Handling Stress

Patty gave this speech at the ASA-GGC Autism-Asperger Conference on February, 2005. Unlike previous speeches and in spite of the length of her talk, she prepared the speech very quickly, was fairly relaxed giving it, and not completely overloaded at the end of it. The written speech is a little rough, but that does not matter as she did not read the speech word-for-word, but improvised as she was giving it and the right words flowed out of her mouth.

Everyone has stress. Stress ranges from feeling "challenged" to come up with good ways to solve problems to feeling immobilized and defeated by stressors. There are a world of ways to react to stress and show symptoms of it on a daily basis.

Suddenly acting out in a stress-defining way signals that the person's thinking has been disrupted. The body is "on automatic," at least in part being operated by stress hormones.

It's normal and functional to make plans in steps, check on progress, and revise as you go. Acute stress attacks look very different from this approach to action.

Stress Reduction studies have been popular over the millennia - note that means thousands of years, not just centuries. Stress is basic to our condition of "being human."


The Gautama Buddha lived 5,000 years ago. He came up with a philosophy of stress and effective treatment for it that are ongoing today. His system has been proven by millions of followers.

In case you are feeling alarmed, I am speaking of Buddhism as an academic philosophy and exercise, not as a religion.

New Science

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin have recently been working with Tibetan Monks who are long-time practitioners of Buddhism and meditation. I was surprised at what they reported they have found.

Calm-but-happy men with laugh crinkles around their eyes. Men who are NOT lofty idealists removed from real life. Men who immerse themselves in ordinary work willingly and joyfully. They have a sense of humor when dealing with life.

I'll quote what they discovered using various brain scan techniques:

Positive Results of Meditation

"What we found is that the longtime practitioners showed brain activation on a scale we have never seen before," said Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the university's new $10 million W.M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior. "Their mental practice is having an effect on the brain in the same way golf or tennis practice will enhance [physical] performance." It demonstrates, he said, that the brain is capable of being trained and physically modified in ways few people can imagine.
-- By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 3, 2005; Page A05

Have YOU been feeling brain-dead from the stress of everyday life? Here is a practice designed to keep you from that fate!

We will look more closely at the process of meditation a bit later, because it's the single method that can help with even uncontrollable stress.

Describe Stress Events

Anxiety Attack

There's the classic anxiety attack: For example, at a certain point in life I found myself unable to get paid work, and was forced to exist on AFDC - called welfare now. With a one-room apartment costing $610 a month, and an income of $550 a month, I would be paralyzed with anxiety every time my ancient Volkswagen beetle needed gas. I would have to phone my sister to support me by talking me into buying the gas I needed. I was so afraid of not being able to replace the money spent on gas by the time the rent was due, that it caused a shutdown in which nothing in the world existed to me except my hungry car and my empty bank account.


Someone I knew through the internet contacted me one day.

"I don't know what to do! My 12-year-old son is making the whole family crazy!"

I asked her what he was doing that was a problem.

Every time we go somewhere in the car, he refuses to get out of the car when we get where we are going. If I drag him out, he does OK for a while, then he starts whining and crying. He starts screaming after a while and I have to take him back to the car!!"

"Interesting. Didn't you just move about 600 miles to a different state?"


"So you live in a different house. And he just started a new school in a different district. And the classroom materials in the new school are different because the two states have different requirements for each grade level?"

"Sure," she answered me.

"And I'll bet you are putting all three boys in the back seat of the car and going to lots of really big stores to buy things for the new house - window curtains and other things that need to be replaced?"

"That's true," she agreed.

"You're driving around in really heavy traffic, starting and stopping a lot ..."


"And when you go into the stores there are miles of complicated visual displays, fluorescent lighting, crowded aisles with people pushing, and lots of noise. You can probably even smell the dyes in the rugs and bedspreads as you shop."

"Of course," she responded.

"I think that means he's reacting to sensory over-stimulation," I continued.

"Why didn't 'I' think of that," she wailed to me.

A meltdown cause that is obvious to one person is often another person's mystery.


Meltdown is another form of stress reaction often seen in autistic children or adults - it looks the opposite of shutdown because the person is moving furiously, probably making a lot of noise, and perhaps attacking people around them.

Why do meltdowns happen?

