I spent part of my holiday vacation watching 10 hours of “Band of Brothers,” the HBO mini-series based on the experiences of the 506th parachute infantry regiment in World War II. Each program was preceded by interviews with the actual soldiers upon whom the story was based. These men spoke eloquently of their dedication to the cause of freedom and to each other.
One word was remarkably absent from their discussions. I never heard any of the soldiers complain about stress while daily confronting horrendous destruction and the death of 50-70 million people.
When I returned to work later in the week, I met with a high school junior who was having stomach aches and problems sleeping. “I just feel overwhelmed right now,” he remarked. “The stress is unbearable. I need to get into a good college and everything depends on the grades I get in the next few weeks. My mom and dad have no understanding of the stress I’m feeling. I don’t know if I can handle it.”
I had a hard time listening to that student’s plight. Has our frame of reference changed so much that we regard almost anything unpleasant as “stress?” I’ve begun to wonder if much of what we call stress is actually a myth.
There’s little doubt that people are reporting an increasing amount of stress in their lives, but perhaps that is partly due to well meaning mental health professionals like myself who are searching for explanations as to why people do things they shouldn’t. We appropriately look to environmental events to explain why people abuse their children, eat too much, take drugs, commit crimes and even commit suicide.
If most of what we call “stress” is really a myth, it should be possible to get rid of most of it.
Here are three things you can do to eliminate stress:
- Change the way you feel by changing the way you think. Here’s the message I gave to that high school student.“Stress is not caused by your parents or the pressure of getting into a good college. Realize that you are so fortunate to be able to attend any college. Be grateful of that wonderful opportunity and appreciate what you have rather than whine about what you may not get.”This student was actually pressuring himself by focusing on the alleged dire consequences of not getting into a particular college. His fears were more myth than reality. His happiness wasn’t determined by the college he attended, but by other things that were mostly within his control. His stress would go away once he changed the significance he gave to something he couldn’t control and focused on things that he could influence.
- Keep things in perspective. Changing the way you think is not easy and is particularly difficult for kids who don’t have a sense of perspective. Stress diminishes when we stay focused on the few things that really matter rather than complain about the many things that don’t. Much of this depends on developing a sense of appreciation for what we have rather than lamenting about things we don’t.
- Stop talking so much about stress. Words are a reflection of the way we think and feel. We’ve become used to complaining about being overworked, under stress and overwhelmed. These words influence and can indeed control the way we feel. We feel under stress because we notice and talk about all the bad things that are going on in our lives.
One of my favorite quotes is from William James, “The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes of mind.”
Maybe it’s time for us to take control of our lives.
[Reprinted by permission from the January 25, 2009, edition of the Dayton Daily News, “Three things you can do to eliminate stress”, Family Wise, Gregory Ramey, PH.D]
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Guest Contributor Gregory Ramey, PhD, Child Psychologist and Dayton Daily News Columnist
Gregory Ramey, PhD, is a nationally recognized child psychologist and columnist who has worked at Dayton Children’s Hospital since 1979. In addition to his weekly column in the Dayton Daily News about effective parenting, Ramey has conducted more than 200 workshops and has recently been quoted in articles in Redbook, Parenting, Ladies Home Journal as well as columns distributed by the New York Times Wire Service.