I know this pain (I know this pain, I know this pain
Why do lock yourself up in these chains?
No one can change your life except for you
Don’t ever let anyone step all over you
Just open your heart and your mind, mmm
Is it really fair to feel this way inside?
Hold On For One More Day
Ever noticed that after touching a hot stove or receiving bruises we almost instinctively begin clutching the part of our body which was injured? That is to say we start applying some level of pressure to the bruise we received, as if hoping that by touching the injury we may gain relief from the pain we experience.
One explanation given by scientist for our reaction is that through stimulating that area we are trying to send a message to the brain (through neurons) to literally “close the pain gate” which is thought to reduce our emotional experience of pain. This is known as the Gate Control Theory of Pain.
According to this theory, directly touching or applying some level of pressure to the area where our pain appears to be emanating is not only normal, but doing so may actually provide some level of relief from the pain we feel.
It is important to note that this theory is by no means comprehensive and therefore does not alone explain the process of pain and/or strategies for overcoming pain. However, I believe its basic premise; on the importance of directly touching the source of the pain holds important benefits for addressing chronic stress.
Just like pain, each of us has a different threshold of stress and we may respond differently to the same events. Also similar to pain, one of the worst things to do when experiencing stress is to engage in avoidance. Refusing to seek treatment for broken bones or physical illnesses can result in serious and long term medical problems. Similarly, by choosing to ignore or avoid our emotional stress we leave ourselves vulnerable to increased emotional problems such as depression and anxiety which can have long term impact on our overall health and wellbeing.
By ignoring the problems in your life, they tend to increase grow and may appear much larger than they really are. This can lead to what is known as “catastrophizing” that is, believe that the problem is too big and that nothing can be done to reduce the impact it is having on you. Truth is, most of the stress we experience can be reduced by choosing to take action in addressing our problems as opposed to engaging in avoidance.
Often times it is not an individual stressful event which prompts us to engage in avoidance, instead it is the irrational fears we feel about our stressors. In response we allow our irrational fears to bombard our thoughts we may conjure worst case and “what if” scenarios which feed our fears and keep us from addressing our stressors.
Another unhelpful strategy is spending our time blaming others for our predicament. It goes without saying that unfortunate or even traumatic events can happen. However, if our sole response is assigning blame then we may remain emotionally/behaviourally paralyzed erroneously believing that because others are responsible for our predicament, there is nothing we can do to change our circumstances. Or as a friend of mine would often say we place our difficulties in the “too hard basket”. Such behaviour only decreases our empowerment and increases our stress.
In contrast, when you become aware of stressors in your life the best course of action is to deal with them as directly as possible. This will not only work to potentially eliminate the stressor, but can also increase your sense of strength as you realize that no stressor is greater than your coping skills.
I call this healthy approach to stress “walking in the face of your fears”. In doing so we begin to more realistically view the issues which we are stressing about we are also able to consider options which may provide some level of relief from our stress. Walking in the face of your fears involves hitting your problems “head on” by engaging in problem solving strategies designed to reduce the impact of the stressor and possibly eliminate the stressor altogether.
Beginning the journey of facing your fears can be as simple as acknowledging that you are experiencing problems and you have chosen to cope by avoidance which has not been helpful.
Also, it’s important to keep in mind that you do not have to choose to take on your problems alone or in isolation, calling a friend, family member or loved one and asking for assistance is HIGHLY RECCOMMENDED. Doing so takes courage and goes a long way in helping you face the difficulties you experience.
Keep in mind the saying that “how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” Another irrational thought which interferes in our willingness to face our fears is the idea that all of our stress must end quickly. Writing down a list of the steps you can take to address your stress can be a helpful strategy for addressing your problems. Doing so also allows you to see the relationships between your behaviour and the reduction of your stress.
Finally, each time you engage in some sort of action designed to address your stressors reward yourself. Such rewards can be as simple as smiling as you realize you do have the resources to help yourself. Alternatively, you may want to be more elaborate in celebrating your ability to walk in the face of your fears. Either way, engaging in self-appreciative behaviours not only increases the likelihood that you will continue to address your stressors, but can also go a long way in raising your self-esteem.
Finally, one of the bravest strategies you can engage is seeking help from a Psychologist or mental health professional who can assist you in your journey of walking in the face of your fears.
by Dr Bill Johnson (Clinical Psychologist)