“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” – William James
I wasn’t always filled with chronic stress, although some might say (as my psychotherapist informed me) that my childhood was particularly stressful, if not quite approaching toxic stress. What I’ve learned in the years since undergoing therapy is that my mother likely suffered from depression as she carried me in her womb, thus, potentially setting the stage for what later became my own depression, heightened fear and anxiety, hypersensitivity and feelings of inadequacy, hopelessness, even despair. The death of my grandmother, aunt and then my father when I was a young girl only added to the inordinate amount of stress I tried to bury.
How did I overcome chronic stress?
In short, I strongly believe it was nothing short of a miracle. Yet, rationally, it’s more likely a combination of psychotherapy, mindfulness meditation, finding strong and supportive mentors, adopting a positive attitude and developing resilience.
None of this was easy. In fact, therapy was often quite painful, albeit eye-opening and offering a pathway to emotional wellness.
How Psychotherapy Helped Me
I first sought psychotherapy after a prolonged period of sadness going back to my early teens. I had just turned 13 when my father died suddenly from a massive coronary occlusion, otherwise known as a fatal heart attack. Not only was he my rock and anchor, I believed he was my source of happiness. Although my mother later told me he could be somewhat distant or aloof to her and my older brother, I never saw that and he was never that way with me. Thus, when he died at work on the Ford assembly line, a hurt so all-encompassing and a sadness so profound enveloped me that I was never quite the same again.
Every bit of shocking news filled me with terror. If my mother got sick, I feared she’d die and leave me alone. When my brother was involved in an early morning car crash while on leave from the Air Force Base where he was stationed in Biloxi, Mississippi and nearly died, I went into a full-blown panic. I couldn’t eat or sleep and cried incessantly. My mother, desperately attempting to cope with her own fears so soon after her husband’s death, couldn’t offer much help.
I fell into what now is termed clinical depression. At the time, no one in our socioeconomic class (we weren’t at the poverty level, but I’d estimate our family fell in the basement of the middle class), mentioned mental illness, let alone sought help for it. I was on my own to deal with my ever-present sadness, stress, nightmares, feelings of guilt, shame and inadequacy.
As I entered my late teens and early adulthood, I unconsciously sought someone to replace my father in my heart, though I didn’t know this at the time. I just thought I was looking for someone to love me, a quest that proved elusive and seemingly impossible.
I was involved in a near-fatal auto accident when I was 21 and pregnant with my second child. It took years and multiple surgeries to recover. In addition to the other emotional debilitation I suffered, I had numerous facial and neck scars that caused me to shrink from anyone’s direct gaze and shun all but immediate family contact.
While I am happy that I eventually sought and received therapy to help me both recognize how my patterns of behavior (drinking too much, engaging in risky and impulsive behavior and constantly making poor choices) contributed to my then-current emotional instability and the legacy of childhood stress, I only wish I had gotten help earlier.
Learning to believe in and value myself, to create goals and a plan to achieve them, to nurture and build resilience, develop strong friendships without sexual attachments, and raise my children to be strong, independent, curious, confident and loving adults is without a doubt a testament to the value of psychotherapy.
The fact that I’m now able to effectively deal with stress — chronic or occasional — is yet another accomplishment that I am proud of.
Mindfulness Meditation — My Way
It’s only been later in life, ironically, after a four-year period of chronic stress and the resultant development of a chronic heart condition, that I researched and actively sought the benefits of practicing mindfulness meditation.
For me, this method of coping with accumulated stress began with prayer. I had always felt a little better after saying my prayers, silently and in or out of church. Today, whenever my day is particularly stressful, sitting quietly in my gazebo and praying helps to calm me, restore my sense of balance and regain self-confidence. Although it’s not mindfulness meditation in the strict sense, it puts me in a state of mind where I can then allow my thoughts to come and go as they wish without clinging to them, making judgments about them or furiously trying to hold onto them. This is mindfulness meditation my way and it works nicely to dispel immediate or any lingering effects of chronic stress.
Exercise Overcomes Stress
Among other proactive ways to overcome stress that I found in my research is how beneficial exercise is to help dispel the toxic emotion. Along with healthy nutrition and getting enough sleep, exercise is right up there as my go-to methods to ease chronic stress.
Mentors + Positive Attitude + Resilience = Emotional Health
For a woman in business, finding and receiving guidance from strong and supportive mentors is important. For a woman in the process of progressive self-development after a history of emotional turmoil, it’s crucial. I was fortunate to be singled out and nurtured by several successful, compassionate and exceptionally well-rounded women throughout my business career. Most everything I learned about thriving in a male-dominated field I got from them. I eagerly absorbed tips and strategies to mitigate stress, how to maintain your self-worth when being constantly compared to male counterparts, and how to be more productive without spending endless hours at work.
Another illuminating and effective suggestion: the power of a positive attitude and positive thinking. Instead of always seeing the negative side and believing failure was inevitable, I adopted the outlook and attitude that anything is possible. I began to see the bright side of every situation, even when that seemed tough to discern. This gradual shift greatly changed how I approach every situation I encounter, especially during periods of stress.
I must confess that it took me a long time to develop resilience. Researching the topic now, I find that I inadvertently began practicing many of the recommended ways to become more resilient: making connections, not regarding everything as a crisis, accepting (and embracing) change, making progress toward goals, maintaining a positive attitude and hopeful outlook, acting decisively, practicing good self-care, looking for opportunities for self-discovery, keeping things in perspective, meditation and prayer. One more way I’ve become resilient is writing. Besides being my vocation and avocation, writing is also supremely therapeutic. Stress just melts away when I write.
What I firmly believe is that no one is destined to succumb to stress in all its pernicious forms. We can take proactive steps to mitigate or eliminate it, helping our physiological, emotional and psychological well-being in the process. I am living proof of that.