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The Seven False Beliefs About Relationships

 The Seven False Beliefs About Relationships

People who grew up in households with low tolerance for emotion tend to carry particular beliefs about emotions in relationships into their adulthoods.  Below is a good, but not exhaustive, sampling of beliefs that I’ve heard many emotionally neglected people say.  Please read through these seven beliefs, and put a mental check-mark next to the ones that you feel are true.

 

1.      Sharing your feelings or troubles with others will make them feel burdened.
2.      Sharing your feelings or troubles with others will chase them away.
3.      If you let other people see how you feel, they will use it against you.
4.      Sharing your feelings with others will make you look weak.
5.      Letting others see your weaknesses puts you at a disadvantage.
6.      It’s best not to fight if you want to have a good relationship.
7.      Talking about a problem isn’t helpful. Only action solves a problem.

 

When you grow up receiving consistent direct or indirect messages, no matter how subtle, that you should keep your feelings to yourself (Childhood Emotional Neglect), it is natural to assume that your feelings are burdensome and undesirable to others. But the reality is that feelings and emotions are the glue that binds people together. Sharing feelings or troubles with a friend draws them closer and makes you seem stronger.  Fighting out a conflict with someone you care about, when done right, is the best way to get through to the other side of that conflict. And talking about a problem has been proven to help people feel better.

Fortunately, not one of the above Seven Beliefs is true. In fact, they are each and every one dead wrong. Subscribing to any one of these false beliefs can set you at a disadvantage in friendships and relationships of all kinds. They will each and every one hold you back from making healthy, solid and meaningful connections with people; whether it be girlfriend, boyfriend, spouse, sibling, family or friend.

If you put a mental checkmark next to any one of the Seven Beliefs, it may mean that you were emotionally neglected, in some way, in childhood. If that is the case, it will be vital for you to figure out how you were emotionally neglected so that you can overcome it. Read more about Emotional Neglect: what it is, how it works, how it affects people and how to overcome it throughout this website. Much more information on Emotional Neglect can be found in my book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, at Amazon, or your local bookstore.  The Kindle version is also available Here.

If you feel you need more help in dealing with this, I hope you will contact a qualified psychologist or psychotherapist to help you attack your false beliefs. If you don’t they may hold you back in every area of your life, but especially in your relationships with the people you care about the most.

Sappy, Sloppy Emotions: What’s the Point?

“Although many of us may think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think.”

-Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, Neuroscientist, and author of My Stroke of Insight

 

Stupid, sappy, mushy, melodramatic, insipid, tiresome, wimpy, lame. These are all words that I have heard people use to describe their own emotions.

As a psychologist, I see in our society a poor tolerance for something that is a deeply personal, biological part of who we are as humans: our emotions. Indeed, if you grew up in one of the many, many households where emotion was discouraged or poorly tolerated (Childhood Emotional Neglect), you may now, as an adult, have a negative connotation to feelings of all kinds. You may see emotion as a sign of weakness. You may hide your feelings from yourself and others; even the people you care about the most. You may regard the expression or sharing of feelings as maudlin, illogical, or just plain useless. You may have no idea what you feel or why because you have buried your emotions so deeply, even from yourself.

Why did emotion evolve in the first place? Sometimes, especially to emotionally neglected people, emotions feel like a burden. Wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t have to feel sad when we had a conflict with a friend, angry when someone cuts us off in traffic, or anxious before a job interview? On the surface, maybe it would seem easier if we didn’t have to feel those things. But my belief is that if we didn’t have emotions, life would not be better. In fact, it would not be sustainable.

