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Long Term Stress
David's father had Alzheimer's for quite a few years. During his long illness David's entire existence seemed to revolve around issues such as who would take his father to the doctor, obtaining his medicines, and how to cover expenses. Near the end, he had to arrange for daily care. David felt as if he was living his life from one crisis to another. He was tense and exhausted. One night he broke down and said that he just wished it was all over with, but then he felt so guilty that he went over to his father's apartment and stayed there all night, even though his father had a nurse with him.
That long term illness in a loved one causes tremendous stress is not news to anyone. But even long term illness eventually ends - with the person recovery or death. Either way, in the back of your mind you know it will eventually end.
Now let's consider a real nightmare, one of never-ending tension. Imagine walking down the gray corridor of stress without any reprieve. That is the reality for thousands of people, whether living under the fear of physical harm or emotional stress.
Since September 2000, Israel has experienced hundreds of terror and rocket attacks. Often there are long periods of calm which we hope will become permanent but.. Regardless of our political views, our dreams for an end to the conflict are in shambles. The idea of being able to find a way of living in peace with our neighbors seems almost unobtainable in our lifetime, leaving us with a bleak outlook for the foreseeable future. The traumas previously discussed now have to be examined from a different standpoint. When you cannot tell children (or yourself), "Don't worry, it will soon be over," you enter the world of long-term stress.
When one is living under such stress, little incidents can have exaggerated consequences or what is known as an "inappropriate affect". An argument over bedtime can lead to a shouting match that soon runs out of control. Driving on the road at night can also be a flash point.
Since Hannah has no small children she tends not to rush home when she finishes her hospital shift. She usually calls to let her husband, who comes home earlier, to let him know what time to expect her. After a number of shooting incidents on the road to their community, their marriage literally tottered when she forgot to call one evening. His worry exploded into a shouting match about her "lack of consideration", which was followed by her retaliating with her own accusations. He later described how his tension built up minute by minute as he thought about what could have happened. Once she walked in the door, safe and healthy, he just lost control.
Living on the Edge
A rubber band provides a good analogy. Try holding one in your hand. Now, while holding it loosely between your fingers, flick it with your other hand. As you probably notice, it doesn't really move or vibrate. Now slowly stretch the rubber band, flick it. You can see and feel the vibration. Hold it taut and flick it one more time. As you can see, the slightest pull makes it vibrate. The tighter the band the more it vibrates.
"What is with me?" asks one mother. "I just fly out of control at the slightest thing, then I feel so bad afterwards." Anger is followed by guilt, and then the scene repeats itself.
"If I could only see an end in sight I could manage," laments another woman. "Sometimes I just break down in tears over something stupid."
Buried emotions generally come out in destructive ways. Danny was totally unaware of the tension he was under during his drive to and from work — and if challenged, he would have "poo pooed" any real fear — until his neighbor, who was driving with him, tactfully asked whether he always drove so aggressively. Danny had been driving at 120 km per hour and overtaking cars in a no pass zone.
Many people who must drive though difficult areas find that their backs and necks hurt. During the ride they hunch over with tensed back and neck muscles. At times they even hold their breath tensing their muscles. Once they arrive home safely, they will probably — even consciously — take a deep breath. All this is a reaction to the stress of the drive.
In these times we are expected to show strength in the face of terror. Because of this, talk about depression and feelings of despair are frowned upon, demeaned as almost unpatriotic. The message is: if we admit such feelings, we give an edge to our enemies. This is particularly true in a neighborhood where there is also communal pressure to bury the emotions and reactions that normally arise during stressful periods.
I believe that the opposite is true. It is actually desirable and healthy to admit that we sometimes have feelings of despair and trepidation. The question should not be, "Are we are allowed to feel?" Rather it should be, "How do we deal with what we feel? Is it possible to express these fears and not allow fear and depression to rule us?"
There is also apprehension that if we open our Pandora's box and allow ourselves to experience, and even worse, to express our fears, they will get out of control and take over our lives.
Depression and despair are not communicable diseases. True, if we walk into a room of depressed people looking miserable we will absorb the "vibes" of the room. But if we walk into the same room where people are discussing not just their depression but also what they can do to overcome it, it has a totally different atmosphere. And while there is a possibility that if we talk to someone about being depressed, we too will feel "down", the alternative is far worse. Does anyone really think that no one will notice if we are really depressed — even if it's not verbalized?
As bad as it may be for women, it is harder and more complicated for men to talk about their feelings of depression and fear because this conflicts with the stereotyped male role. Depression is considered a weakness and the male can't show weakness. Additionally, the male perceives of his role as the "protector" of the family. What kind of protection can he offer if he admits despair? Won't it cause the rest of the family to lose hope? So what does he do? He pretends his feelings of despair don't exist.
There is another "advantage" to closing ourselves off. As someone, in a moment of candor, described it, "I shut myself off as if I were in a cocoon. If I am in that cocoon, nothing bothers me. I can't hear or see anything." Thinking about it some more, he added quietly, "And no one can see me either. It's like when I was a kid and used to walk around with my eyes closed, thinking that if I couldn't see anyone else, then I they couldn't see me."
