BY Joseph A. Garcia, PsyD

As I set out on the journey of opening a private practice as a new psychologist in the Williamsburg VA area I have been no stranger to stress. The Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory lists major life changes and orders them from most stressful to least stressful. What strikes me about this list is the inclusion of positive events. Events such as finishing school and starting a business increased my score significantly on this inventory. One year ago I looked toward these events as goals and imagined a life free from stress. I think this kind of self-delusion is important for goal acquisition, but it also carries with it a risk. The risk is becoming disillusioned with life. The truth is that no matter what goals we achieve, no matter how many hurdles we jump, there will be another challenge. This situation is addressed in the idea of the hedonic treadmill in which we tend to return to a baseline of happiness (or sadness) after the excitement of goal acquisition has abated. This could be the reason we ultimately continue to strive for new goals. However, this treadmill has a dark side.

Just as with a treadmill one may use for exercise, there is the eventual exhaustion of physical and mental resources. If a person were to stay on a treadmill for too long, the once beneficial effects turn deadly. It is the same for the hedonic treadmill. We must take breaks. In stress theory there is eustress (normal levels of productive stress) and distress (stress that can interfere with productive functioning). It is important to be able to recognize the signs of distress to that we know it is time to take a break.

Signs of psychological distress can include:

  • Forgetfulness
  • Mood swings
  • Changes in sleeping patterns
  • Changes in eating patterns
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Losing interest in once pleasurable activities (hanging out with friends, having sex)
  • Behavioral changes (becoming obsessive about things, or losing motivation)

The tricky thing about these signs is that they are also symptoms and if not noticed and managed can snowball into more serious and chronic conditions such as depression and/or anxiety.

So what am I supposed to do with this?

Well, the most important thing is just to be aware. It sounds simple, but it is the most difficult of the stress management steps. Becoming aware of one’s own process is not an easy task but it is one that is deeply rewarding and can save your health (mental and physical). Once you have noticed that you may be heading toward distress or are in distress then you can take action (or non-action as the case may be). Get off the treadmill. For many people this requires giving oneself permission to stop. Stopping does not mean quitting. Giving yourself some downtime can, in fact, greatly enhance your creativity and success.

So, I have stopped, now what?

Now nothing! Just relax. It may help to develop a list of things that you “used to do” that you enjoyed and did only for this reason. This way you can just pick from the list. It can also help to think about what you did as a child or adolescent (listen to music, write poetry, go for a walk, play with your pet, binge watch a show, pick up that guitar that’s been sitting in the corner gathering dust). The point is that you do something for you. Then when you feel rejuvenated you can pick up where you left off.

If, however, the symptoms of stress feel unmanageable you may need to reach out. This can start with friends and family. If this doesn’t work or is unrealistic for your situation then you may consider seeking out a therapist to help you discover ways to notice the signs and symptoms and to have a collaborator to help design strategies for taking breaks.

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