Emotion is necessary for survival. Emotions tell us when we are in danger and when to run, when to fight, and what is worth fighting for. Emotions are our body’s way of communicating with us and driving us to do things. Here are some examples of the purposes of just a few emotions:

Emotion Function
FEAR tells us to escape/self-preservation
ANGER pushes us to fight back/self-protection
LOVE drives us to care for spouse, children, others
PASSION drives us to procreate, create and invent
HURT pushes us to correct a situation
SADNESS tells us we are losing something important
COMPASSION pushes us to help others
DISGUST tells us to avoid something
CURIOSITY drives us to explore and learn

 

You get the idea. For every emotion, there is a purpose. Emotions are incredibly useful tools to help us adapt, survive and thrive. People who were emotionally neglected were trained to try to erase, deny, push underground, and in some cases, be ashamed of, this invaluable built-in feedback system. Because they are not listening to their emotions, they are operating at a disadvantage from the rest of us. Pushing away this vital source of information makes you vulnerable and potentially less productive. It also makes it harder to experience life to its fullest.

Emotions do more, though, than drive us to do things. They also feed the human connections that give life the depth and richness that makes it worthwhile. It is this depth and richness which I believe provides the best answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” Emotional connections to others help us stave off feelings of emptiness as well as existential angst.

If you have spent a lifetime trying to deny your natural, biological emotional responses, you may at times feel disconnected, empty, or unfulfilled in life. The people who love you may find you distant, self-contained, or even arrogant. You may find yourself irritable or angry more often than you would like.

If any of this rings a bell to you, please read more about Emotional Neglect throughout this website. There is much more information about it in my book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.  In the book, I talk about the many forms that Emotional Neglect can take, the 12 types of parents who unwittingly emotionally neglect their child and the 10 issues that emotionally neglected children struggle with as adults. I also offer six clear strategies for overcoming Emotional Neglect.

To learn how to use and share your emotions to enrich, deepen and strengthen your relationships, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

Emotional Neglect Questionnaire

Are you wondering if Emotional Neglect applies to you? Take this questionnaire to find out. Circle the questions to which your answer is YES.

Emotional Neglect Questionnaire

Do You:

  1. Sometimes feel like you don’t belong when with your family or friends
  2. Pride yourself on not relying upon others
  3. Have difficulty asking for help
  4. Have friends or family who complain that you are aloof or distant
  5. Feel you have not met your potential in life
  6. Often just want to be left alone
  7. Secretly feel that you may be a fraud
  8. Tend to feel uncomfortable in social situations
  9.  Often feel disappointed with, or angry at, yourself
  10.  Judge yourself more harshly than you judge others
  11.  Compare yourself to others and often find yourself sadly lacking
  12.  Find it easier to love animals than people
  13.  Often feel irritable or unhappy for no apparent reason
  14.  Have trouble knowing what you’re feeling
  15.  Have trouble identifying your strengths and weaknesses
  16. Sometimes feel like you’re on the outside looking in
  17.  Believe you’re one of those people who could easily live as a hermit
  18.  Have trouble calming yourself
  19.  Feel there’s something holding you back from being present in the moment
  20.  At times feel empty inside
  21.  Secretly feel there’s something wrong with you
  22.  Struggle with self-discipline

Look back over your circled (YES) answers. These answers give you a window into the areas in which you may have experienced Emotional Neglect as a child. To learn more about Emotional Neglect, you can order a copy of my book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect by clicking on THE BOOK tab of this website, or by going to Amazon.com or your local bookstore.

What Didn’t Happen

What didn’t happen to you as a child?

Over 20 years of practicing psychology, I started to see a factor from people’s childhoods that weighs upon them as adults, sapping their joy, and causing them to feel disconnected and unfulfilled. This factor is so subtle that it goes virtually unnoticed by everyone, while it does its silent damage to people’s lives. I call this factor Emotional Neglect, and it’s the topic of my self-help book, Running on Empty.

Emotional Neglect is a parent’s failure to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs. In other words, Emotional Neglect is something that failed to happen in a person’s childhood.

In order to demonstrate why Emotional Neglect is so invisible, I’d like to do a little experiment. I’d like to ask you to close your eyes for just a moment.  Get comfortable in your chair, and think back to yesterday.  I have two things I want to ask you to think of:

First, I’d like you to think of an event that happened yesterday.  It can be anything, big or small…just something that happened.

Second, I’d like you to think of something that didn’t happen yesterday.

My guess is that the second request was quite a bit more difficult to fulfill than the first.  That’s because our brains record events as memories.  Things that fail to happen go unnoticed, unseen, and unremembered.

