While some life situation interventions can be successfully employed when no one else is directly involved, there are interventions that are useful when the situation involves other people as well as yourself.
Men and women who find it difficult to say “no” when asked by the boss if they can handle one other chore or responsibility, and youths who can’t say no to friends when teased into trying a mood-altering substance, have the same problem. Training programs have been mushrooming throughout the country and world to help people say “no” when they should, say yes when they want to, and in general, behave in a self-actualizing manner.
The relationship of assertive behavior to stress lies in satisfaction of needs. If you generally act assertively, you are usually achieving your needs while maintaining effective interpersonal relationships. If you generally act non-assertively, you are not satisfying your needs, and those unsatisfied needs will become stressors. If you generally behave aggressively, your needs are met but at the expense of your relationships with others. Poor interpersonal relationships will become stressors. You can see that, to siphon off stressors at the life-situation level, you need to learn, practice, and adopt assertive behavior as your general pattern of satisfying needs.
Assertion theory is based upon the premise that every person has certain basic rights. Unfortunately, we are often taught that acting consistently with these rights is socially or morally unacceptable. We are taught some traditional assumptions as children – which stay with us as adults – that interfere with basing our behavior on these basic rights. These assumptions violate our rights, and we need to dispense with them.
Examples of these misconceptions and our basic rights are the following:
Right: You have the right to put yourself first.
Right: You have a right to change your mind or decide on a different course of action.
Right: You have a right to feel and express pain.
Right: You have a right not to have to justify yourself to others.
Right: You have a right not to take responsibility for someone else’s problem.
Right: You have a right to ignore the advice of others.
Right: You have a right to be alone, even if others would prefer your company.
Right: You have a right to interrupt in order to ask for clarification.
Right: You have a right to negotiate for change.
Right: You have a right to say no.
(Source: The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook by Martha Davis, PhD; Elizabeth Robbins Eshelman, MSW; and Matthew McKay, PhD)
Assertiveness is not only a matter of what you say but also a function of how you say it. Even if you make an assertive verbal response, you will not be believed if your body’s response is nonassertive. Non-assertive behavior can also be recognized without even hearing the words. It includes:
(Source: Escape From Stress, Stop Killing Yourself, by Kenneth Lamott)
Practice and adopt assertive nonverbal behavior while concentrating on eliminating signs of non-assertiveness and aggressive behavior.
If you become effective in resolving conflict, your interpersonal relationships will be improved. The result of this improvement will be a decrease in the number of stressors you experience. Less conflict of shorter duration resolved to your satisfaction will mean a less-stressed and healthier you.
Resolving conflict can be relatively simple. What confounds the situation, however, are usually a lack of listening, an attempt at winning, an inability to demonstrate an understanding of the person with whom you are in conflict, and a rigidity that prevents you from considering alternative solutions. Here is a simple procedure to resolve interpersonal conflict. The steps of this communication process consist of the following:
In addition to learning to be more assertive and to resolve conflicts well, other communication skills will help you get along better with friends, family, and coworkers, with the result being less stress.
Notice the body posture of your peers. During a boring class, they will probably be learning away from the lecturer or group. We call this physical behavior body language. Communicating by the body posture often says as much as the spoken word. When people feel uncomfortable about expressing their thoughts or feelings verbally, body language is sometimes the only form of communication they participate in.
We all recognize the importance of communicating nonverbally, since we smile when we say hello, scratch our heads when perplexed, and hug a friend to show affection. We show appreciation, affection, revulsion and indifference with expressions and gestures.
Unfortunately, the nonverbal expression of feelings and thoughts is easy to misinterpret. Consequently, depending on nonverbal communication alone to express yourself is to risk being misunderstood. Furthermore, if another person is depending on nonverbal communication to express feelings to you, it is up to you to ask – verbally – whether you are getting the right message. Without such a reality check, the other person, while totally failing to connect, might assume that he or she is communicating effectively.
Check out your impressions of someone’s nonverbal communication, and improve your communication by making your nonverbal and verbal messages as consistent as you can.
Planning Time To Talk
To improve your communication with others, you may need to plan time for discussions. Accept all feelings and the right for the verbal expression of these feelings, and take a risk and really describe your thoughts and feelings. Don’t expect the other person to guess what they are.
The listening and paraphrasing is effective in regular conversation, as well as during conflict. All of us can do a better job at listening. Try to pay more attention to this aspect of your communications.
Beginning with Agreement
You would be surprised at how much better you can communicate with someone with whom you disagree if you start your message with a point on which you do agree. For instance, if you are disagreeing about who should take out the trash, you might begin by saying “I agree that it is important that the trash be taken out now.”
“And” not “But”
The word “but” is like an eraser; it erases everything that precedes it. When someone says, “Yes, your needs are important, but…” they are saying, “Your needs may be important, but let’s forget them because I’m about to tell you what’s really important.” In other words, the importance of your needs is being eradicated and now we can focus on what really matters.
