Reducing Stress: Was it one of your new year’s resolutions?

About one out of three (32%) of Americans report that “Reducing Stress” is one of their goals for 2012, according to a survey done by Americanstress in American city Psychological Association. Nearly 20% of Americans had reducing stress as one of their goals previous year also. Why is so hard to reduce stress? More importantly, what causes stress & what can we do about it?

Many people think of stress as being caused by something that is outside of them. Work, traffic, difficult people, money or children are often cited as causes of stress. It is true that life is a continuing process of problems to solve and situations and people to be managed. A hectic busy lifestyle, where one goes from busy work, maneuvering rush hour traffic and then doing more work at home until finally hitting the pillow exhausted can be stressful. However, not everyone who leads a busy lifestyle is stressed. Many thrive and flourish from being busy. Some people intentionally create many irons in the fire, so that they stay busy. Thus, it is not always a hectic lifestyle that causes stress.

Then, what is it that causes stress? According to the Holmes & Rahe stress scale where people weigh in on the events in their lives that cause them stress, people consider as most significant tragic life events such as the death of partners, divorce, jail terms and significant personal injury. However, what also appears in the list of stressful events are what most people would consider as happy & joyful events, such as marriage, pregnancy, retirement, and getting promoted.

How so? All of those events mean change. When things change around us even “good” changes can cause problems. For example, let’s take a look at the issue of getting promoted. You get more money and sometimes more control and influence in your job. How can that be stressful? Let’s think about potential downside of getting promoted. Perhaps you sense that your supervisor’s expectation of you becomes higher. You may also secretly believe that you are inferior to your co-workers, who deserve promotion more than you. Hence, you may avoid lunches and after-work gatherings because you feel uncomfortable around them. Your co-workers who used to be your friends may in fact treat you a little differently – you suspect they are jealous about your promotion. Your support network at work shrinks. You feel lonely and become isolated at work.

You may find yourself working harder and longer hours to prove to others and yourself that you did deserve the promotion. Consequently, you are spending less time with your significant other who begins complaining about eating dinner alone everyday. Physically, you feel exhausted at the end of the day. You are having sleeping problems because you feel too wound up to sleep soundly. You may begin drinking a little too much wine with dinner (fast food) to relax and unwind, but you feel better only for a few hours. You wake up feeling hung over and find yourself not so productive at work in the morning. So you wind up working late to make up for the decreased productivity in the morning. After a while all of that fast food and wine show up as extra fat around your waist and you feel awful. Now does that sound like something that could be stressful? You bet!

Major life changes can trigger a chain of internal and interpersonal changes that can cause stress. We try to cope with the changes, but our “coping” can trigger more stress. Once the stress reactions are set in motion, it is difficult to modify our behaviors. We can go on like that for a long time, feeling trapped.

When we feel that way, it is important that we give ourselves some time to pause and reflect. What is going on in my life? What is making me anxious and frantic? It is easy to come up with quick answers. However, one could drive at more fundamental answers only when we give ourselves time and space to do a complete inventory of the current challenges in our lives. Truly breaking the vicious cycle of stress-inducing events and subsequent behaviors that led us to unproductive and unhealthy coping can be difficult, but it is possible. Once we truly understand all of the internal and external challenges that we face, we can make more informed decisions about our lives.