Mental health professionals, as well as most of the general public, have long been aware of the fact that what happens to us in childhood has a tremendous effect upon who we become as adults.  I have become aware that the opposite of this is also true; that what doesn’t happen for us in childhood has an equal or greater effect.

Remember that Emotional Neglect is a parent’s failure to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs. Because it’s a parent’s failure to act, rather than a parent’s act; just like we saw in our little experiment, it goes unseen, unnoticed, and unremembered.

Emotional Neglect comes in an infinite number of different forms. It can be incredibly subtle, such that 50 people could be watching it not happen, and be completely unaware.  Here’s an example:

Let’s say a child comes home from school feeling sad.  The parent either doesn’t notice the child’s sadness, or says nothing about it.  This probably seems like nothing. Indeed, it happens in every home around the world, and it generally is nothing.

So how could an incident like this damage a child, leaving scars that remain into his adulthood? The answer lies in the natural, developmental needs of children.  In order for a child to grow up with a complete and solid sense of himself, who he is, and what he’s capable of, he must receive enough awareness, understanding, and acceptance of his emotions from his parents.  If there is a shortage from the parents in any one of these areas, the child will grow up feeling incomplete, and lacking some of the skills and self-knowledge and self-care that are necessary to fully thrive in this world.

So back to our boy, who came home from school feeling sad.  If this happens on occasion, it’s no problem. If it happens with enough frequency and depth: that what the child feels is not noticed, responded to or validated by a parent, that child will grow up with a hole in his emotional development. He may feel that his feelings are irrelevant, unimportant, or even shameful or unacceptable.

As a psychologist, I have seen time and time again that  these subtle parental failures in childhood leave the adult with a feeling of being incomplete, empty, unfulfilled, or even questioning the purpose and value of his own life.

This becomes even more difficult when the emotionally neglected adult looks back to her childhood for an explanation for why she feels this way.  I have heard many emotionally neglected people say, “I had a lovely childhood.  I wasn’t mistreated or abused. My parents loved me, and provided me with a nice home, clothing and food. If I’m not happy, it’s my own fault. I have no excuse.”

These people can’t remember what didn’t happen in their childhoods.  So as adults, they blame themselves for whatever is wrong in their lives. They have no memory of what went wrong for them, so they have no way of seeing it or overcoming it, to make their lives happier.

In addition to self-blame, another unfortunate aspect of Emotional Neglect is that it’s self-propagating. Emotionally neglected children grow up with a blind spot about emotions, their own as well as those of others. When they become parents themselves, they’re unaware of the emotions of their own children, and they raise their children to have the same blind spot.  And so on and so on and so on, through generation after generation.

My goal is to make people aware of this subtle but powerful factor. To give everyone the ability to look back and see the invisible; have the words to talk about it, and an opportunity to correct it and stop blaming themselves.

I want to make the term Emotional Neglect a household term. I want to help parents know how important it is to respond enough to their children’s emotional needs, and how to do so. I want to stop this insidious force from sapping peoples’ happiness and connection to others throughout their lives. I want to stop the transfer of Emotional Neglect from one generation to another to another.

I want to give answers to those many people who are living their lives feeling disconnected and unfulfilled, and wondering what is wrong with them.

Reverse Golden Rule: Treat Yourself as You Would Treat Others

 

“What the heck is wrong with you?”
“You are an idiot.”
“How could you make such a stupid mistake?”

 

These may sound like nasty, abusive comments that someone might say to his spouse during a major fight.

Actually, they are typical, everyday comments that many people say to themselves on a regular basis. Many of these people would NEVER say anything that hurtful to their spouse or anyone else.  These are thoughtful, caring people who would not want to hurt another person that way, because they feel compassion for others. The problem is that they do not have that same amount of compassion for themselves.

Why would a person “talk” to herself this way?  I have often found the roots of it to lie in Childhood Emotional Neglect.  When our parents don’t teach us in childhood the process of:  1) acknowledging a mistake; 2) figuring out what we can learn from it; and 3) forgiving ourselves and putting it behind us, we have no choice but to become our own internal “parent,” which we then carry forward through our adulthood.