There may be a sense of outrage at too much being demanded of the person. The outrage could be a sign or sensory or processing overload. The rage of self-hatred over repeated failures to do what others consider "easy" can set off a meltdown. The child or adult may perceive that "things would be better" if the people around him would just leave him alone or go along with whatever it is that he needs or wants at that moment. Not knowing how to change the environment any other way, he may react by attacking people.

For this reason, the melter may be able to calm down sooner if everyone leaves. This does NOT mean the meltdown behavior is the same thing as having an attention-seeking tantrum. Meltdown is internally generated and means the person doesn't have intellectual control of their own behavior at the moment. Thinking has been short-circuited.

Even when a person understands that the people around him aren't the cause of his misery and meltdown, he may attack objects or throw things in a rage totally unrelated to the objects themselves. He may try to injure himself, feeling that his inabilities are the cause of his problems.

Some may learn that self-injury releases enough endorphins to decrease the mental pain. This can cause self-injury to be rpeated whenever the level of misery reaches a certain point, as a desperate attempt to break the cycle of ascending wretched feelings.

People may develop a combination of types of reactions to stress either suddenly or as habitual ways of dealing with overwhelming feelings of pressure.

Maybe a teacher set up a situation by accident that insured that your child would have a meltdown in class.

Suppose, after the kid struggled with poor fine motor control to write half a page of an essay. Then the teacher took away the paper and demanded, "Do that over. And this time make it neat!"

I, personally, have to concentrate so hard on getting the marks down on the paper that it's all I can do remember what it is that I'm trying to say. If someone just yanked away my paper like that, I probably couldn't remember enough of my essay to get it rewritten at all. And, because I get slower or less legible the longer I write, the second paper would be less acceptable-looking than the first one. I would be outraged, and I might be unable to express the reasons for it in a way that a teacher would understand.

Change -- another real-life experience, changing date of oral presentation in prepration for 3 months on only five minutes' notice.

Frustration or change

Transition Issues

Faced with a situation like that, many children explode.

If you ask the teacher why the incident occurred, she hasn't got a clue. Handwriting is easy for her; it's just part of the requirements of school, and she has no insight into the problem she created for the child.

Perhaps she feels the child should be relieved to not have to present today. She doesn't realize he was up all night hag-ridden by anxiety, and now has to face another night like that.

Think of the other places children get stressed: noisy locker rooms, noisier school buses, crowded hallways with no clear path to find their way through the mass of people. Children with sequencing problems and face blindness may have trouble remembering where they are supposed to be at a given time, or even recognizing their teacher so that they know they are in the right classroom.

Children who are stressed relentlessly and unreasonably (from their own point of view) at school will show signs of stress in other parts of their lives. These will add to the family's overall levels of stress at home.


Clean up room - no way to "sort"

Reorganizing toiletries in the bathroom -- takes two weeks to regain ability to find the toothpaste without "thinking about it"

Sudden change in favorite recipe

Panic, negativity, self-attack, meltdown

Fear of having the demons take over

If the panic hits at a "safe" time and place, some time try talking or screaming out the negative words to "hear" it and see if you get insights about your feelings about yourself, and whether those feelings are appropriate

I still sometimes hear my mother's voice in my ear, telling me, as she always did when I had failed to act the way she required, "You will NEVER ... fill in the blank ... NEVER ... be anyone, do anything, have any friends, be married, get an education, et cetera. Hardly true.

I AM someone. I'm important to my partner, my children, people I know, and to the Autism Society. Furthermore, I'm a major pain at my church, where I'm a "walking need for accommodations." Think how much I am educating the people there about autism!


During those years I had problems dealing with other expenses, as well. I developed "shutdowns" when checking out at the grocery store. I would write down and add up the cost of everything as I picked items up in the store. When I got as far as my money could stretch, I would wheel my cart to the register and begin checking out. Then, as I actually wrote out the check to pay for the food, my mind would go blank from the stress of spending nearly my last cent without being able to keep anything in reserve for emergencies, and I would pass out. I usually woke up halfway to the floor, unable to control my muscles to prevent landing directly on my knees. I actually cracked a kneecap before that part of my life was completed.


