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Recognizing and Responding to Stress and Stress-Related Issues (part 4)

The first 3 articles of the four part series has covered a number of topics related to stress, and how stress impacts our psychological and physical health—including examining stress’ mechanism process and historical evolution, and 2 cultural values which perpetuate stress: ie. how we have been conditioned to dismiss attending to our stress levels (1) , and how suppressing or denying our emotional struggles contributes to further stress build-up in the body (2).

This final entry highlights what arguably could be North America’s biggest contributor to our growing stress epidemic, which is our cultural value on what is deemed as being a ‘responsible-capable’ adult, and its resultant adaptive behaviors.

3) Being Independent and Resolute as a Sign of Maturity → Difficulties Seeking Help

Maturity as Equated With Self-Sufficiency

i) Be Your Own ‘Man’/Person

North America is very much an individualistic society, which is to say that it promotes identification with the individual over the group. The idea behind this ideology is for people to come up with their own thoughts, values, and goals, as opposed to simply adopting the principles and lifestyles of the collective. This is not to say that orientations within the family-unit or other group-identifications are non-existent; it is just that there tends to be more degrees of separation.

Something that you might have heard at some time in your life—generally by a parent or someone of the older generation—is the line: “Be your own man”. The underlying message behind this is “don’t be a sheep”, and to just blindly follow others; find your own way.

Oftentimes this gets said when one is reaching their later teens and early twenties, and finds themselves pondering the existential questions and responsibilities of life—ie. “Who am I...really?”, “Why am I here?”, and “What is my purpose in this world?”. Until this time, there was more-or-less a general sense of comfort and stability in knowing one’s place in the grand scheme of things. With their physical needs of housing and food typically taken care of, the developing child and adolescent’s most pressing concerns were tied to socializing and ‘fitting in’. Now though, in their early adult-life, there comes a growing sense of pressure (both internally and externally) to realize their independence and make it out on their own.

ii) Make Your Own Decisions

The western world’s valuing of independence can be characterized with one overarching statement: “I can do ‘it’ on my own’. These actions which take us towards our desired goals require decision-making in our later adult-life which are more-or-less unfamiliar territory to us: ie. in moving out of the family home and living on one’s own; in determining what line of work one would like to pursue; in deciding whether to get married or not; in figuring out if one wants kids, and if so, how many?

And within each of these areas more questions arise. For example, when determining one’s career path, one might find themselves asking: ie. “Do I take that work offer that will require me to move cities, in the hopes of job advancement?”; “Do I stay in this job I have now, or jump ship to another company...or maybe, even, dare to start my own?”; “Do I stay in a career which pays well, but I am not satisfied in, or do I take the plunge in pursuing my passion-hobby projects as my primary means of income?”; “Do I go back to school?”

These are all questions which can bring up a lot of anxiety—and stress—for us, as the stakes are decidedly higher than your grade 9 high-school electives. And yet, while we may have felt comfortable back then in meeting our academic advisors for their guidance, for whatever reason, as we get older we believe that we must come up with all the answers ourselves.

iii) Be Resolute In Your Decisions

When it comes to important life decision-making, there seems to be another big emphasis that certainty and holding onto an unwavering attitude of confidence towards one’s initial decision suggests it’s credibility as the ‘right’ decision going forward. An example of this might be when asking your partner to move-in with you, or if you took ‘the big leap’ by popping the question and getting engaged. When it comes to these major relationship moves, you might have heard that “You’ll know when it’s the right time when it feels right” what does it say about you and the relationship if afterwards you experience moments of fear, confusion, or panic?

Disowning Contrasting Desires as a Source of Covert Stress

i) You’re Either In...Or You’re Out: Seeking Order Through Rigid Thinking

What gets to the heart of this issue, and a source of much hidden, or covert, stress, is the disavowal of having multiple feelings towards a person or situation which can be playing out simultaneously. We humans like things fairly structured, and on black-or-white terms. You are either ‘In’, or you are ‘Out’. This categorical way of thinking provides us a certain degree of order in a world that is unpredictable and constantly shifting. That being said, this single-mindedness can also lead to built-up stress and anxiety when one experiences ambivalent feelings towards the subject of interest.