In the absence of a balanced, forgiving parent who holds us accountable, we become our own internal parent.  A child-like parent who is excessively harsh.

Attacking putdowns like these can become almost a habit. When you do not treat yourself with the same compassion you have for others, you gradually break down your own self-esteem and self-confidence without even realizing it. You are doing as much damage to yourself as you would if you were living with someone who put you down and attacked you constantly.

If you were emotionally neglected in this way, and find yourself with that harsh internal voice, the good news is that it can be fixed.

Here’s the Reverse Golden Rule:  Don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to someone you love and care about.

Start paying attention, and catch yourself in your “automatic putdowns.”  Consciously put in the effort to challenge those destructive comments, and counter them with more productive one. This does take work, but it is well worth it. And please don’t hesitate to find a good therapist near you.

About Emotional Neglect: For Mental Health Professionals

“The Definition of Emotional Neglect:  When a parent fails to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs.”

             As a mental health professional, you may be wondering why Jonice Webb is talking so much about Childhood Emotional Neglect.  After all, you probably have it in the back of your mind often as you work with clients.  We, therapists, know that emotion is important, and that if it isn’t handled well by our clients’ parents in childhood, there will be clear and direct results years later when our clients are adults.

As you have no doubt noticed over and over in your work, this clear, apparent observation on our parts, supported by the work of Attachment Theorists like John Bowlby in the 1950s and Donald Winnicott in the 1960s, is not so easily communicated to, or believed by, the population at large.  I have found that people, in general, have great difficulty accepting that subtle emotional experiences in childhood have any effect whatsoever upon them as adults.

In writing my self-help book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, I have two goals which I am very passionate about:

1.  I want to make Emotional Neglect a household term.

I want to make as many people as possible aware of the power of emotion, and how it affects us when our emotions are invalidated, ignored or suppressed; first by our parents in childhood, and later by ourselves in adulthood. I want to take a childhood non-event, which typically goes unseen and unnoticed, and gives it equal recognition and respect to the events that we talk about with our patients every day. I want to give you the words to talk about this parental failure to act with your patients, and a framework to treat it.

2. I want to make as much of the general population as possible more familiar with, and aware of, Attachment Theory.

Every day I see lovely people blaming themselves for having an issue. They blame themselves because they do not see the connection between their childhood experiences and their adult functioning. I hope you will look at my blog called Stop Blaming Yourself for more explanation of why I feel this is so important.

I have found that keeping Emotional Neglect in the forefront of my mind while conducting psychotherapy over the past several years has made me a far more effective therapist.  I feel that for years, I was like the proverbial blind man, treating parts of the elephant – unaware that there was a whole elephant to which I should be attending.

  • I now have a way of understanding why patients who recall having had a fine childhood are struggling with self-discipline, emptiness, or even suicidal thoughts.
  • I now know how to understand and work with a patient who is counter-dependent or has low emotional intelligence, self-directed anger or self-blame.
  • I can address suicidal thoughts and feelings on a whole new level.
  • I have the words to talk directly to people about what’s really wrong.

I hope you will find Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect a helpful resource in your work with patients.  With a special chapter for parents and another for mental health professionals, it will perhaps help you open new doors with stuck patients.

But above all, I hope you will join me in my efforts to make Emotional Neglect a household word.

Stop Blaming Yourself!

A beautiful young woman sits across from me. Twenty-five, single, college-educated. Great job, lots of friends. A life filled with parties and group trips on the week-ends. She should be smiling, but she is not.

“What is wrong with me?”, she asks tearfully. When I look into her eyes, I see that this is not a rhetorical question. She wants an answer. As her therapist, I know that there is an answer, but it may not be one that she’s ready for. So I ask her, “What is it about this promotion that makes you so anxious?”

This question is followed by a fresh burst of tears. “I have no idea. There’s no reason for it. I’ve worked so hard, I’ve put everything into climbing the ladder. I so deserve this. Everyone tells me so, my friends, my co-workers and my boss. They’re all so happy for me. But every time I think about going to my new position, I get panicky. I feel it now, give me a minute.” She puts her hands over her eyes and takes a few, deep breaths.