Chronic depression is another symptom of long-term stress. This doesn't mean you are depressed ALL of the time. The feelings of apathy and lethargy can come in waves that overwhelm you. You may have trouble planning your five year-old's birthday party or taking any initiative in your office. One woman admitted that once or twice she didn't have the strength to change her child's diaper, and decided to wait until her husband came home.
Other symptoms of long-term stress include disinterest in making plans and a lack of appetite or nervous eating — or a combination of the two. A decreased libido is also common. There are a few reasons for this. One is that sex means communication. Since communication can be difficult for individuals who wish to form a cocoon around themselves, sex is an intrusion. Another reason is that sex is fun. Many people can't allow themselves to have fun when there is so much misery around them. Finally we all know that to really enjoy sex we have to relax, ergo...
One reaction to multiple disasters and terror attacks is the development of numbness or an emotional shutdown. This defense mechanism is similar in some ways to the temporary blocking experienced in the initial phases of shock. It becomes too much so we turn off. Thus, residents of the ghettos during the Holocaust kept going by ceasing to react to the dead bodies they had to walk by on the streets.
The danger of shutdown is that it can lead to a general emotional withdrawal accompanied by depression. "Don't tell me, I don't what to hear," is a common reaction. The longer such a stressful situation lasts, the more some kind of intervention is necessary. Paradoxically, the more difficult it is for people to find the energy to take the initiative to even attend one session.
So What do We do When Facing The Long Road of Stress?
As with any other type of stress, it is important to recognize that we are affected by it. Talking to others helps us discover that we are not the only ones fighting more with our spouses or snapping at our children. These are normal reactions. This doesn't mean that once we understand, we will automatically "fly off the handle" less, but at least we will be more aware of what is happening — and that is half the battle.
Tools for Coping
There are two directions or methods for keeping our equilibrium. One is communal, the other personal.
How to Live with Fear or Anxiety
There are parents who will not let their children go to the mall or even leave the house after dark. Excluding situations where it really is dangerous to travel at night, think what this conveys to our children. None of us are in any position to judge other parents or to tell them when they should or shouldn't let their kids out. Nevertheless, we, as parents, need to be honest with ourselves and ask whether we are reacting to our own anxieties or whether what we're doing is really over the child. Whatever lines you decide to draw, it is highly advisable to discuss them openly with your child.
Ettie refused to allow her twelve year-old daughter to go to the mall, which caused quite a few arguments in the house, as you can imagine. When we talked about her relationship with her daughter, she said quite openly, "If I allow her to leave the house and something happens I could never live with myself." When asked if she really thought the bus ride and the visit to the mall was life-threatening, she replied, "Of course not, but what does that have to do with anything?"
I have never met parents who weren't nervous waiting for their child to come home with the car after a date. As parents we are nervous when our children go into the army, when they go out hiking, or in almost any situation over which we have little or no control. Letting our offspring take risks for themselves is part of being a parent. That doesn't mean that we should allow a seven year-old to go out hiking in the desert, but it does means knowing when to allow our children to make decisions for themselves. We can be anxious about them — that's fine. But we need to find the strength to be anxious quietly, and not let our fears disturb their growth as individuals and potential adults.
If you are lucky enough to live in a small community there are a number of activities that should be organized. When a community publicly recognizes that we all have problems and that we are all in it together, members of the community realize that they are not alone, which always makes it easier to face a difficult situation.
In general, most of us barely have the energy to fall into a chair after working a full day and giving the kid's supper. To find the strength to leave home again to attend a club or activity — and to pay for it to boot — is very difficult. Yet it is these activities that take us out of our routine for an hour or two forcing us to meet other people and add richer dimensions to our lives.
The community should organize and subsidize extra activities for both adults and children. Activities like yoga, organized sports, or craft projects can help relieve stress, as well as providing ways to use our energy productively. Lectures, concerts, and shows all serve to relax us and stimulate us as well. However, it is natural during times of stress for people to want to stay home; they may even lack the energy to return a form letter in a self-addressed self-stamped envelope. The community needs to be pro-active and to reach out and encourage people to come.
Marriages are almost always on the front lines when it comes to the war of stress. The spouse is usually the first to detect extra tension. Often he/she will also be the first to feel the brunt of the depression or anger that accompanies stress. Add to this the fact that many marriages anyway have their periods of difficulties and we have a recipe for unhappy couples.
The problem is that most couples are reluctant to discuss their private lives unless the marriage is really in trouble. Unfortunately, by that time the difficulties are more deep rooted and more difficult to solve.
While many people are reluctant to discuss their own problems, they are more open to learning how to deal with stress-related problems in their children. They will seek advice on how to improve their relationships with their children or how to prevent a deterioration in school grades, while putting their own issues on a back burner.
The community can arrange subsidized counseling for parents and children. Usually a good therapist will be able to detect any underlying problems between the couple as well, and could steer some of the conversations to these problems while offering concrete advice on how to cope on a daily basis.
