as stressors and how we respond to those events are what makes them stressors (or not). Our response to the everyday challenges that life throws our way determines our level of tension and pressure and our overall well-being. How we respond depends on a number of factors, including our emotional style and practical skills but most importantly, our awareness of our stress.
Stress is about loss.
Loss of a great love, loss of a job, loss of health, loss of a loved one, loss of money, loss of a deeply held dream.
What losses have caused you stress over the years?
Top 5 Common Stressors
We all need some stress to get us moving through our day. A little stress, such as completing a goal or meeting a deadline can actually be quite helpful. A small amount of stress helps us to be alert, energetic and productive. A complete lack of stress results in low motivation and a desire to do anything at all, which in itself, oddly, can also be very stressful!
While experiences that trigger stress responses vary from person to person, there are some life events that are shared sources of stress for most of us. To make the necessary lifestyle changes that this reduce our stress levels, we first need to know where our stress comes from.
Loss of Family Harmony / Loss of Work-Life Balance
Having children and building a family can be a joyful and rewarding experience but sometimes demands placed by spouses, children, aging parents and siblings can be draining. Add a demanding job to the mix and juggling a peaceful home life, maintaining the household and finances and still finding time to relax and enjoy the family can be tricky.
Loss of Work Satisfaction / Loss of Expectations Around Money
Money worries are a source of great stress to many people. Not having enough income to pay monthly bills, finding it hard to pay off loans, educational and health expenses, let alone building a nest egg for retirement or a rainy day, is a constant source of stress and anxiety.
Demands for Workplace demands are placed on all employees, and expectations must be met. Jobs can become stressful when a person feels unable to meet these demands, is overworked or even becomes bored with the job. Fears of being fired often prevent workers from speaking up or requesting changes that would decrease their stress levels.
Loss of Relationships and Loss of Loved Ones
Divorce is known to be one of the most stressful life events you can experience. If acrimonious, it can be bitter, unpleasant and severely stressful as decisions about jointly owned property, finances and childcare are debated. Divorce is a loss of a future imagined during the development of the relationship and into the marriage. It’s a deep loss and incredibly stressful.
Loss of loved ones and a long and happy future also occurs when that loved one dies. Grief over a spouse, or a child, or a dear friend can be very stressful. The loss of a beloved parent is also very stressful, even if it is expected. If it comes after a long illness, such as Alzheimer’s, it is equally stressful because it means not only the loss of that person, but also a change in how you fill your day. You may be relieved that the loved parent is no longer suffering and that you now have time to spend on your own health, but not having the usual tasks involved in care giving can also feel like a kind of loss; a loss of contribution, of a worthy and loving task.
Loss of Purpose/Dream/Self
Being extremely busy, having lots of responsibilities and a hectic schedule can be very stressful because there is not enough time to relax and recharge.
The opposite extreme – not having enough activity in your week – can also be stressful. Lack of purpose, goals, work, involvement and achievement is also stressful. Having no reason to get up in the morning and nothing much to fill the day leads to feelings of unworthiness and low self-esteem.
Disappointment in a job or a course of study may cause us to give up and do any old work that comes our way, no matter how purposeless it seems to us. We give up on what makes us truly happy, lose sight of our true selves and forget that we are important members of our family and community.
Loss of Physical Health
Loss of physical ability through illness, pain or injury can be frightening and stressful. Chronic pain, is a daily burden, limiting enjoyment of life. A diagnosis, either expected or unexpected, can cause a great deal of stress. Suddenly having to cope with cancer or diabetes or heart disease in your life causes stress because it requires a lifestyle change and/or treatments which might be a stressful as the disease itself. Injuries can impact normal daily activities and even after they’ve healed, there can be ongoing aches and other challenges which only serve to remind the person that they have never quite recovered.
My Story: Loss of Certainty
For much of my life, my own stress has been around loss of certainty.
As a young person, I could see friends all round me starting into their lives, careers and relationships with confidence and certainty. At least that’s how it looked to me.
For me, however, I seemed to be dogged by uncertainty.
Not knowing what career path to take, not knowing how to create a life for myself out of a dream occupation, not being able to maintain romantic relationships, not being able to look after my financial future…
Uncertainty, self-doubt and fear characterised the first 15 years of my working life. I constantly compared myself to others.
Yet I wanted for nothing. I had a supportive family, a good education behind me, an inner resourcefulness that had kept me going. But despite my advantages, I got myself into financial debt, lived in a draughty cold house, my car was a second-hand wreck and I just couldn’t pull myself together to create a life I could actually be proud of.
