Distress is not the spice of life

by Catherine Fenwick ã 2000

Stress is the spice of life, but distress is not. Stress and anxiety are part of everyone's life. Some of us have a higher predisposition to distress and some of us become more distressed by learning unhealthy responses to stressors early in life. Chronic distress creates a wide range of health problems. Physical signs of chronic stress include nervousness, nail biting, cold hands, muscle tension, lack of energy, impaired immune system functioning. Psychological signs of distress include confusion, inability to concentrate, depression, mood changes, increased use of alcohol and drugs, changes in sleeping and eating patterns, increased sensitivity to pain, irritability and mental distress. Spiritual signs of distress include despair and loss of hope. Do you recognize these signs? Do you know what to do when you become aware of your distress?

Chronic distress has been linked to a whole range of physical and mental illnesses. We can learn to cope with distress by learning about ourselves. How was distress handled in your home when you were growing up? How have you typically responded to distressing situations? What things do you say to yourself under these conditions? Is your self-talk negative and self-defeating or is it positive and helpful? Do you feel comfortable asking for help? Who do you trust? Who is there for you, no matter what? Are you able to confront your fear and take charge of your responses is these situations?

When you learn to face one stressful situation, to handle it properly, the experience strengthens you. This makes it easier for you to meet and take charge of the next distressing situation you encounter. Distress does not last forever, though it seems so at the time. The more you talk positively to your distress, the more you weaken it. These words are helpful during distressing times, "This too shall pass," "One step at a time, one moment at a time."

Sometimes we fall into habits that are not helpful. Many of us have a tendency to rescue others. This means we often say "yes" when we mean "no," or we do something we really didn't want to do. We do things that people could and should be doing for themselves. We anticipate other people's needs, do more than our share and consistently give more than we receive in certain relationships. We are the fixers, even doing other's thinking and speaking for them, we like to solve their problems for them. We often have difficulty asking for what we want, desire or need.

Sometimes we play the victim by letting others do things for us and make plans for us. We believe there is nothing we can do to change our lives, get our needs met, or take responsibility for ourselves. We believe we should step aside for others, avoid conflict. Maybe we even expect others will hurt or disappoint us. Many people with cancer say they recognize themselves as rescuers and victims. We can stop rescuing by limiting ourselves to doing no more than 50% of the work in any relationship, by recognizing that others are not helpless, by being honest about our own feelings, wants, desires and needs. We can learn to separate our "need to be needed" from our genuine caring and compassion for others. Learning to set limits and boundaries will improve our feelings about ourselves. We can stop being a victim by recognizing the difference between the victim role and the experience of victimization. A person being beaten is a real victim. The role you play as a victim happens because you allow it. You can learn to own your responses to situations, learn to be more assertive, handle distress better, and leave situations that are harmful.

You can seek out people who encourage your positive self-image and break down your feelings of isolation. You can learn to change the things that can be changed and learn to accept the things that can't be changed. List some of the things in your life that need changing. How do you feel about these things, events or situations? List some possible solutions. To mediate stress you need to take charge of your life. It starts by knowing yourself and what's important to you. Then move toward accepting and loving yourself just as you are. "I am worthy." Say this over and over until you really believe it.


Cathy Fenwick is an author, educator and workplace consultant. She develops and delivers workshops and keynotes on how to get more healthy humour into your life and your work. Her books and manuals include Healing With Humour, Telling My Sister's Story, Workscapes: Keeping spirit alive at work , Building Bridges: The heart of effective communication and Hope for people facing cancer.

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