Now a single mother, Jenny Kanevsky has mastered the art of using stress to boost her strength in the face of challenges.
We all face stress at one time or another. Sometimes it’s minor; a flat tire, we’re inconvenienced, late for work, but soon we’ve fixed the problem and moved on. Other times, the stressor is major and life changing such as the death of a spouse, a divorce, or personal injury or illness.
According to a 1967 study by psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe, stressful events can be measured in Life Change Units (LCU). In the study, Holmes and Rahe surveyed more than 5,000 medical patients on whether they had experienced any of 43 distinct life events in the previous two years. From this they created the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory. Each LCU on the inventory had a different “weight” for stress. The more events experienced, the higher the score, and the higher the score, the more likely the patient was to become ill. Those mentioned above, death, divorce, illness, are in the top ten on the Stress Inventory with heavily weighted LCUs.
We know now more than ever that our bodies internalize stress. Many illnesses are treated not just with medication, but also with stress reduction techniques such as meditation or yoga. When I face a major stressor, I can often count on the flu or a cold to follow. My resources are depleted, emotionally and physically, and I get sick. This year, I have faced one of the top three as well as a few others down the list. Rather than set myself up for illness, I decided to try a different approach. It didn’t always work. There was plenty of woe-is-me, but consciously reframing the stressor as a challenge, as an opportunity, has helped me weather the storm.
Following are some practical tips to deal with stressful events. You may avoid illness, and you may find an opportunity for change and growth. Granted, the death of a loved one is simply sad and horrible. Self-care and patience are good ways to cope. However, perhaps you’ve lost your job. What if you took the time to reflect? Is this work I love? Can I be better paid, more intellectually stimulated, finally follow a dream? Even divorce, while extremely stressful, can be an opportunity for positive change.
The first tip is to simply acknowledge the challenge. Often we are hard on ourselves. We self-talk with messages like “I should be tougher” or “Why am I upset; this is no big deal?” Maybe it is a big deal. So, I recommend first you:
1. Validate the challenge. Give yourself permission to be stressed. It doesn’t make you weak; it makes you human. We all move, change jobs, and argue with loved ones. Some of us face events simultaneously. We get divorced, and thus have to move. A loved one is gravely ill, and then passes away. Multiple stressors at once. If you are feeling you should be “over it,” get a reality check from a trusted friend or support system. When swirling in the turmoil of a major life change, I often forget that I am a strong person. I forget other rites of passage, other hardships I have overcome, and challenges I have met. Sometimes talking to a friend, or even rethinking my past and writing a list of other hard times, helps me validate the challenge. Yes, I am facing a stressor. I’ve been through those before and always come out stronger and happier on the other end. When I’m in the midst, it’s hard to see that. That’s when external, concrete validation can help.
2. Reframe challenges into blessings. I am going through a divorce. I am also moving, and selling my house. A trifecta of challenge. While this has been a difficult time for me and my children, these changes are, in fact, opportunities for growth. We were not happy. We were not going to be happy. On the other side of this change, I believe our family, as two families, one with a dad and two sons, and one with a mom and two sons, alternating time together, will be blessed with happiness.
3. Think of challenges as marathons not sprints. When facing a challenge, you don’t have to do face it all today. This has been an important lesson for me. It took age, and a chronic illness, to get me to slow down, to relax and let some things slide; they often work themselves out. I have learned to prioritize. I am the opposite of a procrastinator and always will be. However, the extreme of that, is over-tasking. And when I do that, I burn out. And then I get sick.
These last six months I have practiced: only do what needs to be done today. Finding a rental, moving, getting a house ready for sale, caring for two children, caring for myself, dealing with hiccups (a plumbing issue here, an electrical snafu there); I’m doing it. But I’m not staying up until 2 a.m. every night. I cut back on responsibilities where I could. People understand. And, I’m getting it all done. But, I’m sleeping. Eating. Enjoying.
No one sets out to run a marathon in twenty minutes. It takes hours. Life is not a sprint. Life is years of balance and learning and being kind to yourself whilst facing both good and hard times. Those hard times inevitably make you stronger. Hunker down, cut yourself some slack, you’ll get through it.
4. Ask for help. First, don’t hide. Tell people what’s going on. When I told my editors and friends they were immediately patient, understanding, and mostly concerned for my well-being. They have not insisted: Five blog posts a week, woman, step it up. Or, come to every social event, chip up! They are cutting me slack, and offering support. Second, I have been asking for help. Often people say “let me know if I can help.” While they mean well, that offer can be too vague. I might convince myself, well, I guess I could use some help, but, they’re busy and I’ll be OK. When someone offers specifically: “Can I take your kids tomorrow afternoon so you can get things done, and maybe take a nap.” Yes, please. To that end, I am now specific about what I need. “The movers are coming Monday and Tuesday. Can my son sleep over? And when you drop him off, can you send a roll of toilet paper? I’m out and can’t get to the store.” When I feel awkward asking, I think, if this friend asked me for an overnight, or to add a few items to my grocery list, I’d do it in a heartbeat. So ask. And receive. It makes everyone feel good. It also teaches your children that they are loved and supported. The world is a good and generous place.
5. Look at challenges as learning opportunities. My biggest challenge this year is the end of my marriage. Number two on the Holmes-Rahe inventory. While it has been hard, I see opportunity for positive change, for everyone. It takes two to make a marriage work, and, ultimately two for it to end. There is usually a broken dynamic and someone has to say “I can’t do this anymore, I’m not happy.” I have much to learn about my role in that dynamic. And, I am working on that. One step at a time. No, I’m not on Match.com. I’m not dating; I’m not even remotely thinking along those lines. I’m reflecting, looking at past patterns, facing my truths. And next time, if there is one, I will have learned, and grown.
So far, I have not gotten sick. I have been overtired. I have needed a time-out now and then, but I have a wonderful support system reminding me to pace myself, to look for the light, the positive. And, I have felt the gradual shift of change prove that some things happen because it’s time. It’s painful and stressful and can go on for months. But, change, and even stress, can present opportunities to reframe challenges into blessings, to realize inner strengths, and to face the new with openness and peace.