Allison is facing the death of an aging parent, pressure from work, personal health problems, and loneliness. This is all taking a toll on her in terms of increased anxiety, decreased sleep, and persistent headaches. She wonders just how long she can keep up with all the stress and the stressors coming at her at the same time. It seems overwhelming.
Living alone, after her divorce and not having the support of children or other family members, she seeks my aid, as a professional counselor, who might be able to help bring some measure of relief. She wants some rest. She wants the headaches to stop. She wants to know she’s not going to go crazy.
We begin by breaking down the problem into manageable units of understanding. In all stressful situations, there are 3 areas a person can focus on that will simplify the process of restoration to normalcy. First, what are the things you can change about your situation? Second, what are the things you cannot change about your situation? Third, what issues do you bring into the situation that need healing, that are contributing to your stress in the present?
These are the 3 areas I attempt to address with people who are facing situations similar to Allison.
First, what are the aspects of your situation that you can change? Can you do anything to reduce the stress in your life? Can you get help to deal with an aging parent? Can you negotiate with your employer to change job responsibilities or expectations, at least temporarily? Can you see a doctor or seek other medical attention to treat the health issues you are facing? Can you foster new relationships to address issues of loneliness and the lack of support?
Second, what are the aspects of your situation you cannot change? If you cannot change certain aspects of your life, how can you learn to cope with them? Do you know how to relax? Do you listen to music? Take a long hot bath? Take a walk? Exercise? Watch a funny movie? Can you get time off or take a mini vacation? Have you found that you tend to talk negatively to yourself and might benefit from more positive self-talk?
Third, what aspects of your reaction to the current stress are related to unhealed wounds? Sometimes our reaction to stress indicates that we have not fully resolved some painful event from the past. For example, we might doubt our ability to deal with difficulties in the present because we were repeatedly ridiculed for being incompetent. The embarrassment related to that memory as been festering, just waiting for an opportunity to erupt.
In applying these principles to Allison, we found that for each arena, she was able to make some adjustments and experience increased satisfaction and peace. First, she did develop more support from friends than she had had in the past, particularly from acquaintances at church. She was also able to make adjustments in her responsibilities at work and see several medical doctors who helped treat her headaches, sleep problems, and blood pressure.
Second, she started a pattern of exercise and took time off to spend with friends to help cope with the chronic nature of the stress she was under. She was also able to talk more positively about her personal responsibility, rather than blame herself for other peoples’ behavior.
Third, we found that Allison had been harboring a belief that she was the only one who could keep her family together after her parents died, even if her siblings refused to cooperate. She expended an exorbitant amount of energy attempting to make everyone happy and resolve conflict with family members who were unrelentingly obstinate. It was exhausting. She was eventually able to let this issue go and heal this wound.
Although I do not claim that all counseling situations work smoothly and easily, I do believe that breaking down otherwise confusing stressful situations into these three categories will help both clients and counselors. You will be better prepared to solve otherwise complex problems when you can simplify them into more manageable ideas and concepts.
Timothy R. Holler, Ed.D. LPC-MHSP