Almost every adult who enters my office these days is in search of stress relief.
Most men and women want to be more balanced, feel less hurried, get more done with less pressure, and accomplish more in less time.
Now and then I’ll meet a client who just needs to learn a few coping tips to make life more manageable. But more often than not, my clients discover after a session or two that there are underlying circumstances that are exacerbating their sense of overwhelm. And in those cases, dealing with the underlying circumstances is an unavoidable but hugely worthwhile prerequisite to stress relief.
Take Nick, Jill, and Olivia for example. (Names and identifying details have been changed to protect privacy.)
During their first sessions with me, each described a longstanding and exhausting sense of never being finished or accomplished. On the surface, these three professional adults seemed to be understandably worn out from the “do it all, be it all, have it all” pressures of modern culture. But individually, in terms of their very distinct histories behind the stress, Nick, Jill, and Olivia had varying concerns that would likely continue to create stress, even in the face of the most sophisticated stress-reduction techniques, until they were reckoned with.
Nick, raised by extremely demanding parents, realized that he was worn out from trying, futilely and for most of his life, to do something that would finally make his parents proud.
But nothing – getting the most home runs in Little League, making high honors in high school, earning an Ivy League scholarship, or even winning a major election – had ever been good enough to earn their validation. Letting go of the need for approval from his parents and learning to set his own standards for success is what helped Nick.
Jill, a partner at a graphic design firm, discovered that her fatigue was associated with an ingrained belief that she had to be nice to everyone to be liked.
She had become so accommodating at work, always offering to stay late and on weekends and to work at home to make sure team deadlines got met, that she had virtually no personal life. The only answer for Jill was to learn to set firm limits with her staff and trust that people would like her — in fact, trust that they would probably like her more — if she didn’t bend over backwards to enable them.
Olivia, a freelance writer in her fifties, learned that contentment was always at bay because she didn’t feel deserving of happiness.
She had been burdened by tremendous guilt since college graduation when she decided to accept a coveted journalism position in New York rather than return home to Iowa to help her siblings nurse their dying mother. Once Olivia saw through therapy that her mother probably wanted her to pursue her career, she was able to let go and allow herself to enjoy her success.
These are just three instances of how distinct individual issues can be implicated in the common experience of strain and tension. People are held back by all sorts of unsettling internal experiences, ranging from irrational worries and doubts to festering bitterness and rage.
It’s not a question of whether or not you have issues, because frankly, we all have issues. It’s more a question of whether you have particular issues that are making your life overly complicated.
So how do you know if there’s something you should take a deeper look at?
It’s tricky to distinguish between normal, everyday stress and signs of a fundamental internal condition because the manifestations can be so similar.
The circumstances below can lead to distraction, weariness, irritability, disturbed sleep, inattention, impulsivity, anxiety, indecision, disorganization, feeling scared, feeling hopeless and helpless, and other symptoms:
Before you decide that one of the above conditions may be causing havoc in your life, keep in mind that you can rule something out if it isn’t getting in your way.
There are as many psychological theories as there are psychologists, but one thing most of us agree on is that an issue needs addressing if it’s interfering with your ability to effectively participate in the basic responsibilities of adulthood. If your thoughts and moods are negatively impacting your work, relationships with others, or relationship with yourself, then you may want to seek out a professional. On the other hand, if the only internal roadblock you can think of is an intense snake phobia and you live in Manhattan, it’s probably okay to not seek treatment.
Something else psychologists agree on: issues not reckoned with will circle back until they get your attention.
Freud was the first to put forth the basic tenet of psychological health, that if you accomplish the tasks of the developmental stage you’re in, be it toilet training, learning the alphabet, surviving social rejection, or leaving the nest, you will be fully equipped for the next stage. And if you fail to master the tasks of a particular stage, you move forward unable to handle the increasingly complex challenges of life.
Whatever you don’t work out, in other words, you take with you to your next destination, and that’s where psychological baggage comes from. So if there’s some unfinished business from your past that’s weighing on you, it makes sense to take time out to learn what you didn’t get right the first time.
One more rule psychologists see eye to eye on is that an issue is most likely an issue if it is part of a destructive pattern in your life. If you’ve noticed, for example, that you always seem to become romantically involved with partners who cheat on you, that you seem to get fired more than most people you know, or that your family and friends complain to you about a particular habit or trait, then there is most likely some inner matter making trouble for you.
If you determine after some soul searching that you do have issues that need addressing, please be patient with yourself.
If an issue is powerful enough to thwart your progress in life, it most likely didn’t build up overnight, is quite stubborn, and may take a while to tackle. Yes, sometimes it’s possible to free yourself from psychological baggage by doing something as simple as writing a letter of apology or having a good cry, but getting to the root of an issue, working through it, letting it go, and moving forward usually requires persistence and practice. Especially in a culture that discourages slowing down and looking inward for direction, it can be tough to take time out to tend to it.
What’s important to remember is that you have control over your individual issues, and dealing with them will lead to an enhanced capacity to cope with information overwhelm, perpetual change, and other aspects of life over which you don’t have control.
Ready to tackle those issues? Go to the Psychology Today therapist directory for a therapist near you.