The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) tells us that the effects of short-term stress are easy to identify as Early Warning signs:

Sleep disturbances
Difficulty in concentrating
Short temper
Upset stomach
Job dissatisfaction
Low morale

Identify when stress hits:

Pain in neck
Dry mouth
Shortness of breath
Tight shoulders
Lower back pain
Holding your breath
Irritability , temper loss
Ringing in your ears
Tapping feet, finger, pencils
Tightness in chest
Clenched jaw
Rapid heartbeat
Cold or clammy hands
Appetite change
Shallow breathing
Excessive use of stimulants, depressants, or escape mechanisms

I know I was at this point in stress three months after my first child arrived. Sleep deprivation felt like the worst of it, but other problems were a total inability to take care of own physical needs, and no time to connect with other people who could have provided me with mental support.

The International Encyclopedia of Occupational Safety and Health informs us that the symptoms we just listed for short-term stress eventually resolve into more deadly forces as the years pass:

Anxiety has to do with things that haven't yet. They might happen in certain ways we won't like, or they might not happen at all, depending on the particular anxiety.

"If I have to tell my boss I missed the deadline, I'll stop breathing and feel like I'm dying! I can't stand to go through that!" So the person has a panic attack while driving to work, anxious about completing a project.

This reaction is especially likely to cause misery if the person has little control over the project -- such as requiring input from people who don't cooperate in order to finish the project.

Anxiety is caused by negative, distorted thoughts we repeat to ourselves. The misery hits us as soon as we think certain key thoughts that we can identify and learn to control. This is called cognitive therapy.

You do have to apply yourself and work at being happy to succeed in being happy, unless you are one of those rare "bouncy" personalities that just never admits to being "down." You have to learn the right attitude and daily practices. You need to learn to open your mind to possibilities instead of focusing on losses. You must learn awareness of possibilities and the ability to accept them. However, making the effort to do that will result in change for the good in your life and your feelings.

Buddha taught us to awaken ourselves to possibilities without indoctrination or pre-conditioning as to their direction. Jesus taught us that faith will bring change. "As you belive, so it will be." This refers to finding a new relationship to your personal reality. Happiness is there for the taking, and the path is well-marked by sages, prophets and teachers of the past 5,000 years.

Job Stress and Health: What the Research Tells Us

Cardiovascular Disease
Many studies suggest that psychologically demanding jobs that allow employees little control over the work process increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Musculoskeletal Disorders
On the basis of research by NIOSH and many other organizations, it is widely believed that job stress increases the risk for development of back and upper- extremity musculoskeletal disorders.

Psychological Disorders
Several studies suggest that differences in rates of mental health problems (such as depression and burnout) for various occupations are due partly to differences in job stress levels. (Economic and lifestyle differences between occupations may also contribute to some of these problems.)

Workplace Injury
Although more study is needed, there is a growing concern that stressful working conditions interfere with safe work practices and set the stage for injuries at work.

Suicide, Cancer, Ulcers, and Impaired Immune Function
Some studies suggest a relationship between stressful working conditions and these health problems. However, more research is needed before firm conclusions can be drawn.

Facing such threats, how can we let ourselves fail to find positive ways to deal with stress? You have only one life to accomplish what you have set for yourself. Don't let stress destroy it.


In the meantime, we'll check out some government studies on workplace stress, and see if they can be adapted to "real life."

Stress and Systems

Stress doesn't happen in a vacuum. It makes sense to look at stress as a result of the system of interactions the person has with their environment at home, at school, or at work.

Stress is usually a group or social condition: if the parent is stressed, it may be partly because the child is stressed. Just as in the workplace, where a supervisor can feel stressed by a "difficult employee," parents can feel lack of control over their home environment because of the stress-caused or stress-inducing behavior of children. I am including the child as a potential victim of stress, not just the source of it!

We have to work on the household stress and the stress endured by each individual at the same time in order to gradually decrease the overall levels for everyone. When the parent has recognized what causes the child to freak out, she can work to rearrange things as much as possible to accommodate the child's attention or sensory problems. Then the parent will have less stress and be able to work with another area of the family's life to further increase the comfort of family members. "One step at a time."

This does NOT mean that everyone has to kow-tow to the picky or self-involved child. Appeasing a child who threatens to scream or even melt down with every little bump in life is a route to madness. There will be times when the child is "learning limits" and spending lots of time screaming. But after the limits are internalized, life will be calmer and more predictable for everyone. The most important thing with lessons in limits is to be absolutely consistent so that the kid learns quickly and without discovering how "pushing the envelope" in behavior might eventually wear even a determined parent down.