I felt like a loser. I felt like I let everyone down. I spent years talking down to myself, calling myself bad names and hating myself.
Stress and depression were my friends for a very long time.
Loss of A Dream
When I was a teenager I read a book by Jane Goodall recounting her experiences with chimpanzees in Africa. I was fascinated by her story and her research with the communities of chimps she got to know and love. I began thinking about anthropology as a possible university course, but with my great love of the past, I enrolled in archaeology instead.
I loved it. My mind was constantly somewhere 5000 BC around the warm Mediterranean, and when I finally joined a research team from the University of Melbourne excavating by the Euphrates River in North Syria, I knew I had found my bliss.
It was an extraordinary experience; those five seasons of excavation. I worked as a temporary receptionist for the remainder of the year and then spent summers working on the dig. I was invited to research the baked clay human and animal figurines we found for my doctorate. I wasn’t sure that I wanted a career in academia, but I loved archaeology so I embarked on five stressful and rewarding years, working in admin jobs throughout that time.
At the end of those five years, I was exhausted, in debt and still facing uncertainty. I simply didn’t know how to go about establishing myself as an archaeologist and there was no mentorship or support from my university and so I just…gave it all away.
I gave away my dream.
For years I regretted it.
For years that decision caused me the greatest depression I had yet known.
I retrained as a para-legal, doing immigration work for migrants and refugees and it was rewarding reuniting families torn apart by war, but it wasn’t archaeology.
I lost my job twice.
I was desperately and profoundly unhappy.
I set up a business, not a particularly wise move when experiencing overwhelming financial stress and personal unhappiness.
I thought in my befuddled way that if only I could make some money on my own terms that the world would leave me alone. I was isolating, sleep deprived, my house was in a chaotic condition and there was days I stopped showering or changing my clothes. I hurt myself.
Yet the thought of a lifestyle where I was free to do my own thing was appealing.
Working independently suited me but I had no business experience. I made stupid financial decisions. My clients frightened me. I couldn’t focus on the work. I plunged into the deepest despair I had yet experienced.
The Solution: Dreaming Again
Oddly enough, the beginning of my journey towards regaining control over my life came with another loss, the death of my beloved dog.
When Franny succumbed to the lung cancer, I ceased to care about anything. I finished up my legal matters and closed the business. I cleared my stuff into storage and went back to my parent’s house. I went to bed and didn’t get up for a fortnight.
And then something happened.
I began to think.
I began to wonder.
And an idea formed.
I had to keep going. I had to get up and start again. I had done it before. I just had to pick myself up,
dust myself off and start again. As I had so many times before.
Life had to go on. And I wanted to live.
I got a longer-term temporary job as a receptionist on a rather quiet switchboard in a room off the main reception area. I was left alone most of the time and had plenty of time to think.
For the first time in many years, I let myself dream.
I made lists. What kind of job did I want? What was I good at? Where did I want to work? Who did I want to work with? I did a lot of internet research. I weighed up the pros and cons. I gathered information, analysed it and made decisions based solely on what would make me happy.
Not comparing my decision with anyone else’s decision, not judging myself for the ‘mistakes’ of the past, but instead acting with certainty and confidence.
My main source of stress and depression was loss of connection with what gave me joy.
My way back to a joyful, rewarding life was reconnection with value-driven living.
How do you know when you are under stress?
What physical changes do you notice in your body? Do you notice more headaches or colds? Do you find it harder to concentrate, worry more, find good habits (like getting enough sleep and exercise) starting to slip?
How about emotional changes: what emotional changes or mood shifts do you notice? Crying or yelling? Feeling upset or irritated more often? Things frustrating you that wouldn’t normally?
Can you identify the cause of your stress? Did something specific happen, or is there an ongoing situation in your life which is causing tension and stress? Keeping a record of when you feel stress will let you look back and help identify any patterns. What are your most typical stressors? Is stress a continuous part of your family life or work? Or is it connected to particular events or circumstances?
What do you do to cope with stress? What are your usual ways of dealing with stress? Punching your pillow or hitting a pub? Going for a run or running away?
How you cope with stress is crucial to whether it continually buffets you around or you are able to build resilience to it. Because one thing’s for sure, life is always going to throw stressful challenges your way.
So how exactly has stress got to do with depression? Pretty much everything.
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