While many people may feel unable to leave their homes, a concert with good advance publicity can be very helpful. A team should be organized according to neighborhoods to call people up and remind them of the concert or to get them to encourage their neighbors to attend.
An Eye on the Youth
A committee consisting of a few parents, a professional or two, and a community official, can be set up to look for imaginative, non-expensive ideas. For example, an ecological project for youth with a trip at the end as a incentive will benefit the community, give people a good feeling that something positive is being done, and increase the sense of self-worth of the youth. Camping and survival activities help increase feelings of self-reliance. Dance and crafts, especially pottery, are great cathartic activities.
The Personal Band Aid — More Tips for Coping
Make a mental list of flash points. When do you feel the most tension? Each of us has our own weak points. Our goal should be to be cognizant of them and to decide how to handle them. Very often, once we analyze the problem, a relatively simple solution can be found. For example, tension caused by not knowing the whereabouts of a spouse or child can be alleviated with something as simple as a cell phone. Nervousness about driving can (often) be solved by taking public transportation.
Getting away from it all.Should you try to get away from it all? By all means, though you can get more mileage out of your getaway with advance planning. For many people just the idea of a vacation — even in two months time — is a tension releaser. Work out the details slowly. Discuss where to go. Browse the Internet, get brochures, and even plan the vacation with another couple. Buy yourself something to take along on the trip. It can be anything from a new pair of shoes to a sexy nightgown. This will give your mind something else to focus on. Just as important, it will change your behavior pattern from thinking negatively about the future to a more positive mode.
Daily Getaways. Take a short time each day and create your own getaway. It may be just listening to music that you really like for 15 minutes or reading that novel you have been looking forward to starting. It doesn't have to be for long; it takes just a few minutes to relax. Take the phone off the receiver. Ask the kids to go outside for a little while and tell them that you just need a few minutes of quiet.
What if your kids are very demanding just when you want to rest? You came home after a full day at work, washed the breakfast dishes, and finally got a chance to make yourself a cup of coffee and read the paper. This is when your kids troop in and ask you questions about God and the world.
There is no reason to give up your longed-for cup of coffee, but on the other hand you don't want to bite your child's head off. Since you know this will happen, you can go over it in your mind and plan out how you are going to react. People react far less strongly in a situation for which they are prepared.
So why not compromise? Put the paper down (for a minute) look him in the eye and say, "Listen dear. It is important for me to hear what you have to say but right now I need a few minutes to myself. Please come back in 10 minutes and remember what you wanted to talk about."
This response accomplishes two goals: You didn't make your child feel rejected; on the contrary, you made him feel that he is important to you. Secondly, he gets to understand that you too sometimes need a few minutes to yourself.
I have been asked, "If I take the time to relax, am I not I running away from the problem?" No. Believe me, the problems of everyday life will still be there after your half-hour rest. What will happen is that you will be more relaxed and re-energized. Remember that even Duracell batteries run out!
One person expressed concern that, "If I allow myself to relax, I won't have the strength to get up." Sometimes you find that the 15 minutes you give yourself is not enough. Guess what? The world won't collapse if you give yourself another 15 minutes!
"Won't that be addicting?" I was asked. I can promise you that if you have a household of kids, you will be really lucky to get the half-hour. Someone is going to need a drink, be hungry, or pick a fight with another sibling.
If you have older children, try to have them care for the younger ones for a specified amount of time. This has the double advantage of giving you the break you need while being educational and building character in the older child.
Don't feel you have to be super-mom or dad! If you are having trouble finding strength to undertake any extra activity, then break it up into several segments. For example, take making a birthday party for your child. Today, only decide (with your child), whom you are going to invite. Maybe write out the invitations but nothing more, even if you feel you could do something else. Otherwise, the next time you tell yourself "I will just do..." you will subconsciously remember that last time you did almost all of it, and then you won't be able to even start. The next day, plan the menu, etc., etc.
Get together with friends. It could be a meeting with music or a movie — just to unwind. The conversation will inevitably steer onto how people are coping, and you will be surprised to find how many people share your thoughts and fears. Never underestimate the power of a funny movie. Escapism? You bet. But for a short time you will laugh, smile, and feel better about life. The residue of these feelings will remain at least for a while after all of you get home.
Break the news addiction. Many of us are compulsive news addicts. No matter what we are doing we drop everything and hush everyone around us with, Shush, the news." As I mentioned in the chapter on children, we must also lower our own exposure to the media. There is a distinct rise in tension when you hear the opening of a news broadcast. Decide in advance when you are going to listen to the news and stick to your decision. Unless there is a real crisis, try putting on a CD and leave the news off at all other times.
Finally, make time for your kids! With every thing going on, your children will be confused and adrift. Find time each night to read with them and/or to listen to them. Even older children, who may be a bit embarrassed to be publicly hugged, need the comfort of an arm around them. The routine of a warm drink and a good book before bed does wonders to relax a child. A child must be able to rely on this routine, come what may.
There is nothing anyone can write that will change the situation. We can't shut ourselves off from what's going on around us, yet we should strive not to allow it to overwhelm us. Hopefully this attitude will help us maintain our equilibrium and give us the strength to get through another day.