HEALTH ASSESSING STRESS

First, you define the problem.

YOUR SHOULDERS ache; you can’t sleep. Yours is a fashionable problem these days. The “experts” call it stress, and if it gets bad enough, it can kill you. Article after article appears, telling you where you got it, what it does to you and what ! you can do about it. Try TM. EST. A sleep tank. The situations you experience can be assigned point values according to the amount of stress they cause. The several hundred stress points you can tally after a change of job, a divorce and a major holiday may mean that a physical breakdown is on its way. A publication copyrighted last year by the American Psychological Association cautiously cites studies in which the incidence of cancer appears to be related to the amount of stress that persons experienced.

The wonder cures for stress are numerous and sometimes very effective -at least temporarily. Discussions with local stress counselors and businessmen and women in high pressure jobs reveal the obvious: With stress, as with most problems, the root of the trouble is the best place to begin treatment. Think about your lifestyle. Your value system. Your goals.

Jim Moore, a former University of Texas at Dallas professor who now spends his time counseling and leading seminars on life and career planning, describes the headspring of stress, “that most stressful thing of all, ” as purposelessness. Most everyone we spoke to said words to that effect.

“The reason so many of us are so sick with stress is that we recognize in our hearts that what we are doing is useless, and in the last analysis we realize that anything that isn’t good for one’s family isn’t good for the family of man. Stress at a job often has to do with the wrongheadedness of a corporation. Most often a company’s overriding goal is [excessive] profitable growth. This isn’t in anyone’s best longtime interest. Stress becomes unmanageable when people identify too much with their occupations and their values start to collide with the system where they work. “

“Everyone wants to make a contribution to society. If we make a contribution we think is worthwhile, we will be happy. That is why people enjoy growing plants. With living things there is the opportunity to foster growth. That is a worthy activity. Making widgets is not a worthy activity. My challenge would be to find out what is unique to you and what you enjoy more than anything else. Then find an environment where you can practice it. “

James M. Hetherington, now an independent real estate broker, reached a similar conclusion after several very profitable years with Hank Dickerson & Co.

Real Estate. In 1973, Hetherington was responsible for coordinating sellers and buyers for 4, 000 acres of land near Lake Dallas, the land that is now The Colony, Texas, a city of 13, 000. Hetherington coordinated sales by 42 different property owners to Fox & Jacobs. He later sold 1, 100 additional acres to IBM.

Certainly, Hetherington was a tremendously successful businessman. After 1973, the real estate market plummeted, and 60 percent of the people in the brokerage business left. Hetherington survived the shakedown and went on to gross $400,000 in 1979.

But he was miserable. “Brokering is high in stress, ” he says. “You try to make two people be fair and reasonable, but the seller knows the property he is selling will go up in value, and the buyer knows he is being asked to pay far more than he should. “

Hetherington says he was frustrated and bored. “I know that sounds funny, my be-ing in real estate, but the most stressful times I’ve felt have been not during adversity, but during apparent success. I had a great feeling of accomplishment and money was no longer an issue, but I had done the same thing for 10 years. I was frustrated with the philosophy of the company and frustrated because I felt I had accomplished all my goals.

“Hank said I was an intense person and suggested I work only half-days for a while. I did that for the fall of ’80 and the spring of ’81. During that time, I realized I had stayed in the company because it was financially secure.”

Hetherington says he would eventually like to be in a business where the emphasis is on teamwork and mutual strengths rather than competitiveness. His goal is to be part of an “effective team, to be a complement to other men in business. ” He says this hasn’t been possible yet, but by becoming independent and by organizing his own company, he is moving toward his goal instead of stagnating, as he was before.

