When Life Is Getting You Down

There’s a headache beginning at the back of your skull. You feel cramped, pressured, smothered. You find yourself trying to take a deeper breath. Your neck feels stiff. Your stomach churns fiercely. You notice that you don’t feel good, but you’re not sure what’s wrong. After all, you’re just waiting for a red light on your way home from work. “Hard day at work,” you think. “Be glad to get home.” Then you try to ignore the discomfort, hoping it will go away.

What you’re probably feeling is a stress reaction. It’s built into our Monday-through-Sunday lives: too much to do, not enough time, too many people making demands, too much noise, too many late nights, not enough exercise, too much junk food. All of these stressors, as they’re called, can cause stress. Stress can come from both psychological and physical sources. In turn, it can affect both the mind and the body. And when it gets out of control, depression can follow.

Myths about Stress

One of our most important challenges in staying mentally and physically healthy is learning how to manage stress. Notice I said manage, not eliminate. It’s unrealistic, perhaps even unwise, to think that the ideal condition is a stress-free one. The need to complete a task, to be at a certain place by a certain time, to meet the expectations of other people, and to satisfy our own internal drives to achieve all help keep us moving. Actually, I wonder how much we would progress if we did not experience some stress.

The idea that all stress is bad and should be avoided is only one of the myths of stress. Another myth goes to the other extreme: “Stress is unavoidable, so why try?” The truth is really somewhere in between. The most intelligent way of managing stress is to take a look at your life and plan to reduce or eliminate unnecessary stress.

Take noise, for example, a potent and persistent stressor. Children in schools where they regularly hear jets passing overhead can’t pay attention, solve math problems, or work puzzles as well as children in quieter classrooms. With this in mind, assess this common predinner scene: Children are playing noisily in front of the turned-up-loud television. The washing machine is churning away in the laundry room. And the weather report on the kitchen radio is in competition with the tinging of the oven timer and the roar of the mixer.

It’s not difficult to see that noise alone can create stress, not to mention the fact that all those machines and people are demanding some kind of attention. By simply eliminating optional noises—the radio, the television, the washing machine and dishwasher—you can automatically lower the stress level and some of the feelings of irritation that naturally result. So, although stress is not all bad, we can and ought to reduce it.

Other Common Myths Include These:

1. “If I have no symptoms of stress, I have no stress.” There are times—indeed many times—when we are not under stress. In fact, many people do live a near stress-free life. But sometimes individuals consciously or unconsciously cover up symptoms of stress so they won’t have to face the problem causing the stress. Covering up or ignoring symptoms does not eliminate stress. And, over a long period of time, ignoring or mismanaging stress can create interpersonal problems, as well as contribute directly to a variety of physical ills—heart disease, lung cancer, emphysema, accidental injuries, and cirrhosis of the liver, to name a few.

2. “If my stress symptoms are minor, I don’t need to worry.” The very best time to deal with stress is in its early stages.

3. “I need to learn the newest, most popular stress-management techniques.” Most of us do need to learn skills to control our stress. But each person is different. Relaxation techniques may be the ideal way to manage stress for me, but you might get the same results by simply changing your sleeping pattern.

Sources of Stress

Our Situation

Stress attacks us from many sources. One type of stress is caused by something in our situation. Feeling crowded, for example, can cause the body to automatically tense up, preparing us to either flee the situation or fight back. Boredom, loud music, extremes of heat and cold, fluorescent lights, badly designed work areas or machines, waiting (anything from sitting in a traffic jam to being a prisoner in a cell), and social conflicts (at work, at school, or in the home)—all create situational stress.

Oddly enough, even our clothing can create stress. A woman who wears high-heeled shoes throws her body forward in a way that stresses her spine and muscles, and she is constantly trying to keep her balance, even if she is so used to it that she doesn’t notice. The man wearing very tight jeans cannot breathe from his diaphragm, but must breathe from his chest instead. Because he can never take a deep enough breath to get the oxygen he needs, he starts to feel “smothered.” In extreme cases, he may experience an anxiety reaction in which his body calls for more oxygen—he feels short of breath, he pants, his heart beats faster. And his anxiety spirals.

Our Own Behavior

A second source of stress—probably the most common, but also the easiest to control—is our own behavior. When we fail to plan our time, for example, we find ourselves living in a constant state of emergency. This is a stressful way to live. A crisis life-style makes us feel pressed and out of control, as if too much is expected of us. Often the problem is not our situation (too much to do) but our own behavior (failure to plan).