Any "Guide to Stress Reduction" will point out that the way to decrease the overall stress levels on everyone, then, is to analyze the stress at all levels of the household or whatever system you are operating in. Make adjustments as the Need for them seems necessary. And reorganize the family or group interactions by changing the conditions people cope with, or retraining them to adjust to the conditions.

At one time I was studying and working in the area of Industrial Hygiene and Hazardous Materials Disposal, so I will refer to information on job stress next.

We're going to translate some Occupational Safety information into data you can use to make a home more comfortable for both parents and children. Parents may feel that they have little control over their hectic lives, but identifying the exact pressures that are making their kids act "wild" can lessen the pressure on the parents.

Unfortunately, children have little ability to influence their environment once they are feeling desperate and that their lives are out of control. But the parent has more control over how things are done.

NIOSH quotes: (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) Job Conditions That May Lead to Stress

The Design of Tasks. Heavy workload, infrequent rest breaks, long work hours and shiftwork; hectic and routine tasks that have little inherent meaning, do not utilize workers' skills, and provide little sense of control.

Does this sound like Home to you?

One day I was changing toilet paper rolls, checking to see how many were left to draw from. I realized that, at that moment, I was feeling that the passing intervals of my life are marked by the need to buy another super-sized package of toilet paper rolls. It's an important part of family life, having toilet paper, but I do not feel that this chore has much in the way of "inherent meaning." Here I am, 60 years old, and still doing this same pretty-much-pointelss chore I adopted when I moved away from home at age 18.

Analyze Home Systems

= = = = = =

Now it's time to evaluate yourself:

Am I too proud to ask for help?

Could I get help if I felt I needed it?

Are other adult family members making this situation worse than it needs to be?

Am I contributing to my own stress by catering to someone who could be more help?

Are outside influences agitating this difficult child and causing him to express more stress than should be necessary?

My children are 27 and 30 years old now. But one of the problems I had as a parent in years past was conflicting or uncertain job expectations.

My children needed to learn to sleep or at least be quiet at night so that I could sleep and continue to be able to care for them. My spouse at that time felt that my job was to entertain the children to keep them quiet so that HE could sleep. We needed a mutual long-term plan, not a self-centered short-term demand, on which to organize our actions.

The combination of sleep deprivation and no time to attend to your own needs is very destructive. In fact, it sounds like the conditions we hear about in prisoner interrogation or brainwashing tactics.

Reorganizing to improve your working conditions is your best hope for a better life situation. Adults or children involved are bound to protest a lot at the beginning. But with overall stress of everyone improving after the main caretaker has taken care of herself, the household could benefit a lot from your persevering in making basic changes.

How do drugs affect STRESS??

HANDOUT? Drugs presentation by Dr Luke Tsai??

There is no single "treatment" for autism, just as there is no single known cause.

On a U.S. Navy website I found the treatment for autism defined as individualized education concentrated on teaching language (not just speech).

Another site quoting many government sources and "experts" says that, although autism has no cure (which is what "treatment" would supposedly be about) "there are many ways to help people with autism adapt to their specific needs and grow to their full potential."

There are also many warnings that the child or adult with autism will frequently "appear" to be able to do more or perform at a higher level than he is actually capable of. A large part of the stress of being autistic, and therefore the stress we cause for those around us, is having to do things even though they are beyond our abilities. It's good to stretch some, to get function where it is needed, some of the time. But the long-term effect of operating at 100 percent or more of our ability can make us feel desperate and extremely anxious about failure.

We live in a cure-oriented society. Antibiotics sand other drugs developed in the past 50 years have changed many life-threatening or life-crippling diseases into inconveniences. We don't think of children as being subject to "chronic conditions" akin to the arthritis and physical weaknesses we accept in people who are aging.

Because there is no single test for or cause of autism, it is diagnosed by looking at behavior. People overlook the fact that unwelcome behavior can be affected by basic neurology. It is not necessarily under a person's control Or done for the reasons observers assume, Or a matter of poor attitude psychologically.

When we succeed in controlling "behavior" and a child or adult starts to "look more normal," we mistakenly assume there is a partially non-autistic person behind their forehead. Learning control of behavior and exterior appearance has no relationship to the actual workings of the mind inside.

