Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Stress (Part 1)

Now that I've been feeling so much better, I'm suddenly finding a few important books that might have helped me earlier. Isn't that always the case? Either I'm finding them because I don't desperately need them or perhaps it's just because I'm looking for different answers.

Years ago, the biggest break for me came when I stopped reading bipolar and depression books, which I find singularly depressing, and moved on to other topics. But even then, I still couldn't figure out what continued to cause my depressions. And I monitored them again and again to see what the triggers were.

What caused me to quit the job with the writer whose book I edited almost two years ago and spiral downward into a five-month depression? What caused me to deal with my mother's illness so well and even handle her death, but spiral into another five-month depression after repeated arguments with my siblings? What caused me to feel so distressed over my son's difficult adjustment when he went away to college that I felt a low-level depression for the entire semester he was gone?

The answer, plain and clear, is stress. And when I read Neural Path Therapy by David Harp, M.A., and Matthew McKay, Ph.D., which has truly made a difference in my life, and saw that McKay is the co-author of another book, The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook, I bought that as well.

As I began reading the table of contents, I thought, "Why didn't I pursue this avenue years ago?" It has been obvious since I was a teenager that stress is the cause of so many of my problems. I remember that even in middle school--which was the first time in any school where I had flexibility in my daily schedule--I arranged my classes to minimize the external stress. Rather than taking as many difficult classes as my friends, I took one more elective like chorus or glee club. Why?

Because it was clear to me that I could only absorb so much material. I knew I needed a lot of time to study, and I only liked to push myself to a certain level. And that has remained a constant throughout my life.

One of the things I have liked best about a career in writing--which I began in 1989 after many previous careers--is that writing never stresses me out. It is the one thing I do, other than pursuing hobbies and interests, that has never felt like a burden (except when I was very depressed and had medication-induced cognitive impairment issues). Or maybe, there is a level of stress in writing, but it's internally generated and that's always been okay with me.

What is interesting about McKay's book, which he co-authored with Martha Davis, Ph.D., and Elizabeth Robbins Eshelman, M.S.W., is the very definition of stress. They write:
"Stress is an everyday fact of life. You can't avoid it. Stress is any change you must adapt to, ranging from the negative extreme of actual physical danger to the exhilaration of falling in love or achieving some long-desired success. In between, day-to-day living confronts even the most well-managed life with a continuous stream of potentially stressful experiences.

"Not all stress is bad. In fact, stress is not only desirable but also essential to life. Whether the stress you experience is the result of major life changes or the cumulative effect of minor everyday hassles, it is how you respond to these experiences that determines the impact stress will have on your life."
(to be continued)

26 comments:

bart said...

well written susan, on a subject needing closer examination... insights can often be found by not looking for answers but by asking the right questions to trigger new streams of thought...

i can understand your wish to minimise as much stress as possible, i suffer from the same to a degree and try to avoid "overload" as much as possible but as quoted, any change or variation from the norm brings a level of stress with it... once again, there are no solutions but only the need to find a way to accommodate and filter all the input available...

keep well...

Jazz said...

Susan--
Interesting. Most of my episodes can be traced back to stress as well. I believe that for me, stress management techniques have been more valuable than any medication.

Bipolar Wellness Writer said...

Dear Bart,
You're right about asking the right questions to trigger new streams of thought. What's interesting to me is that not one psychologist or psychiatrist I saw ever asked me point-blank, "How do you deal with stress?" Nor did they discuss the importance of stress in this illness or any other.

Both you and Jazz are saying that stress is an issue for you. I wonder how many others perceive this as a contributing problem.

Susan

Bipolar Wellness Writer said...

Dear Jazz,
I'd be interesting in know what stress management techniques you use. Other than breathing (which is a recent addition to my list of wellness activities), and exercise, I'm not sure what I do that would be considered "stress management." If you write about this in your blog, I'll link to it.

Susan

Jazz said...

Susan--
For me, stress management involves the obvious things like exercise and meditation, and writing it out in the journal, and being willing to use Ativan if things get too hairy. But I find that I also need to have a healthy foundation in place, which means good nutrition and good sleep hygiene. If I'm not sleeping well, stress can eat me alive. And I think we deal with stress better if our bodies are adequately nourished. The other thing I do that helps is to try to avoid situations that I know are stressful for me. Obviously one can't avoid all stress, but where there is a choice involved, I tend to make the choice that leads to less stressful circumstances. For me, that means minimizing contact with certain in-laws.

Bipolar Wellness Writer said...

Dear Jazz,
Thanks for reminding me. I awakened very early this morning, and am obviously having a mental lapse. I, too, am very careful to get enough sleep (I take Ativan as a sleeping pill, not for anxiety).