Even more basic behaviors can cause stress—the way we eat, sleep, and exercise, for example. We all have bodies designed with muscles that want work. Yet many of us give our large muscles virtually no work to do, making them susceptible to spasms and cramps. Our eating habits can also create problems with stress. The body needs regular mealtimes so that it knows when to expect times of high blood sugar (just after we’ve eaten) and low periods (before meals). When we don’t eat regularly, the body can get its blood sugar only by releasing glycogen from the liver. This is the same chemical response that prepares our bodies for a fight.

Our bodies cause other kinds of stress, too. Naturally, injury and illness cause stress. But so do the physical changes we experience in adolescence and aging.

Stress and Depression

Probably you’ve already identified several sources of stress in your own life. The connection between feeling pushed and out of control and feeling depressed is pretty clear. When we aren’t in control of our lives, we usually don’t meet our own expectations. When this happens, it’s easy to get discouraged. When this discouragement lingers, and becomes a generalized feeling of hopelessness, we label ourselves “depressed.” “Why can’t I be a more patient father?” “I’m not a very productive employee.” “I don’t have any will power.”

At times, we need to take a close look at our expectations of ourselves and those around us. Simply recognizing our limits, along with curbing the influence of unnecessary stress, can keep us from falling into—and help us climb out of—many forms of depression.

Chronic Depression

While most of us have some good days and some not-so-good ones, chronic depression can be a debilitating problem that merits professional attention. The signs of chronic depression, which may be persistent and severe, include serious disturbances in concentrating, sleeping, eating, sexual functioning, and ordinary activity. If these kinds of symptoms persist, expert medical care and possibly psychological assistance may be in order. A first step in dealing with these concerns may be to consult your family doctor or a professional therapist. (See Ensign, Jan. 1983, p. 21.)

Biological Depression

Chronic depression can also be caused by chemical imbalances in the body. This kind of depression does not respond to willpower, positive thinking, or stress management techniques. The causes of biological depression involve alterations in the brain neurotransmitter (messenger) chemicals. Changes in these brain chemicals can actually alter one’s mood, thinking, and behavior.

Dr. Dan Christensen, a consulting psychiatrist at LDS Social Services, agrees:

“Several observations support the diagnosis of a chemical component to depression. One of these is genetic: biological depression occurs more commonly along family lines. And the symptoms that accompany this depression usually include sleep disturbance, appetite disturbance, low energy, low sexual drive, difficulty concentrating, and a pattern where the depression is worse in the morning and seems to improve as the day goes on. Depression which occurs without any apparent cause, or which occurs regularly at certain times of the year, or which is interspersed with overly high moods may also have some chemical cause. It is important to recognize the chemical component in this type of depression because it is best treated with medication and psychological assistance.”

Premenstrual Syndrome

Some women experience another type of emotional disturbance during the last half of the menstrual cycle. This problem, called Premenstrual Syndrome, may cause depression and a variety of other physical and emotional symptoms. This disturbing and painful problem has its basis in body chemistry. The woman who suffers from it may be feeling guilty without cause. If you regularly experience serious premenstrual distress, seek medical attention.

Managing Stress

If your bad days seem to be gaining on your good days, leaving you discouraged and unable to attempt constructive changes, you can probably benefit by learning to manage stress more effectively. Here are some ideas:

1. Evaluate your expectations of yourself. Do you just accept society’s expectations without examining them? If you do, you probably feel pressured and frustrated. Most modern societies value economic success very highly, and sometimes that set of values conflicts with other values you may have adopted. You can gain control of the stress on you by thoughtfully and prayerfully evaluating your society’s expectations and abandoning those that are unrealistic or don’t fit the gospel’s basic value system. Seeking the Lord’s approval of your life and its direction relieves some of the stress associated with living in a highly competitive world.

2. Seek help from spiritual and ecclesiastical leaders. President Spencer W. Kimball suggested to the Saints in Idaho following the Teton Dam disaster in June 1976 that they seek priesthood blessings. He also suggested keeping family routines normal. “Never forget your family prayers night and morning,” he said. “Never forget to bless the food.” His counsel to seek priesthood blessings and pray regularly can apply to most times of stress.

3. Organize your day so that there is some pacing rather than just a high-powered processing of one task after another. Meals are natural pace changers. In addition to the body’s need for regular food, you need to take the time to get off your feet, chew your food thoroughly and, if possible, have a pleasant conversation with someone at the same time.