Many pharmacological treatments for autism that look promising crop up for a while and are tried out, only to be found to help only a minority of the people they are used on. Also, many of them backfire, produce side effects, or even have no particular effect on many patients.

Trying to use drugs to control "stimming" behavior that isn't dangerous is probably a mistake. First because those actions have a purpose - regulating the person's arousal level. Secondly because changing the nervous sytem's arousal level may result in either an inert or a frantic, anxious, aggressive patient.

We often hear of people putting their child on one drug, then the doctor adding another one for the "side effects" of that drug, and then the child deteriorates and becomes even more difficult over time or when adolescence hits.

Temple Grandin and other adults with autism have said that sometimes small amounts of a drug can help specific problems that people with autism and high stress levels have. Even a "cocktail" or combination is used by some people, who say it helps them function during the day and sleep at night. But many find little or no help in drugs, even if they are adults who can communicate and control their own treatment.

Drug side effects, horror stories and false mental illness

I want to give an example of drug-related stress that I experienced.

When I first had great difficulty finding and keeping jobs as a single parent, my mood shifted from optimism to hopelessness. I saw that the mood was interfering with my ability to sound perky and interested at job interviews. That frightened me and made me feel more hopeless than ever. So I decided to see what I could do about the "mood problem" that I assumed was behind my bad feelings about myself and my increasing self-aggression.

A kindly old psychiatrist at my HMO prescribed one of the old-type antidepressants, desipramine. I began the drug at a very low dose and increased it after a few days. I phoned in to him every day to describe what kind of feelings or changes I felt.

These first steps were like taking a course on the side-effects of psychotropic drugs. Each day, as the level of the drug built up in me, I had changes in the way I functioned. I went through days when I was jumpy and anxious, days when I had obsessive thoughts, and experienced other "side effects" until I built up to a level where I felt calmly competent and alert, without anxiety.

That IS what anti-depressants are all about, isn't it? Would you think that would be an excellent result from a drug? That it would make a person much more productive and functional? Well, happier, perhaps ...

This new attitude helped me to pass a job interview and get employed, which was good. The strange thing was that I found that although I "felt competent," I had serious problems performing the job. I felt like an observer peering out through my own eyes, as I slowly demonstrated that I was unable to do the job (while trying very hard to do it), and my supervisor went through the steps of having me removed on the basis that I was unable to perform.

During this process I "should have" felt upset, gone places for advice, perhaps been to Vocational Rehabilitation for testing, worked on figuring out what it was about that job that was so difficult so that I could find one suited better to me in the future ... So many things I could have done if I had had "normal feelings" of anxiety and worry about my future while the process was going on.

Desipramine was a VERY good anti-depressant, but it was actually VERY appropriate for me to be anxiety-ridden and somewhat depressed in that life situation. The medication prevented me from taking care of myself.

In addition, my lack of worry about "anything" caused my stress levels to invisibly increase, and my self-aggression became much worse. Things would get worse, I would fail to react self-protectively, I would be more stressed, I wouldn't feel anything or be motivated to help myself or represent my own interests.

Looking back, I see that, because I was no longer "suffering" from autistic sensory overload, only "experiencing" it, I failed to properly avoid it.

As a result, I was becoming less and less able to deal with incoming sensory data because I was in a chronic state of sensory overload. No matter how exhausted or confused I was, I would continue doing all the daily things I had set my mind on doing, as listed on "to do" cards, without regard to any mood or feelings. Mood and feelings were things of the past, due to the drug.

In a downward spiral, I became less able to process incoming information, I developed large gaps in my memory of what went on during my. My kids would refer to agreements we had, or places I had taken them, and I wouldn't remember. Other people would remember what I had done, but I would not.

For a few weeks I almost became convinced that I had an alternate personality that was operating without my knowledge. If I ever had any tendency to be paranoid, this experience would have brought that out! Paranoia is NOT a beneficial side effect of a drug!

With my fugue states and missing memories, I couldn't plan anything because I didn't know what I had set up for myself already. I was missing important appointments and doing other things I considered absolutely not ok for myself. The stress of not approving of my own actions and inabilities caused me to get more and more self-aggressive, have more violent and common "meltdowns," over smaller and smaller details. I had the sensation that my brain was rotting away in my head and becoming useless. This made me frantic on a very deep level in spite of the drug that was supposed to be keeping me calm.

