Lynn Mary Karjala, Ph.D.
Stress is a fact of life these days. Almost everyone will tell you that they feel stressed and overloaded at least some of the time, and a lot of people wind up feeling that way pretty much all of the time.
Stress can be experienced in many different ways. Some of the more common symptoms are anxiety, depression, irritability, forgetfulness, and obsessive thinking. A central aspect of stress is often a sense that things are spinning out of your control.
Stress can have serious physical consequences as well. It can cause, or contribute to, headaches, backaches, muscle spasms, indigestion, nausea, diarrhea or constipation, asthma, high blood pressure, sleep disturbances, sexual dysfunction, and constant fatigue, among others. It's been estimated that as many as 50% of initial doctor visits are for conditions that are purely caused by stress, and as many as 80 to 90% involve stress as a contributing factor. That does not mean that these conditions are imaginary or "all in your head"--just the opposite. It means that stress has real, measurable, physical consequences.
We typically think of stress as being caused by all the things that make demands--too many demands--on our time and energy, our mental, physical, emotional and financial resources. Actually, though, stress doesn't come only from these external events. It comes from the events AND how we think about or interpret them. Most important, it comes from the perception that we have no choices, no power, no control over what's happening.
Psychotherapy can employ a wide variety of techniques to help you deal with both the symptoms and the causes of stress. Symptoms can be reduced through such techniques as breathing exercises, progressive relaxation, and visualization. There are also a number of new techniques from the field of mind-body medicine, such as acupressure, that offer a great deal of promise in the treatment of stress and trauma. The causes of stress can be addressed by looking carefully at what can be changed about the external situation, or the way you interpret it, or both. It's true that you can't always control what happens to you, but you can choose how to respond. And if you know you have choices--even if they aren't great ones--you don't have to feel powerless.
It's also worth noting that physical factors can constitute significant stressors as well. These can come from outside (air pollution, allergens, excessive noise) or from inside the body (hormonal changes, chronic pain). It's a good idea to include a medical checkup as part of your "stress assessment" to help identify any such contributing factors.
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The author is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Roswell, Georgia. For more information, please visit the home page of her web site at www.karjala.com.
Dr. Karjala welcomes comments about this article, which may be sent via e-mail using the form provided on her home page. However, she regrets that she is unable to offer individual, personal advice via e-mail or the Web.
Copyright (c) 2005 Lynn Mary Karjala