4. Consciously cultivate a sense of humor. Laughter is not only a great mood-changer, it also actually relaxes muscles very effectively because it makes them contract tightly during the act of laughing.

5. Learn some relaxation techniques. If you fall asleep tense and exhausted, you may stay tense during sleep, sleep restlessly, and wake not feeling rested. Relax by simply concentrating on one group of muscles—your feet, for instance. Tense them and hold it for a couple of seconds, then relax them completely. Then go on to your leg muscles, and so on, all over your body. Pay particular attention to your neck and shoulder muscles since they get particular strain during the day. Also pay attention to the muscles around your mouth and in your forehead where tension can lurk even after you think you’re relaxed. Doing this consistently once or twice a day and before bedtime will help you notice quickly when you are feeling tense and head off serious tension.

Sometimes it helps to deliberately associate relaxation with some pleasant image—a childhood spot where you felt safe and secure, floating lazily on a rubber mattress on a calm lake, the rhythm of an ocean pounding on the shore, or the gentleness of falling snow. When you think of settings where you feel secure, warm, and relaxed, your muscles will get the message.

6. Get some exercise every day, whether it’s walking, cycling, swimming, or a few minutes of strenuous calisthenics. The purpose is to let your body work hard enough to cause perspiration, then to relax.

7. Seek close friendships and learn to communicate your feelings. The idea is not just to “let off steam,” but to help you put your problems in perspective by sharing yourself with a close and trusted friend. Talking with someone else is also a good way to avoid pretending that you aren’t having any problems, all the while the tension is building.

8. Incorporate some deeply fulfilling elements into your day. Prayer and reading the scriptures are two of the most consistent and most important for me. I always come away from them feeling refreshed and renewed. Add to this practice another fulfilling element—perhaps spending time with a person who needs your service, tidying up a desk drawer, reading a good book, or listening to good music.

9. Take charge of your time to avoid a crisis lifestyle. One way to do this is to coordinate your schedule with your family’s. If six of you will be leaving for meetings at fifteen-minute intervals Tuesday night, you probably shouldn’t count on getting any yard work done. And soup and sandwiches might be the least exasperating kind of meal.

Another key is to set priorities so that you don’t try to do everything at once. This can be hard when we feel we need to meet all of the demands on us. Here are some questions I ask myself when I feel too many obligations squeezing me into a tight corner:

What are the consequences of not doing this task? If the consequences are disappointing a child or causing serious problems for colleagues, then the task is probably fairly important. However, if the main concern is “What will people think if I come to work with the car all dusty like this?” it’s pretty obvious that the consequences aren’t too serious.

Why do I feel obligated to do this? We often feel obligated to do something because someone else does it or expects us to do it. If your mother always baked a cake for family home evening, you may feel negligent if you don’t do the same. But your mother’s way of doing something does not need to be your own.

Could someone else do this? Delegating tasks allows someone else to grow. If you hang onto a task just because you think no one else would do it quite as well, consider that your ego needs may be keeping you overworked.

Do I have to do this task now? Doing it later or combining it with another task may be an option.

Could I have avoided this time pressure by planning differently? Asking this question can help you take control of your future.

Remember, stress can have good effects; it is probably necessary for our continued growth. I believe that learning to manage stress, rather than becoming its victim, is one of our important assignments during mortality, for we will never again experience time and physical limitations in quite the same way. And just keeping that in mind helps me keep stress under control!

Signs That You Are Managing Stress

  • Tolerance of others

  • The ability to finish tasks efficiently, take responsibility, handle frustrations and difficulties, and work under authority.

  • The ability to adapt to changes.

  • A sense of belonging.

  • Reliability.

  • The ability to show friendliness and love.

  • A sense of self-reliance and independence.

  • A sense of humor.

  • An ability to eat, sleep, and relax naturally.

Let’s Talk about It

After reading “When Life is Getting You Down,” individually or as a family, you may want to discuss the following questions and ideas.

1. What is the relationship between stress and depression?

2. What are the various kinds of depression mentioned in the article, and what kinds of treatment do they require?

3. The author says that not all stress is bad. What other “myths” about stress does he discuss?

4. Several sources of stress are mentioned in this article. Identify the sources of stress you may feel. What can you do to better manage the stress? What resources are available to you ?

[illustrations] Illustrated by Dilleen Marsh

Val D. MacMurray, assistant commissioner of LDS Social Services and a marriage and family therapist, is the father of five children. He is high priest group leader in his East Millcreek (Utah) Ninth Ward.