Stress Management and the Practice of Psychology
by Elizabeth Marmaras, PhD, EdS, NJ Psychological Assn.
Our understanding of the stress response comes originally from a Canadian scientist, Hans Seyle (1955). He defined stress as the body's biochemical mobilization for action to any demand made upon it. Currently, Western cultures describe stress as a state of anxiety when demands exceed one's coping abilities. Eastern philosophies consider stress as an absence of inner peace.
The stress reaction, or "fight or flight reaction," is activated by the Hypothalamic Adrenal System, part of the sympathetic nervous system. Over time, unresolved stress, in the form of anger, fear, and other feelings, affects the body, mind, and spirit and can cause fatigue, illness, depression, and anxiety.
Research shows that:
- 75% to 90% of all diseases in the U.S. are stress related.
- 53% of American workers name their job as the single source of stress.
- 50% of deaths in the U.S. are related to lifestyle behaviors such as dietary indiscretions and sedentary lifestyles.
People tend to cope with stress in two different ways:
- Emotion-focused coping is associated with interpersonal problems, acting out, depression, food, and alcohol/drug use.
- Problem-focused coping is associated with talking, positive thinking and action, and help seeking.
Psychologists can play an immense role in helping individuals, families, groups, and organizations to adopt a problem-focused and overall wellness approach to life by educating them that wellness is a personal process of valuing and honoring ourselves and of "having a voice." Unless individuals learn to show empathy and self-compassion, they may not be able to consistently use stress reduction techniques to manage stress. Psychologists are uniquely qualified in helping people to express their thoughts and feelings and to process their "unconscious saboteur" and in empowering them to move from helplessness and frustration to self care and self-respect.
Psychologists help people to develop stress reduction coping skills and emotional regulation through:
Awareness -- by educating them about
- the harmful effects of stress on emotional and physical health
- how and why they overreact to stress
- separating themselves from symptoms and stress reactions
Behavior Modification -- they help people to
- Process uncomfortable thoughts, emotions, and conflicts, and adjust to unpleasant events and realities through talking and art
- Reframe their perceptions and appraise events realistically
- Assert themselves and engage in sensitive and respectful dialogue
- Reach out for support
- Adopt healthy lifestyle behaviors
- Learn relaxation techniques that bring deep relaxation
Resolution -- by helping people to
- Remove barriers and develop satisfying personal relationships
- Maintain their self-respect/self-image and bring inner peace and balance
Furthermore, psychologists can play a significant role in empowering individuals to advocate for themselves through the medical system, to ask concrete questions, and to adhere to medical regimens. Studies show that patients with psychosocial problems tend to confide to their primary care practitioner more often than to any other health care professional. Since emotional problems often manifest as physical problems, physical and emotional problems must be addressed in a physician's office in an integrated manner by confronting patients' psychosocial dimensions. Thus the physician becomes a therapist by default.
Psychologists can help physicians to:
- Communicate an empathic attitude toward patients.
- Know the healing qualities of the patient-doctor relationship.
- Briefly assess psychosocial dimensions.
- Refer appropriately for mental health issues.
Last but not least, psychologists can educate their communities and increase public awareness of the role of stress on mental and physical health and how they can help people to manage stress effectively. By extension, individuals can learn that "they are not alone" and that they can choose self-nurturing and overall health. Most importantly, they learn that by reaching out to psychologists they can regain a sense of inner power and renewed energy, and they can bring balance to their body, mind, and spirit.