Substituting the word “and” for “but” is so simple and yet so significant. “And” leaves what preceded it on the table and adds something to it. “Your needs are important and…” means that we will not discount your needs; we will just consider them in addition to considering what will be presented next.
Too often we try to get other people to behave or believe as we do. Others naturally resent that, just as we resent it when others try to get us to behave or believe as they do. When we say “you”, we are making the other person feel that he or she is being criticized and needs to defend himself or herself. When we say “I”, we are focusing on our feelings, beliefs, and interpretations. Feeling less defensive, the other person is more likely to listen to us, and the result is communication that is more effective.
As with statements that include “you” instead of “I”, questions that start with “why” make the other person defensive. “Why did you leave so early?” makes the other person have to justify leaving early. In addition, “why” questions are often veiled criticisms.
Social Support Networking
One of the protective factors suspected of preventing stress-related illness or disease is social support. Social support is belonging, being accepted, being loved, or being needed. In different words, it is having people you can really talk to, to whom you feel close, and with whom you share your joys, problems, apprehensions, and love. Social support can be provided by family members, friends, lovers, or anyone else who provides what is described above. The mediating effect of social support lies in the hypothesis that significant others help an individual mobilize psychological resources and master emotional burdens; share tasks, and the extra supplies of money, materials, tools, skills, and cognitive guidance to improve the handling of the situation. They help one deal with and feel better about stressors.
Common sense dictates that social support can help prevent stressors from leading to negative consequences. You have probably also found value in talking over problems and stressors with friends and relatives. You may not have known it at the time, but what you were experiencing was social support.
Social support has been found to be related to several indices of health and illness. Pregnant women with good social support, regardless of life-changes, were found to have only one-third the complications of pregnant women with poor social support. Women who were experiencing major life stress but had intimate relationships were found to develop less depression than women experiencing life stress but lacking such relationships. Unemployed men with high social support experienced lower levels of negative emotion than did unemployed men with low support.
One of the keys to developing social support networks is being open and caring with others. It’s often easier and less threatening to stay aloof and detached from others. Fear prevents getting close to others. We fear that, if we show love for another person, that person will reject us. We fear that we will be embarrassed. We fear that we will be ridiculed. To develop social support systems, however, requires an overcoming of these fears.
If we don’t take advantage of opportunities when they are presented to us, we probably will never have another chance. Why don’t you take a chance? Tell someone that you love him or her. Get involved with those around you. Show people you care about them. By doing so, you will be improving your social support network. You can expect this love, involvement, and care to rebound to you, allowing you to be more effective in managing the stress in your life.
A lot of us are very inexperienced at focusing on the positive side of situations. What do we do about it? The first step is to realize that in any situation there are good and bad, positive and negative elements. Thus, you can choose to raise your blood pressure, serum cholesterol, heart rate, and muscle tension, or you can choose not to alter these body processes. That choice is yours. Even if the situation is so bad that it couldn’t possibly get any worse, you could choose to focus on the fact that things have to get better.
Right now, there are situations in your life that are causing you a great deal of stress. You may not like where you live, whom you’re living with, or the work you’re doing. You may not feel you have enough time to yourself or for leisure-time activities. You may not like the way you look. You may be in poor health. You may be alone. Some of these stressors you may be able to change; some you will not be able to. You now know, however, that you can become selectively aware of their positive components while de-emphasizing (though not denying) their disturbing features.
Why not go even further? Each time you do something that works out well, keep the memory of that with you. Tell others how proud you are of yourself. Pat yourself on the back. Take time just before bedtime to recall all the good things that happened that day. Don’t be like some of your friends who can’t sleep because they still feel embarrassed about something they did that day or worried about something over which they have no control.
Stop to smell the roses. Life can be a celebration if you take the time to celebrate. What prevents us from being aware of life as we live it is often the routine of daily experience. When we experience something over and over again in the same manner, we become habituated to it. We are desensitized to that experience and interact with it out of habit, paying little attention to what we’re doing. We do that very often. For instance, let’s bet that when you travel to school or work, you take the same route each time. In fact, you probably chose this route because it was the fastest one. Other routes may be more scenic or interesting, but you chose speed as your number one priority.
Do you experience the “getting there” or only the “having gotten there”?
Have you ever consciously felt the texture of the steering wheel you hold so often?
Do you ever listen to the sounds of your car and the neighborhood through which you travel?
There are other ways to experience life more fully, too. The idea is to make yourself consciously aware of your experience, as you are going through it, by adopting less routine and habitual behavior.
Humor and Stress
Following is the definition of an optimist. A 70-year-old man has an affair with a young, vivacious, curvaceous, twenty-year-old woman. Before too long, she finds out she’s pregnant and irately calls her lover. “You old fool! You made me pregnant!” The elderly man answers, “Who’s calling, please?”
Humor has been shown to be an effective means of coping with stress. It can defuse stressful situations and/or feelings. Research investigations have verified this conclusion.