As a result of this and other disastrous experiences with even ordinary prescriptions, I can't recommend drugs except as a last resort. In my experience, decreasing the actual stress for children is more likely to produce improved behavior than messing with their nervous systems does.


Drug facts in general (I am not an M.D., only a mental health peer counselor):

* Children tried on many different drugs without showing improvement are generally children who have autism spectrum disordes

* Children who do improve bahavioraly on drugs are generally those with mood disorders, not those with autism spectrum disorders

* "Cycling" in mood disorders occurs over weeks or months

* "Cycles" of mood within a day are caused by autism spectrum disorders and are not generally treatable by drugs. However they often get better with reduction in outside stressors and teaching the child to deal better with those stressors

Some "other" problems like anxiety and depression that children with autism spectrum disorders get "can" be treated in many cases by careful use of limited drugs.


Happiness and a decrease in anxiety and misery are a process, not a goal or finished product.

What have we been taught about these sensations?

Be in the moment. Experience Right Now, without constantly comparing now to some ideal or worrying about the future.

Focus on solution, not problems. Be aware and alert for your solutions to appear or present themselves. Then, when they appear, grit your teeth and accept CHANGE in order to accept that solution. Otherwise, you are doomed to waiting for a different circumstance to arise to offer you another possible solution. It could feel like a very long wait if you are truly anxious and miserable to begin with.

Be responsible for your own behavior and your own reactions, including following the process of finding your own happiness.

Consider challenges to be lessons that will eventually become a part of your lifetime accomplishment and personality.

One day at a time

You can't "fix a life" instantly

You aim to behave a certain way, that you expect will help work toward the goal.

You commit to it for today only. Like Oprah, running five miles a day, you re-commit each time and don't try to promise your life away.

The name of the game is "Self Management"

Not that long ago, a study in a factory showed clearly that, if people got a five-minute break each hour, their total productivity actually went up.

However, when Management read the report, the conclusion was felt to be so counter-intuitive to give people time to recover from stress during the day that it refused to allow the breaks to continue after the study ended. They immediately went back to the older, slower, more stressful way of working.

There were days while my children were small that I would actually lock myself in the bathroom for five minutes at a time to regain my hold on sanity and reason. I felt guilty about doing it, but I knew I couldn't continue to act reasonably unless I had a break right then.

Yes, the children were screaming for me outside the door. But they were in such a state that they would have been screaming in my face if I hadn't removed myself. I knew exactly where they were and what they were doing while I was closed in, recovering, so they were safe. I couldn't be a reasonable, productive Mom without that five little minutes now and then to pull myself back together and remember my goals and my most promising methods for dealing with children.

Running a household, we can't just call a staff meeting and set up a program to decrease stress, but we can keep in mind, as we stumble through each day, how the experts say we should try to manage stressful setups:

Organizational Change.

* Target source of stress for change.
* Propose and prioritize intervention strategies.
* Communicate planned interventions to employees.
* Implement interventions.

This sounds so reasonable! So industrially hygienic! Even businesses have trouble implementing changes like this and being reasonable and "scientific" about it. But the studies and conclusions do give us some guidance.

For total emergencies:

Attitude adjusters and emotional band-aids:

Breathe slowly

Attitude adjusters:
Throw cold water on your face
Go for a walk
Listen to music you love
Lie down
Take three deep breaths (or even ten, if there's time)
Scream into a pillow
Get a hug from someone you love. Even a small child who is currently driving you crazy might be able to cooperate in this effort.

Stress-reducing devices, to use regularly and help prevent the emergencies:

Deep breathing after stopping EVERYTHING
Progressive relaxation
Alternating tension/relaxation (and to feel again)
Listening to a tape -- guided meditation or music
Energy release
Speaking up for yourself
Communicating your feelings
Stating your wants

Actions that may make a difference:

How to say NO. Imagine yourself actually doing what the person is asking you. See yourself falling further and further behind in the schedule. See yourself neglecting important parts of your life to get the project done. Do not imagine what they think of you -- imagine how this will fit into your life. If it's not an opportunity for change in a good way, you are allowed to turn down the task. The point of life is NOT to create misery and do things all wrong!

Try a mantra when things aren't going well:

"I'm not supposed to be perfect. This only needs to be good enough to work." I was stalled on this presentation until I decided to just put words together. With the pressure for perfection gone, the words began to flow.