It is as if experiencing anything other than 100% confidence towards something suggests a lack of engagement or commitment to it. This can show up as a new entrepreneur, and when asked how the business was going respond by saying “Pretty good...but challenging!”, only to receive pep-talk feedback whose purpose is to bolster one to ‘shape-up’ and push aside any possible doubts. With this kind of mindset, doubt is seen as the harbinger of doom, and that one’s divided mentality equates to the predictable failure of their business.

ii) #1 Barrier to Help-Seeking: Shame

So how does this all relate to having difficulties in asking for help? Because the stigmatized label of ‘failing’ attached to having uncertainties or mixed feelings regarding decision-making and its subsequent follow-through not only rests on the person’s behaviors, but is internalized as a failing of character—of not being a ‘good’ partner, father, business-owner/employee, etc. And with this comes shame.

Feelings of inadequacy and despair arise as one compares themselves to those around them, as well as their parents, having the thought that “Everyone else has seemed to manage going through these life hurdles fine...what’s wrong with me!? Why am I different?” This line of thinking quickly spirals into heightened underlying stress-levels, as fears of judgment from others leads to compartmentalization and isolation responses in attempts to cope with the psychic pain while preserving the self-image of the ‘responsible-capable’ adult.

For many people, this leads to being caught in an internal dilemma: they recognize that they ‘can’t do it alone’ but also feel that it is too unsafe to let someone in. This results in avoidant behaviors, or--at best—self-help strategies which do not require being vulnerable and opening up to others. A pervading sense of aloneness sets in, as their need for independence—and consequently, control—inhibits the possibility of making meaningful interactions that can be therapeutic and healing.

Finding a Way Out: Normalizing the Help-Seeking Process

i) Balancing the Needs of Growth with Security

I think what is crucial for us to recognize, within the socio-cultural framework of our western ideals, is that it is perfectly acceptable to have the desire to branch out and individualize—to find one’s own way—while also finding solace in conferring with others along the way. These ‘big life steps’ can be scary and anxiety inducing, as it pushes us past the familiar and into the unknown. Having someone alongside you, who is there for you, can be immensely helpful during those moments of doubt. Receiving support or guidance does not preclude growth; it enhances it.

ii) We Do It Practically Everywhere Else: The Big Gap in Help-Seeking

It often surprises me of the apparent gap or exception our society has towards help-seeking. We have no problem asking for help from accountants when it comes to our finances, or doctors or dentists when it comes to our health, but somehow we do not give ourselves this same permission in seeking professional services when it comes to our mental health—which is strange, considering it affects all other areas of our life. After coming away from one of your financial advisor’s sessions, do you not feel a little more relief and hope with your increased understanding of your affairs?...So why not give yourself this same opportunity towards your internal affairs?

iii) Helping You Help Yourself: Help-Seeking as a Collaborative Act

What I uncovered as a result of my research for my thesis on help-seeking was how one simple tweaking of defining the help-seeking process can drastically change our relationship to it. For many people, asking for help can be viewed as being dependent—on relying on others to effect change. And yet, one description of maturity, and of being an ‘independent adult’ is having the ability to express and obtain one’s essential needs in a relationally-responsive manner. This requires awareness and clear communication of one’s desires, while having the ability to take into consideration the needs and concerns of the other individual. Therefore, recent literature has begun to convey help-seeking as an act of independence, as it focuses on enlisting support to effectively obtain personal and interpersonal needs. It emphasizes teamwork and collaboration, with individuals working towards shared interests.

** If any of this resonates with you, then this website--as well as my Facebook Business page (@daveconnectincounselling)--is here to offer you additional resources to add to your tool-kit to recovery and transformation, so that you can not only get back on your feet but hit the ground running. Where that leads is up to you!


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