“I realized that I was in a rut -a grave with two ends kicked out. I’d always been taught to hang in there; I was brought up in a home where steadfastness and endurance were emphasized. My tendency was to stay too long. But 1 think that if anyone stays five or 10 years in a situation without making changes and impacting upon his environment according to his own philosophy, then he would be better off to leave. If you’re in an environment where your strengths-enthusiasm, foresight, analytical ability or discernment – are not utilized and appreciated, then you are subject to becoming less the person than you really are. It is life to me to increasingly become who I am. I think that’s the most stressful thing you can have -a lack of hope or confident expectation of something beneficial happening. For me, that something beneficial was creating a positive impact upon my environment. “

The several months Hetherington spent working only half-days, he jogged 45 miles a week and enjoyed more time with his wife and children. He says his family relationships suffered from his unhappiness in his job. “If a husband is unhappy with his work, the place where he spends the most of his time, it doesn’t help his relationship with his family. My wife and I have high expectations for our relationship, and we want to be friends with our kids. I thought I’d end up leaving business, but 1 haven’t. I enjoyed my time of introspection, but at the beginning of 1982, 1 decided that it was time to get back to being productive. This is still not what I want as far as my work goes, but it’s a stepping stone to an effective team – like a good marriage, it’s worth working for. “

One man who helped Hetherington work through his unhappiness was Bill Counts, pastor of Fellowship Bible Church of the Park Cities. “The problems executives have are labeled in different ways, ” Counts says, “but deep down they aren’t that different from problems everyone has. A plumber worries about money to make payments on a camper; an executive worries about closing a half-million-dollar deal. In all cases, there is great pressure in Dallas to succeed; you have to succeed big or you are nothing.

“That same executive who has tremendous pressure placed on him to succeed must also be a wonderful father and husband. Often he fails in one area, and it’s no wonder. People need to recognize their limitations. We can’t be everything in every situation. Money has limited value and absolute material success is not ultimate.

“But everyone tends to live a stressful life. We don’t want to help people live a stress-free life; we want them to learn to handle the stress that is already there. We want them to have the right expectations and emphasis on achievement and competition, and to do this we need something to help us come up with a system of values; we can’t make definitions without a value system. “

Counts says he believes Judeo-Christi-anity teaches a value system that emphasizes the qualities that make a good businessman. “In a person whose life is based on those values, there would be no greed that would lead to bankruptcy; success would be likely, but in a balanced way. A person must realize that he has potential to operate correctly, but that there are things that happen to affect him that he cannot prevent. It is ’I-am-all-there-is’ thinking that creates stress and anxiety.”

Gay Jurgens, a psychologist who organizes workshops to help with employee-stress problems, says the frustration of being without a target, a “free-floating frustration, ” is the worst kind of stress for most people.

“Often, we simply don’t know what we want. We don’t understand what is causing our depression, and we have no idea what target we should aim for. ” Jurgens says that defining the problem is the first step; you should think it over and then talk to a person who can help you change the situation. In her workshops, such as one she conducted with Howmet Aluminum Corp. employees, Jurgens teaches employees to improve their communications skills and by doing so, relieve some of the stress they feel. Exercises in identifying and eliminating “stressors” are included in the seminars, as well as opportunities for employees to “creatively” describe their ideal job.

Changes must be made, Jurgens says, both in thinking and in circumstances, but people can rarely do all this alone. The kind of “programming” that began in childhood and produces thinking such as “I must be strong” or “I must be perfect” is difficult to alter. Jurgens says individuals need reinforcement from others in order to change their thinking. They need to be told by other people whom they respect that what they really want is okay. She suggests that this come from a counselor, family member, boss or minister, but warns that sometimes we discount the advice of family members and close friends. “Having your wife tell you to relax doesn’t pull nearly as much weight as a boss saying the same thing. “

Jurgens says she still sees more men suffering from burnout and stress than women, and that men still seem to have more difficulty paying attention to their internal world than women. That thinking is changing, she says, and the emphasis now on fitness and health has really helped develop personal awareness in men. “Our minds can trick us, ” she says, “but our bodies don’t lie. “

Stress becomes a problem when it begins to impair thinking, when you have a circuit overload and when physical symptoms exist. You should begin, Jurgens says, to list by priority what you need to do to improve your situation. Know that you are not alone with the pressure you feel and that you aren’t weak or crazy.