"Every step of my life is practice for the next step."

"Making a mistake is one of the quickest ways to learn."

"This is temporary. It will pass." If something feels really bad, I feel like it will go on forever. So I remind myself that it won't. I'll get a break from the sensation sooner or later.

Confused overwhelmed, or feeling lost?

Try making a list
But don't make a career out of maintaining and elaborating the list

Keep a journal. Not something that takes a long time. Just write down, every single week on a certain day, three things that you enjoyed or three things that you have been grateful for this week. Make the description full enough that you will recognize it when re-reading the journal sometime later. Come back to the journal when you are discouraged, and read about how you found joy and gratitude in the past.

Cognitive Self Management

We all have our pre-formed ideas of what life "should be," but reality seldom has much relationship to that. Accepting the idea of changing how we approach things in order to make life more comfortable opens you to whole new worlds of understanding. It's simpler to stand firm, say "I want to have this kind of life," and just blame people for it not fitting your point of view. But that attitude certainly does NOT lead to greater happiness in the long run, for you or for the person or idea you decide to blame for the entire system not working.

If we feel our lives are lacking something, that energizes and upsets us far more than if we feel we want to attain some new goal in life. That's just how human nature is. We grieve and nurse our bad feelings about what we perceive we have lost. Many people can't get past that stage and begin the attitude change that will make real progress possible. They want to hang onto the structure of the old life, along with the missing and irretrievable benefits they have fixed on wanting "back."

It's easiest to follow patterns of thinking and acting that we are used to. Routine can help us get through some tasks with minimum energy and effort. But we need to watch out for rigid behavior and rigid thinking.

What's that? It's failure to re-think assumptions that drive us, and that can make us miserable and feeling stressed without good reason.

We need to separate the "shoulds" in life from the real needs. Our internal standards can be very different from the standards we would expect from ourselves if we fully considered our reality.

Focusing on loss and perceived mistreatment can keep you smoldering in anger and resentment.

What is Anger? Pain turned outward.

Pain of injustice
Losing something
Feeling a person "owes you" better treatment
Feeling that things are not the way they should be, or that you deserve

Something is very wrong with your internal functioning if you find yourself stewing in bitterness. You are focusing on what you feel robbed of instead of on waiting to recognize possible solutions.

Anger can also result from feeling unappreciated. In turn this can be the result of pushing yourself too hard without proper use of stress relievers.

If the situation doesn't make you angry at others, it can make you angry at yourself. Cognitive behavioral therapy can counter-act these self-defeating thoughts that are really unseen behaviors. Many people indulge in beating themselves up mentally for what they see as their own failures. It's great to have instant ways to decrease the internal stress, but even better would be a way to teach the self to look at solutions instead of problems. This would put the focus where it can help us and not where it hurts us.

Cognitive steps to deal with what we see as failures would be:

"Why am I not handling my own correspondence?"
I need to allocate time in my schedule
"Why am I not managing my bills easily?"
It takes me longer than I expect, and I don't allow enough time
It's very hard and I often make mistakes. I need to improve my system.

It's not enough to stop beating yourself up. You need to avoid degrading or name-calling other people, or blaming them for your problem. We are all responsible for our own actions and reactions.

We are dealt real lives, without regard to the ways we have developed of looking at our lives. Clinging desperately to standards that have been set up for us without regard to our abilities or situations leads to misery. But in order to find the way to make changes, we need awareness, wisdom, watchfulness and sensitivity. How would we go about developing those abilities while at the same time fighting a losing battle with our social expectations of ourselves?

Change can help, too. Both adults and children resist change, even if it is planning changes that will make life better. They have problems accommodating each other, even when it's obvious that doing it will decrease friction and upset.


The only permanent way to decrease stress is to work at various forms of meditation. Any other method you use can suddenly disappear when you need it -- no privacy for screaming, no time for a list, too much rigidity with rage to try to change yourself in time.

You can only change yourself. Dumping your problems on others takes away the focus from where it needs to be -- on yourself. It holds back your progress, and alienates people who might be able to help you, otherwise.

If someone in your life is unreliable, consider that to be one of life's lessons. Don't let yourself be sucked into being let down by them. Leave yourself open to finding other ways to do things.