As a psychologist, I know that the roots of Elizabeth’s anxiety are not contained within this situation; the roots are in her childhood. And for her to be able to overcome the panic and function well at work, I’ll need to help her dig them out.

Eventually, as I ask question after question, Elizabeth suddenly starts talking about her fifth grade graduation. Here is her story:

It was a big day at school, filled with parents and pride. Each child had created a collage depicting his favorite parts of elementary school for the parents to see. Elizabeth’s had been singled out by the teacher as especially artful earlier in the day, and she was extremely excited for her parents to see it. Her parents sat through the graduation ceremony and clapped enthusiastically, with pride on their faces. After the ceremony, the parents had the opportunity to mill around the classroom to look at all of the collages hanging on the walls. Just as her parents had worked their way through the crowd to the spot where her collage was hanging, her father’s beeper went off. “We have to go,” he announced, urgently turning and taking her mother’s arm. “This was great, Elizabeth, but it’s time to go,” her mother said as they rapidly headed for the door.

Elizabeth obediently followed her parents through the crowd, across the parking lot and to the car, dragging her feet and looking down at the pavement. She knew that her father was a cardiac surgeon who saved lives, and that her collage was nothing compared to that. Since she understood, she kept her tears silent in the back seat of the car.

Fast forward, back to Elizabeth sitting in my office. She told me that she had not thought of this incident for years. Yet there was something about her current situation that reminded her of it. As she told the story, her tears came even more readily, filling Kleenex after Kleenex. “This is so stupid,” she said, blaming herself. “What am I, eleven years old?”

It was only after I helped Elizabeth connect the dots that she was able to see the source of her anxiety, and how it related to her childhood memory. It turned out that she had had many similar incidents in childhood, in which moments that should have been hers suddenly were trumped by someone else’s medical crisis. Through these experiences, Elizabeth had internalized the notion that her achievements are insignificant, and that she should therefore expect to be disappointed by them.

Over and over, again and again, I see intelligent, accomplished people fail to make connections between their childhoods and their current struggles. We human beings do not like the notion that those who raised us had such a profound effect upon who we are as adults. Most of us will acknowledge intellectually that it’s true, but when it comes down to owning it, we resist. Instead, we blame ourselves.

In 1951, psychiatrist John Bowlby first put forth the idea that the quality of an infant’s attachment to its mother actually had an effect on the personality of that infant as an adult. At first, his concept, which we now call ‘Attachment Theory’ was attacked and challenged by scientists for lack of evidence. But over the last 60 years, his theory has been proven over and over again, by study after study. Aspects of Attachment Theory have been fine-tuned by later researchers, so that mental health professionals now understand that even very subtle parental behaviors toward a child can often be observed in that child many years later, in adulthood.

I often wonder why Attachment Theory isn’t more readily embraced on a personal level by all people. Wouldn’t it help people like Elizabeth more quickly figure out for themselves why they are anxious, sad, angry or hurt? Wouldn’t we blame ourselves less for our struggles if we could more readily see that our reactions are rooted in our childhood? Wouldn’t that understanding make it easier for us to overcome our inner obstacles?

Here’s my theory about why we resist the notion that our parents have had such a profound effect upon us as adults: I think that if we allow ourselves to see the true impact that our parents had upon us, we may end up feeling disempowered, or even victimized. If we understand the true impact that we have on our own children, we may feel terrified at the prospect of having so much power. Since we are not fond of feeling either, we lean more toward blaming ourselves for our issues, and underplaying the impact which we have on our own children.

I have seen it happen many times in my office. As soon as a client recognizes the true roots of his current struggle, he is freed up to face it and overcome it. When he faces it, he is less likely to pass that struggle on to his children.

When we embrace the true power that our childhoods have in our lives, we become stronger. And so do our children.