I eat healthy meals (although Naturalgal has shared a post with good ideas for snacks, which I'm going to incorporate). I, too exercise, and am learning how to breathe for relaxation and to eliminate symptoms (I'm writing about that tomorrow.)

I play the electric guitar and Autoharp, and find that music therapy is very important. Actually, when I think of it, all of my wellness activities (gardening, home improvement, photography, writing, etc) reduce stress.

And, like you, I try to eliminate toxic people from my life. It's far easier now that I'm semi-retired. Dealing with people at work used to be a huge source of stress.

Susan

P.J. said...

To relieve immediate stress,I breathe, take a break, pray, nap or rest, rub my shoulders and the back of my neck, take a walk around the building, admire creation for a while, read some encouraging words from friends, get some fresh air, or just rub my temples while counting to ten.

More longterm, it would be in my best intrest to quit being a procrastinator, since having a lot to do in a small amount of time can stress me out. I really enjoy the gardening, when I actually get out there, and I find that new, exciting projects keeps my spirits up. I always need to have something interesting on my plate, that's is fun for me, that I can work on during stressful times. Even working on a puzzle helps. Talking with a friend to help resolve the issue is almost always bound to work for me, too.

Bipolar Wellness Writer said...

Dear PJ,
All good ideas to relieve stress. Thanks for letting us know!

Susan

Jazz said...

Thanks for reminding me, PJ! Working on jigsaw puzzles is a great stress buster for me. I didn't think of it before because we haven't done one for ages...the ones I like to do are fairly large and take up a lot of space for a number of weeks at a time...but someday, when our basement is finished, I'm going to have a permanent puzzle table.

And Susan, thanks for reminding me, as well! I play the guitar, too, and I keep thinking I really need to drag that thing out, because it always makes me feel better when I play...I've just got to get away from this computer!

naturalgal said...

test

Did you get my comments today?
Naturalgal

Bipolar Wellness Writer said...

Jazz,
I played folk guitar when I was a teenager. Last Christmas, I had my husband buy me an electric guitar. I still play folk songs on it,also showtunes, and sixties rock n roll.

I wanted an instrument I could play in bed if I wasn't feeling well), and it's really light. And I've got this small amp that's about 5" x 5". The sound isn't great, but when I put my earphones on, I'm in heaven. And no one in my family has to hear me play because my enthusiasm for playing is far greater than my ability!

Susan

Bipolar Wellness Writer said...

Naturalgal,
Just the test comments; no other ones.

Susan

Bipolar Wellness Writer said...

Naturalgal,
If you resend a comment that I didn't get earlier, I need to let you know that I'm going offline, I have a doctor's appointment, and won't be home until 1:00 (my time) or so.

Susan

Jena said...

You are very exactly right- stress does cause depression. Actually it's the stress hormones that interfere with the our body's ability to maintain our internal balance. It was cumulative transitions, unnecessary pressure and the resulting extreme stress that finally caused my own "break" into Bipolar Disorder. I already had the predisposition, and the could have benefited from mood stabilizer as it was, but that Stress in the end nearly broke me in half. I see it all the time on the psych unit (where I work). Breaks into mental illness almost always occur due to stress. This is the reason that I always encourage EVERYONE to watch their stress levels. It is NOT WORTH IT to risk your health over stress. For me, stress triggered mental illness. For others, it can be a cold. For some it can be a heart attack. Stress is dangerous.

It sounds like writing has been your therapy. It has been mine as well. Everyone should try and find what activity is a restful and fulfilling one for them, because it can really bring healing.

Thanks for shedding light on this topic. It is much needed!! :)

naturalgal said...

I think managing stress is the key to mental health. If your body is healthy it is easier to keep your mind sane.

Normal people can have a "psychotic break" with too much stress.

External stress can be horrible. The wrong kind of boss can about drive you crazy. A kind boss can make life easier.

This seems like common sense. But so many people don't realize it.

I often think that my problems started because I had too many stressful situations all piled up at the same time. Many of the stresses were "good" and I choose them. But there was just too many of them at once.

And I thought I was eating healthy. I really wasn't. I went for help and was prescribed med...which started the roller-coaster.

What if someone would have said, "Hon, you are perfectly normal. It is just that your body and mind can only handle so much stress. Here, we will show you how to get back to health."

I was told this, but also told that I had a chronic mental illness. No. I was a normal person with too much stress.

Jazz said...

Susan--
I do the same thing--I have a little mini-amp, kind of like a walkman, and when I plug in, nobody else has to hear me "twiddling" as I call it!

Bipolar Wellness Writer said...

Dear Jena,
Thanks for all the additional information. I'm hoping that everyone will realize what an impact stress has on this illness, and begin finding their own ways to deal with it--although this book has great options.

