People are aware of the impact that major stressful events can have on a person's life. In general, society is solicitous of people undergoing major stressors like major illness, divorce, or a death in the family. However, it is interesting to note that, for the individual, small stressors can actually be more significant than major stressors. For example, a friend of mine was fired from her job the day before 9-11. The day of 9-11, when everyone else was so stressed out about the idea of a terrorist attack, she was far more worried about the source of her next paycheck. While she realized, intellectually, that the national impact of 9-11 was certainly greater than the national impact of her being fired, in her life she experienced the loss of her job as a more stressful event. In fact, the most stressful part of 9-11 was that, with its resultant shut-down of government services throughout the country, it delayed her ability to file for unemployment, compounding her stress. While this may make my friend appear selfish, it should come as no surprise. Research certainly suggests that everyday hassles actually contribute more stress, or at least have a greater impact on overall mental health, than major life events. While losing her job may have been a major life event for her, the job loss did not represent a discrete event, but was the cumulation of an extended period of difficulty in the work place, and that difficulty added a significant amount of stress to her life.
While people can do many things to avoid stress, there are some aspects of modern life that seem to introduce stress into people's lives. For example, overcrowding, excessive low-level noise, and other hallmarks of city life can be a significant source of stress. One of the cuter examples of this phenomenon involves my older sister's child and a trip that their family took to New York City. My nephew was approximately three years old when his family went to visit New York City. While he was happy to see some of the sights, the sheer volume of people and the constant noise obviously got to him, so much so that after only one day of braving the crowds, he began acting in an aggressive manner towards some of the people on the street. As they would crowd close to him, he would push them away, stating, "Get out of my personal space." At three, not only did he experience the stress that comes with overcrowding, but he was able to recognize where the stress came from and to make attempts to mitigate the stress. Of course, crowding adults on a New York City street did not listen to a three-year-old's pleas that they get out of his personal space. This led to a feeling of helplessness, and he was soon reduced to a crying mess.
Personally, I know that everyday stressors have a more significant impact on my own feelings of mental well-being than major life events. If I start out the day unable to find my keys, out of my favorite breakfast food, and do something like spill something on my clothing, I find it very difficult to cope with the rest of the day. Moreover, I have noticed that if I have a stressful morning, then events that occur later in the day have more of an impact than on days that are relatively stress-free. In that way, I have observed the cumulative nature of stressors, and have experienced how a relatively minor event can undo a person.
Chapter Four: Ways of Coping
Stress is such a pervasive part of everyday life that people come up with a bunch of different methods of coping. Unfortunately, a significant proportion of those coping methods are not healthy ways of dealing with stress. For example, people use drugs, alcohol, and food to help them cope with stress. Even people who do not turn to substances to help them ease stress may deal with stress in an unhealthy manner. Personally, I am a clean-freak. Under most circumstances, I like to have a very tidy home, and I find it difficult to relax if my home is not clean and relatively tidy. However, when I am experiencing a significant amount of stress, my desire for cleanliness increases almost exponentially. At those times, it is not enough that my house be relatively tidy. On the contrary, at those times, I must experience my home as absolutely clean or tidy before being able to relax or being able to concentrate on fixing the stressful issue. I know that exerting control over my environment, even in a seemingly insignificant manner; by making sure that my home is clean is my way of regaining a sense of control and feeling able to tackle larger stressors. However, I also know that it is not the healthiest way to deal with stress.
What I have been trying to do is work on ways to deal with stress in a more direct manner, because I know that my current coping skills are not as constructive as they could be. What I learned from reading this chapter is that constructive coping skills have specific characteristics. First, constructive coping involves confronting problems rather than symptoms. Constructive coping means that one does not engage in excessive self-deception or other forms of unrealistic thinking. Constructive coping starts with recognizing stressors. Finally, constructive coping means that I have to control potentially destructive coping behaviors. For example, at this point in time, my desire to clean when stressed is not constructive, but it is also not destructive. However, I could imagine a scenario where such a desire for cleanliness could be destructive. For example, I had a childhood friend whose mother was a "clean-freak;" her obsession with cleanliness was so severe that she would not permit her children to play in her home.
Looking at the information for constructive coping methods, I realize that I use one of those coping mechanisms on a regular basis. I used to get extremely upset when people made mistakes on simple things. For example, if I went to a fast food restaurant and they made a mistake in my order, I would get really upset. I figured that, with such a simple job, it should be difficult to make a mistake. However, a friend of mine, who is rarely upset by incompetence or mistakes, suggested that I take the approach that every person I encounter working in an environment like that is special needs. She suggested that because she has volunteered with special-needs people for an extensive period of time and knows that they are frequently employed in low-pay, low-skilled jobs. She also knows that they are frequently the targets for people's anger and ire, even though the reality is that a messed-up fast food order generally does not have dire consequences for any of the people involved. Therefore, she suggested that I act as if any person I encounter in a service position has a hidden disability, and that I adjust my expectations and response accordingly. I have found that this approach reminds me that all human beings make mistakes. As a result, I am not so disappointed or angered when someone makes a mistake. Moreover, when someone makes a mistake, even if I do get upset about the mistake, I remind myself to be nice about it. I have found that refusing to dwell on the mistake or take out my frustration by venting undeserved anger at another person results in reduced stress, rather than increased stress.
Chapter Five: Self-esteem
Self-esteem refers to one's evaluation of one's self. Generally, people who feel good about themselves have high self-esteem, and people who feel bad about themselves have low self-esteem. However, self-esteem is slightly more complicated than it appears. First, there are two different ways of looking at self-esteem. There is trait self-esteem, which refers to someone's ongoing confidence. Trait self-esteem tends to remain constant over a lifetime. In addition, there is state self-esteem, which refers to how someone feels in a particular moment. State self-esteem is more subject to influence by temporary, outside factors than trait self-esteem. For some people, state self-esteem is very fluid and fluctuates tremendously with outside events. Other people are less sensitive and tend to have a more static view of self.
What I found the most interesting were the text's discussions of the accuracy of people's views of themselves. Generally, I considered people who thought well of themselves to have high self-esteem. It never occurred to me that sometimes people may not think very highly of themselves, but if these people are not good people, that they may actually have relatively high self-esteem. For example, I recall reading a fiction book that featured a villain who was a serial killer. He was not one of those serial killers who were otherwise successful…