Emotional Neglect and Self-Discipline

Several months ago I was at a dinner party. It was late in the evening, after dinner, and we were all sitting around the table talking. I mentioned to the group that writing my book, Running on Empty, has been surprisingly demanding. At times when I would typically be relaxing, reading, or watching TV, I am now brainstorming, planning, or writing. But I explained that I am driven to do this anyway because I feel driven about my message: making people aware of the invisible effects of Emotional Neglect. As my brother-in-law, Rich, was listening to me talk, he said, “I’m going to send you something in the mail that you have to read.”

I didn’t give this another thought until I received an envelope from him a few days later. In it was, “The Common Denominator of Success,” by Albert E.N. Gray. It is a copy of a speech made my Mr. Gray at the National Association of Life Underwriters in 1940. Mr. Gray has now passed away, but his message is timeless. His speech, while geared toward helping insurance salesmen, applies to any human being who wants to be successful.

Here is Mr. Gray’s discovery of “the common denominator of success,” in his own words:

“The common denominator of success–the secret of success of every man who has ever been successful–lies in the fact that he formed the habit of doing things that failures don’t like to do.”

In my role as psychologist and therapist, I have had the honor of working with many very bright, capable people who struggle with self-discipline. It is painful when a person who has tremendous potential is held back by their own ability to realize it. I have found that the very thing that gets in many such people’s way in fulfilling the potential that they clearly know they have, is an inability to make themselves do what they don’t want to do. Often these folks call themselves lazy. They get angry at themselves for not carrying through the promises they make themselves to do important things. The anger at themselves drains them and eats away at their self-esteem. Gradually, slowly, they start to give up because they are being taken down by a negative cycle of anger at themselves, frustration, and feelings of failure.

I have been quietly treating these people for years.  I often can see early on what the patient herself cannot: that her struggles with self-discipline are rooted in her Emotional Neglect.   Most people don’t realize that we humans are not born with the ability to structure ourselves. Nor are we born with a natural ability to make ourselves do what we don’t want to do. In fact, quite the opposite.  We learn this skill from our parents.  As a child, each time your parents called you in to dinner, interrupting your play with the neighbor kids, made you take a bath, clear the table, clean your room, brush your teeth, hang up your clothes, weed the garden or empty the dishwasher, they were teaching you the two most vital aspects of self-discipline:  how to make yourself do what you don’t want to do; and how to stop yourself from doing what you do want to do.

Mr. Gray has helped me to recognize that these two most basic skills of self-discipline are not solely a function of childhood parental training. A sense of purpose is also an essential ingredient. Mr. Gray maintains that it is an individual’s personal purpose that drives him or her to make the choice to do things that are unpleasant, boring, or scary. That purpose has to be driven by feeling, not logic, or it will not be strong enough to do the trick. Logic is not a great motivator, whereas emotion is.

Now I realize that beyond helping people stop the self-blame and learn how to make themselves do what they don’t want to do, I also have to help them find their purpose. What do you feel passionate about? What do you really care about. Because once you find what you truly want and desire, your passion will motivate you far beyond what you think you need. And then you will be better able to make yourself do things that you don’t want to do.

I highly recommend reading Mr. Gray’s speech. It is beautiful prose, written in 1940’s (i.e., sexist) style. I suggest that you ignore that part, read, enjoy and learn.

http://www.theintelligentinvestor.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/the-common-denominator-of-success.pdf

Oh, yes, thanks Rich!

Stress and Self-Care

Before we talk about stress, I ask that you please answer these two questions:

1.       On a scale of 0 to 10, rate your average daily stress level over the past month.  0 is no stress, and 10 is maximum stress.  Please write your answer down.

2.       Do you believe that your own personal stress level could be impacting your physical or mental health?  Please write your answer down, YES or NO.

Yesterday I was sitting at the hair salon reading a book that I had downloaded to my phone while I waited for my highlights to take effect.  After a brief chat with my hairdresser about how great it is to read a book on your phone, she asked, “So, what are you reading?”

I stammered for a few seconds, during which I was thinking, “Should I tell her what I’m reading?  Maybe I should tell her I’m reading that other book I downloaded that’s about tips for authors, since at least it would show I’m accomplishing something.”  In the end, since I’m not one to lie, I told her the truth: that I was reading a book by Ann Rule about a series of real life murders that took place in the Seattle area.  Brain candy.  Embarrassing!