Jurgens says this advice has helped her. “I can handle so much more in a day now than I could 10 years ago. I’ve done so much to keep myself growing, not avoiding stress, but taking measured risks. I try new things and I get comfortable with them before I move on. It’s like getting used to the water before going off the high dive. Some people jump off too soon, before they are ready and… smash.

“You must be tuned in to your feelings, paying attention to yourself internally. Some people simply don’t recognize that stress exists until they have a heart attack. They should take time to focus attention internally and see if they feel happy, tired, relaxed, etc. “

Once the problem is identified, if indeed there is a problem, and once you have decided what situations in your life need to be changed, you’ll find a long list of alternative treatments to ease the changes. Everything from basic pastoral counseling or next-door neighbor, over-coffee talks to psychoanalysis is available. Phillip Shinoda, a vice president with San Lorenzo, a wholesale floral and decorative supply company, maintains a “thinking office” where he spends quiet time almost every day.

Shinoda decided to rent the office alter going through counseling several years ago, when pressure from working in a family business, trying to finish a doctorate degree and a son’s illness began to take their toll. His depression became so deep that at times he had trouble getting out of bed. Shinoda says he could never have straightened out his life without a therapist, but warns others seeking counseling not to expect too much from their treatment.

“People think therapy will make them happy, but therapy just brings a person back to a functioning level. There are all sorts of charlatans offering therapy; you must shop for a therapist like you are shopping for a car. Unfortunately, when you need a therapist you’re in no shape to shop. That’s why I recommend getting a referral from someone you trust. “

Shinoda says he has learned to handle stress by accepting his actions and expressing his emotions, but he has no desire to eliminate stress from his life entirely. “I perform better with it, and I get a kick from stress. There is an excitement in business that many people miss. I’m a stress junkie. It spurs me on, and I like to take stress hits to keep me from becoming lethargic.”

Ann Keenes, a senior vice president of general merchandise at Neiman-Marcus, is one who has successfully used biofeed-back and EST to help her handle stress. Keenes says hers is a very volatile business because, “you can’t live on yesterday’s laurels; you must constantly be looking ahead. ” But, she says, nothing creates pressure in her life but her way of handling pressure.

“People don’t have the right mentality; they think it is too late to change their lives when they feel unhappy. They feel boxed in. ” The answer, she says, is in learning to take control of situations -in learning that you can’t blame traffic, food or your mother for the things that go wrong in your life.

“Know that there is no ’poor me, ’ ” Keenes says. “Self-pity will immobilize you. Know also that you don’t have an answer for everything. “

As Jurgens points out, the negative thinking that may cause a person to feel stress most likely began in childhood. Clinical psychologists Donald Weaver and Marc King use neurolinguistic programming to help patients change their patterns of thinking and to relieve stress.

This type of therapy, also used in cancer treatments, is non-directive and involves changing the way in which a person visualizes a past or future event.

“What we do, ” Weaver says, “is give people personal power, a tool with which to manipulate their consciousness. You don’t need gurus, etc., to do this, all you need is to learn the strategy by which you feel. Then you can change your pictures of failing to ones of success. “

Weaver and King have helped symphony members conquer pre-concert jitters and businessmen ease fears of elevators and flying by having them visualize a traumatic or stressful incident from a distance, picturing it on a television set. Then clients are encouraged to join the action, imagining that they see and live the event again, just as it was, but backwards. By remembering the painful event, backwards, a person experiences the situation for the first time without stress, because the end of the memory will be at the beginning of the experience. Then, of course, little or no stress is felt.

By doing this, Weaver says, a person can reorganize the neurology of an incident. Once people are able to think of a negative experience in a positive light, they can change the way they’ll feel about the future.

Neurolinguistic programming may bean answer, or one of many answers, but nomatter how effective the treatment or prudent the advice, it isn’t ever quick or easyto change from a stress-filled, guilt-riddenoverworked wreck into a new, satisfiedsuccess. Symptomatic treatments are certainly not cure-alls for a person debilitatedby stress. The problem requires careful examination and perhaps a restructuring ofthinking. Its origins are often buriedunder years of discontent. But change isnot impossible. Even a corporate timebomb can learn to defuse stress.

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