And yes, for me, writing has almost been the most important therapy there is.

Susan

Bipolar Wellness Writer said...

Dear Naturalgal,
Isn't it amazing what we could have avoided if someone has just said, "It's stress."

I now believe my first depressive episode at college was due to stress. In the book I'm reading, they said stress can stop your mentrual cycle, which also happened to me that same quarter. I told the people at student health about it, but no one suggested it was stress either.

Susan

Bipolar Wellness Writer said...

Jazz,
Twiddling is a good name for what I do as well. Maybe we should form a virtual Bipolar Band!(Just kidding.)

Too bad you don't live in L.A. or you could accompany me when I play my Autoharp at assisted living facilities. Now, they're a great audience: so thrilled to have me, and everyone has hearing problems so I sound great to them!

Susan

KJ said...

thanks for the posts about the neural path therapy - I'm going to do that.

Coco said...

Wow, what a great discussion. I've found that in the past few years since my challenge with depression has turned into a challenge with bipolar symptoms, I have slowly but surely been eliminating (almost subconsciously) as many stressful situations as I can. More like making more stress-free choices. Avoiding toxic relatives, quitting smoking (which was stressful because I knew it was a bad choice), not attending as many kid social functions, and letting my ex take more of a role... a whole bunch of small, but important things.

Stress is definitely what has contributed to my mental health issues. I've been stressed my whole life, from childhood on. And I'd put money on the idea that a few years of intense stress since before and after my divorce has contributed to the onset of the bipolar symptoms.

How do I deal? My habitual methods don't seem to work well (go figure) namely: yelling, blaming, hiding from problems, procrastinating, trying to be overly controlling... generally freaking out.

But I have also found things that DO work for me which I've used sporadically, and intend on gradually making into habits. These would be: doing handiwork like knitting/crocheting (keeping those hands busy!), vigorous excercise, rythmic deep breathing, journalling, listening to music I used to dance to in my younger years, and something that I love called EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) which involves the tapping of certain energy spots in the body in certain combinations etc. That is actually the easiest and most effective technique I've found so far for dealing with stress and inducing a profound sense of calm. I learned it from a psychologist I used to see, and then came across it again in my kids' elementary school... I had a few sessions with the school counsellor for some issues with the kids, and he teaches these EFT techniques to them. I just wish I wouldn't keep forgetting about it!

Anyway, thanks Susan for once again bringing up another great topic and getting me thinking!

Oh also, I agree wholeheartedly in regards to the 'solid foundation' of good sleep hygiene (does that mean clean sheets? heehee) and balanced eating. I succeed much more with the former than the latter, although I know I'm getting proper nutrition. (My weakness is cooookiiiieees;)

Ok that's it, sorry this is so long, I tend to get a bit chatty when I'm up here. Night...

Bipolar Wellness Writer said...

Dear Coco,
I love all the things you do to release stress. I am thinking of taking tap dancing lessons--which I haven't done since college. And I believe that Syd from Bipolarity is doing that EFT thing you're talking about. She emailed me about it, and I'll have to reread what she said tomorrow.

In terms of sleep hygiene, Jazz will have to explain what she means. Maybe you're right and it is clean sheets (smiling face).

Actually, when I used to be depressed for such long periods of time, the only job that seemed suited to me would have been designing sheets and pillow cases (and I'm no Martha Stewart) or modeling sleeping gowns. Guess we're both feeling a bit "silly" tonight!

Susan

Bipolar Wellness Writer said...

KJ,
It's really working for me--if I just remember to breathe. But since I just started, I've giving myself a period of grace. The authors say that the more you do it, the better "mental muscle" you build. So, it can only be positive!

Susan

Jazz said...

Actually, clean sheets help a lot! It's difficult to sleep when you're sharing your bed with crawlies...

katie said...

dear susan,
i'm so happy i found your site - just the kind of information and support i'm needing at this time. my life is very stressful these days and i find myself falling back into sadness and depression. i'm working on (and i mean working) being in the present moment instead of being swept up my my voracious negative thought stream. it works. everytime. now it's learning to relax into this, instead of fearing it will take me to the edge, again. there is no way of getting out of my busy teaching schedule of the year, i would be burning bridges i'm grateful to have. i need to remember, as i'm already planning workshops for next year to leave lots of space...not easy to do when i'm in the thros of hypomania.
i so appreciate knowing you and your readers are here. i plan to read the archives and check out links as i have time.
katie

Bipolar Wellness Writer said...

Dear Katie,
Welcome to my blog. It sounds like you have things under control. The posts that might be helpful are the ones this month on Neural Path Therapy, and a past post on Mindfulness Meditation. It's a struggle, isn't it? But to recognize the hypomania, and to work on relaxation puts you far ahead of the game!

Susan