Humor can take several forms. It can use surprise, exaggeration, absurdity, incongruity, word play, or the tragic twist. Regardless of the type of humor, its effects on health have been studied for many years. Humor results in both physiological and psychological changes. Laughter increases muscular activity, respiratory activity, oxygen exchange, heart rate, and the production of endorphins. These effects are soon followed by a relaxation state in which respiration, heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension rebound to below normal levels. Psychological effects include relief of anxiety, stress, and tension; an outlet for hostility and anger; an escape from reality; and a means of tolerating crises, tragedy, and chronic illnesses and/or disabilities.
Humor can also be used inappropriately and actually cause distress. Anyone who has seen the hurt look on a person’s face after being the butt of a joke has witnessed humor’s power to cause tension. Unfortunately, humor’s effects are not always predictable. Thus, humor should be used carefully when helping someone else cope with stress so as not to exacerbate the situation. However, once consideration is given to the potential negative effects of humor and they are judged to be minimal, don’t hesitate to use this approach when you think it would be helpful.
What you think of yourself affects how you behave. If you don’t think well of yourself, you will not trust your opinions or your decisions. You will, therefore, be more apt to be influenced by others. Not “marching to the beat of your own drum” may result in your conforming to the behaviors of those with whom you frequently interact. As a matter of fact, poor self-esteem is related to drug abuse, irresponsible sexual behavior, and other “unhealthy’ activities. People with high self-esteem engage in these activities to a significantly lesser extent.
Assertiveness, success, and social support are key components of stress management. Self-esteem is related to each of these. How can you assert yourself and demand your basic rights if you don’t deem yourself worthy of these rights? Self-esteem is learned. How people react to us; what we come to believe are acceptable societal standards of beauty, competence, and intelligence; and how our performances are judged by parents, teachers, friends, and bosses affect how we feel about ourselves. It is common sense, then, to expect our successes to improve our self-esteem and our failures to diminish it.
The very essence of stress management requires confidence in yourself and in your decisions to control your life effectively.
Because self-esteem is so important, the means of improving it deserve your serious attention. There are no magic pills to take or laser beams with which you can be zapped to improve your sense of self-worth. It has developed over a long period of time, and it will take a while for you to change it. With time, attention, effort, and energy, you can enhance your sense of self or at least feel better about those parts of you that cannot be changed.
The first thing to do is to identify that part of yourself about which you want to feel better. Perhaps an exercise program can improve that part, or you need to begin a weight-control program, pay more attention to how you dress, or use makeup more effectively. Along with control comes responsibility.
Externals blame both their successes and their failures on things outside themselves. “Oh, I did such a good job because I work well under pressure.” It’s the pressure, not the person. “Oh, I didn’t do too well because I didn’t have enough time.” It’s the lack of time, not the person. Internals might say “I did so well because of how I decided to adjust to the pressure and time constraints,” or “I did poorly because I didn’t work hard enough.” Internals accept responsibility for their successes and their failures.
Coping With Anxiety
Unfortunately, too many people fail to cope successfully with dysfunctional anxiety and only make matters worse. You may do drugs, drink alcohol, or in some other manner alter your state of consciousness to avoid dealing with the anxiety provoking stimulus. Obviously, these are only temporary solutions and are accompanied by unhealthy consequences. You not only keep your anxiety, but you now have a drug habit to boot.
Taking note of the selective awareness method, you can re-label any negative experience as a positive one. All that is required is to focus upon the positive aspects rather than the negative ones. If you have test anxiety, you could consider it an opportunity to find out or to show others how much you know. Rather than conceptualizing an airplane ride as risking your life, you can re-label it as an opportunity to ride on a sea of clouds or to see your hometown from a totally new and interesting vantage point.
Sometimes it is appropriate to adjust your life and environment to avoid the anxiety-provoking stimulus. For those anxious in crowds, living in a small town will probably be preferable to living in a large city.
This technique requires some objectivity. You must ask yourself what the real risk is in the anxiety-provoking situation. Self-talk may be used to realize that people are generally polite. They won’t boo or throw tomatoes. If they thought that you are absurd, they’d probably take listening so as not to appear rude. The worst that could realistically happen is they won’t ask you back again. That would mean you’d have more time to do other things. That’s not so bad, at all.
As simple as it sounds, when you experience negative thoughts, you can shut them off. To employ thought stopping, you should learn deep muscle relaxation techniques. Then, whenever you have anxious thoughts you want to eliminate, tell yourself that you will not allow these thoughts to continue, and use the relaxation method. The pleasant sensations of relaxation will reinforce the stopping of anxious thoughts, as well as prevent these thoughts from resulting in potentially harmful physiological consequences.
Systematic desensitization involves imagining or experiencing an anxiety-provoking scene while practicing a response incompatible with anxiety. Widely used by psychotherapists, this method was found to be nearly as effective when people used it by themselves.