March 14, 2012

Stress and Relationships

Don't Let Stress Ruin Your Relationship:  

OK, everyone knows that stress is bad for you. It can hurt you physically, emotionally and even

Poorly managed stress can lead to more misunderstandings and arguments and less kissing and canoodling.  Today we are going to explain why this happens and give you some tips to help you to better manage the stress in your life and keep  your relationship out of trouble.

What is stress ? 

Stress is a state of feeling overloaded and overwhelmed, i.e. it is an internal experience in which we feel that what we have to do is simply greater than what we can do.  We feel stressed because there is an excess of external demands being made of us. Becoming emotionally stressed also has a psychological basis. Sometimes our perceptions are distorted and our ability to access demands and resources is corrupted.  While we know when we feel stressed, we sometimes don't recognize that our perceptions may be distorted.

Stress and Our Brain

When we become overwhelmed, we lose our rational perspective and fall into crisis mode. The amygdale hijacks our neo-cortex. When this happens we are often tricked into thinking there is a crisis when there isn't. In crisis mode we tend to act first and think (if at all) later.  While this may be helpful in a real emergency, reactions which are not thought through can be seen as unnecessarily exaggerated and inconsiderate if there isn't one.  (Remember the Seinfeld episode when George was at a birthday party at his girlfriend's and thought that there was a fire in the apartment? In panic, he started running for the door and pushing children and a little old lady to the ground.)

Why Stress is bad

Panic responses in a relationship are rarely a good thing. When we panic we lose are ability to think clearly, we lose perspective and judgment and we lose empathy, the ability to understand how are behavior impacts others.  Losing these faculties can be a big problem when it comes to relationships.  In short, we can be rude and  insensitive to our mates obviously this kind of behavior will cause bigger problems.

How to Detect Stress in your Relationship

Detecting stress in a relationship is simple once you learn to look for the tell tale signs.  Inconsiderate behavior is the most common sign of stress in a relationship. Likewise increased arguing or a decrease in romance is another common symptom of stress. Lack of conversation or withdrawal is also a possible sign you or your partner is stressed out. Over time poorly managed stress can seriously damage a relationship. Fortunately, there is something you can do to prevent the damage.

Tips for Successfully Managing Stress in your Marriage 

1. Remember that stress is a constant threat to your relationship. Life is stressful. The key to preventing stress-related problems in a relationship is mindfulness. The best way to prevent stress from getting out of hand is for both partners to acknowledge that everyone is vulnerable to becoming stressed out. Thus agreeing that stress monitoring needs to be an essential part of marital maintenance is essential. In other words, both partners need to keep an eye on their own as well as their partners' stress levels.

2. Communicate with your partner. If you notice you or your partner is getting stressed out, don't keep it to yourself. Talk about stress related problems before they get out of hand.  However, talking about stress can be tricky.  Asking your partner if s/he feels stressed can sound like a criticism and result in a misunderstanding. Talking about stress needs to be seen as solving a mystery and not a personal attack.

Try writing a short note in which you invite your partner to talk about a specific incident in which s/he didn't seem to be him/herself. Emphasize the purpose of the conversation is not to criticize but to find the underlying stressors s/he may not be aware of.

3. Work together to understand the underlying stressors together. Working together as a team to identify the underlying stressors which is responsible for inconsiderate behavior is crucial to finding an effective solution to the problem.   

Stress is poorly managed when it is ignored and not talked about. Inconsiderate behavior does not "just happen": there is always a reason. Successful marriages aren't perfect but they are committed to mindfulness and understanding problems when they occur.  When a couple agrees to share their distress with one another and look for ways to cope together, that is the best way to keep the challenges under control and to  prevent them from disrupting the love in your marriage.

The  Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC prepared these remarks for Bridge Street  3 14  2012   

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