Back when I was married, my spouse instructed me to wait for him any time I was going to do any activity or take the children anywhere. However, he didn't like to let me know his schedule, and he seldom came home when he said he would.

After three years of not ever going anywhere on weekends I woke up to the fact that life was passing us by. The children never got to the beach and I never visited adult friends. So I started making plans, letting him know about them, and just going when the time arrived. The children and I started having a life together.

My ex was infuriated that I was refusing to let him control my life, in that way and others. Eventually he left. But by that time I was aware that I didn't want him back. If I had to do everything alone, it was easier doing the work of three people than that of all four of us. Sure, I was afraid of change, and I mourned for what might have been for quite a while. But the relationship was NEVER what it might have been, and never would have been that. So I let it go and decreased my moment-by-moment feelings of stress by half. If he had stayed married to me, I would have died from the stress long before now. This way, he was free to decide to back out of the relationship as I changed my reaction to him.


Life is breath

How many people here have actually tried meditation? It's the only non-temporary non-disruptable method to cope with stress. No one can change you back to your previous mental condition after you have spent months or years practicing meditation!

I remember that meditation felt silly to me at first. Just sitting and either following someone's directions or else trying to have an empty mind! No action, no goal, nothing to struggle to subdue or memorize!

Our Western culture emphasizes conflict and conquest, even in matters of the mind. We can't think of just "doing something" over and over without imagining it is pointless.

W a class of 40 people meditating three times a week, I got used to it and began to consider it a normal experience. We practiced meditation in lots of places, outdoors and in the classroom, to get used to the idea of incorporating it into our lives.

Meditation is referred to as "a practice." It's not something that can be studied in a book, performed a few times to gain proficiency, and then pronounced "accomplished," so that you go on to a different interest.

Experience over thousands of years has shown that actually DOING the meditation on a daily basis is what makes it work. The most amazing thing, to me, is that you aren't even aware it's working, at least in the short term.

I have found that I don't like to sit and do nothing, and don't like to sit and have thoughts that are dictated to me by other people. However, I recognize that I benefit from meditation, and I'm willing to work at getting myself to do it.

Our minds generate thoughts constantly. We are aware of those thoughts; we are used to having them keep our minds busy; we consider it normal to either mull over long thoughts or experience fleeting thoughts most of the time.

But this is really mental noise. Most of the thoughts are pointless.

The fact that our minds automatically generate thoughts doesn't mean that it's good for us to experience this constantly.

It's actually good for our serenity and sanity to back off from immersion in thought, stop struggling to solve problems, and experience periods of peace. This is called meditation.

The discipline and years-long practice of feeling peace is what strengthened the minds of those Tibetan monks with the super-active brains and happy lives. Their gentle good humor and sweet personalities evolved from their practice of meditation.

To "break through," and get myself started in letting go of thoughts,

I find that one of the most helpful things to me is "walking meditation," where I can get myself into the mood by walking very slowly and looking around me for 15 or 20 minutes, concentrating on what I am seeing. After that, when I sit to meditate my mind is already letting go of the constant barrage of words that usually fill it and tie me to the frantic everyday world.

A guided meditation from a tape recording might be the easiest way to practice relaxation, especially until you have practiced relaxation for long enough to be able to do it on your own. By concentrating on a few spoken thoughts we can let go of the thoughts being generated in our minds.

I like to do meditation that helps me let go of the verbal part of myself, stand back and see it from a distance. I find that doing this regularly gives me "space" between myself and my crises, and helps me think out what I really want rather than what my reaction would be when things happen that I don't like.

If we always meet challenges and changes with dislike, we pass up many opportunities to grow to our potential. I value the ability I have gained to "wait and see" if going a new way can expand me.

There is some relationship between the techniques involved in cognitive behavioral therapy and meditation. In both, I learned to identify when I am thinking words that cause problems for me, to identify them - "Oh, that wording that upsets me when I think it" - and then gently let the wording drop from my brain.

Meditation is not a forcing. It isn't supposed to give you spiritual experiences. If you do feel you have spiritual experience, that's very nice. But it's not significant. What is significant is the changes that happen over time as you practice meditating.

Ways to practice meditating.

Everyone needs to find what works for them, personally.

Labyrinth, walking, visualization, tension/relaxation

Copyright © 2005 Patricia E. Clark