I was watching a TV program last night and the main character had an extremely stressful job. His way of coping was to cheat on his wife with another woman. What struck me was that rather than relieving his stress, as he had hoped, it instead just ending up adding a tremendous amount of stress to his life.
This all got me thinking: many of our responses to stress are counterproductive. For instance:
- Having an affair – As with the character in the TV show I was watching, leading a dual life is highly stressful. You are doing something you know is wrong by hurting the person you committed your life to, and you have to manage all of the complications involved in the deceit. Also, your new “amour” inevitably starts to develop expectations about your relationship and begins to pressure you for more time and commitment. If you don’t respond, they may take it to the next level, by psychotically stalking you as in the movie “Fatal Attraction.” Now that’s some stress!
- Overeating – A very common response to stress is overeating. It seems comforting to have fast food for lunch or a big bag of chips every night. However, along with the inevitable weight gain comes self-loathing, a feeling of loss of control, and, eventually, medical problems. Your stress level is only heightened.
- Heavy drinking – This was my stress reliever of choice when I was climbing the corporate ladder. I would look forward all week to getting a good buzz on Saturday night. The only problem was that when Saturday night arrived, I would indulge so heavily that I’d be hung over for days. A hangover that bad can be extremely stressful. Also, I craved alcohol so much that I felt added stress all week long.
Other common responses to stress that will only add to your stress level are drug use, gambling, and overspending. They are wolves in sheep’s clothing.
So what are ways of reacting to stress that will actually reduce your overall stress level? You might try these:
- Reduce your expectations – Sometimes reducing your stress level is as simple as just changing your attitude about a situation. We often create stress by having overblown expectations of ourselves and others. If work is getting onerous, you might decide to pace yourself and go easier on yourself to lighten the impact. When (not if) your children make mistakes, don’t expect them to be so perfect—give them a break. You will both benefit from your compassion.
- Take a vacation – Getting away from your routine by traveling to a tranquil or interesting new destination can be a great way to reduce your stress level. Just don’t spend so much money that you have even more stress when you return home!
- “Sleep in” on a weekend morning – If you have young children, this might not be possible, but you might ask your spouse if he or she will get up with the kids one morning to allow you some tranquility.
- Go to the movies – Many people say they have no time to get away and see a movie, yet they then immediately name a movie they have been dying to see. Just do it. The movies can be a great escape from reality for a couple of hours.
- Exercise – Exercise can be a good stress reliever if it is done in a way that suits your personality, interests, and time availability. Don’t force yourself to do something you hate or that eats up too much of your schedule, or it will only add to your stress. Try to have some fun with it.
With a little bit of thought and self-awareness, you can choose stress-reducing activities that actually serve their intended purpose, rather than causing you only more harm and suffering. Good luck, because it’s a crazy world in which we live these days, and each of us can use all of the help we can get!