That experience came to mind later that day when I started reading a new study about stress.  I felt surprised at myself for actually having considered lying to hide my leisurely reading, and I wondered why we humans so often feel a need to present a striving, productive face to the world. Do we not feel worthy unless we are busy and industrious?  Isn’t this discomfort with being idle a tremendous source of stress for all of us?

A 2011 study conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of the American Psychological Association showed that many Americans are living with high levels of stress every day.  The average daily stress level reported (on a 10-point scale, where 0 is none and 10 is maximum),  was reported at 5.2.  22% reported extreme levels of average stress, which they defined as a level of 8, 9 or 10.

In a way, I think it’s a good thing that at least Americans are aware of their stress and are willing to admit to it.  Unlike other emotions, like sadness, anger, jealousy, fear or even anxiety, stress is more acceptable in today’s world.  In fact, it’s almost valued, like a Badge of Honor in our society.  For example, when a friend says, “How are you?” we are not likely to say, “Oh, good, kinda bored actually, not much going on.”  Instead, we search our brains for all the social events, child-centered activities and work projects which we hope will prove how busy and productive we are.

In general, the more stressed you are, the better life you are supposedly living.

Now here comes the really interesting part.  In the same study, 9 out of 10 adults said that they believe that stress can contribute to the development of major illnesses, such as heart disease, depression and obesity.  But 31-36% of those same people believe that stress has only a slight or no impact on their own physical or mental health.  In other words, yes it’s a problem, but only for other people.

Now let’s go back and look at your answers to the questions above.  I asked you to write your answers down so that you couldn’t go back and change them.  Is your answer to #1 higher than 3?  If not, congratulations!  You are doing something right.  But if it is above 3, then your answer to question #2 becomes more important.

If your average stress level is over 3 and your answer to #2 was ‘NO’, I encourage you to give this some thought.  It is difficult to see how stress affects us personally.  But studies show that sustained high stress levels can cause physical problems like weight gain, sleep disruption, cardiac issues, and lowered resistance to disease.  The fact that you can’t see it happening doesn’t mean that it’s not happening.  Chances are, your sustained stress level is taking its toll on you.

If your average stress level is over 3 and your answer to #2 was ‘YES’, this would suggest that you are aware that your stress is a bad thing for you, and that is a good start.  But please do not stop there.

Your stress will probably not go away on its own.  Rather than letting it control you, you must take control of it.  This will require taking action to change some aspects of your lifestyle.  Here are some suggestions to help you do that:

1.       See the value of down-time.  It’s not just okay to relax, do nothing, or read a meaningless book, it’s essential.
2.       Make a list of all of the factors in your life that contribute to your stress.  Go through the list and put a check-mark on any items that could be eliminated or reduced.  Then make a plan for how you are going to do that. Many highly stressed people have actually invited a fair amount of their own stress by taking on more than they can handle.  Now’s your chance to get rid of some of the excess baggage.
3.       Plan a vacation or some sort of break for yourself.
4.       Ask for help.  Chances are, there are people around you who will help and support you if you ask for it and let them know what you need.
5.       Pay more attention to meeting your own physical and emotional needs.  Eat healthy, exercise daily, and make sure you get the amount of sleep that your body truly needs.
6.       Find a creative outlet that allows you to express and expand yourself.  Learn to cook, redecorate a room, take up painting or guitar.  Creative outlets will reduce your stress level.
7.       Here’s the most important one:  use your relationships to calm you.  Studies show that when we are in the company of people we like or love, our brains excrete oxytocin, a neurochemical that is relaxing and gives us a feeling of well-being.  What a great natural and healthy “medicine” that we can give ourselves.

I hope that you will try these ideas for at least one month.  Then come back and re-take the Real Stress Test.  See if your scores have improved.  Don’t expect a miracle.  It’s a work in progress.  The important thing is that you be aware of how you are living, face the reality of it, and work to make it better.

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