Traffic jams, delayed flights, long lines at checkout, college tuitions, no work/mandatory overtime, credit-card debt, family responsibilities, few cost of living increases. The list goes on. Ours is an age of global markets, intense competition, and time scarcity. As a result many of us feel overwhelmed, irritable, and worn-out. It need not be this way.
Good physical and mental health includes three important domains for managing life stress: (1) reasonable mastery, the ability to shape the environment to meet our needs, (2) caring attachments to others for support and assistance, and (3) a meaningful, prosocial purpose in life, a basic motivation in each of us to become involved in the world every day. With these domains properly in place, individuals are able to manage stress adaptively and attain not only good health but also a sense of well-being.
In this essay we examine the general nature of life stress that complicates our lives, then focus on strategies that all of us can use to enhance the quality of our lives. Can you invest a modest amount of time to learn these effective strategies? Can you afford not to?
The General Nature of Life Stress
Élan Vital. Two important words to remember. Élan vital is a French expression that means vital life force. It refers to the biology of life, the amount of biological life energy with which we are born. It is a fixed amount in each of us and, when it is all used up, we die.
No one of use can save it. We can only manage it wisely, so that we can have as long a life as possible. The average human lifespan is about 110 years, yet in America men die in their seventies and women in their eighties. Clearly, we are not managing the stress in our lives wisely so that our lives last the possible 110 years.
Life stress may be defined as the point in which the situation(s) confronting an individual exceed the resources that that individual has to resolve the situation. These resources include both an individual’s physical as well as psychological resources. This interactive process of individuals’ life stress and resources involves four basic steps. First are the problems that we face and these are called stressors. Stressors include any chronic illnesses; major life events, such as divorce or job loss; daily minor irritants known as hassles, such as limited finances or troublesome colleagues; and the severe stress of untreated posttraumatic stress disorder (1). (See  for measures and scoring of major life events and daily hassles.) Burnout is a special type of stressor and refers to too much interpersonal stress from those one must care for. It is characterized by denigration of one’s clients and emotional withdrawal from them: for example, teachers who come to believe that all students cheat.
The second step of the coping process is the person who must cope with the stressors. Coping persons have two basic sets of resources to manage life stress. The first is their capacity to think and solve problems. The second is their bodies. Sound bodies are often downplayed in our culture (e.g., couch potatoes) but a robust body can greatly enhance a person’s capacity to cope.
The third step in the coping process is the individual’s biological response to the stressful situation. Adrenalin is released into the body and the mind. In the body the adrenalin improves breathing and heart rate, tightens muscles, dilates pupils, and releases cortisol to clot blood in case of injury. In the mind, the adrenalin focuses concentration on the problem at hand. The body is prepared for “flight or fight” as a resolution to the problem at hand. Step three is important in managing the élan vital of life. If the problem is resolved effectively and efficiently, the physiology of stress in step three shuts off and the person resumes normal living. However, if the problem remains unsolved, the physiology of stress remains on and élan vital is unnecessarily wasted. This may be followed by a loss of well-being, physical or psychological illness, and, over time, a shortened lifespan.
This is why step four in this process is important. It notes the poor coping solutions that result in stress overdrive and wasted élan vital. Common poor solutions include an objectively bad solution (e.g., anger at the boss directed toward a family member), learned helplessness, worrying, and personal values that conflict with the problem to be solved (e.g., one’s company is marketing unsafe products for consumers).
Thus, the goal for all of us in managing life stress is to resolve the problem at hand quickly and correctly so as to restore mastery, maintain attachments, and preserve our meaningful purpose in life. Doing this effectively shuts off the physiology of life stress, ensures good health and well-being, and preserves élan vital.
At least two major factors complicate our adaptive coping strategies. The first is the false cultural assumption: Having it all. This expressions means that a person wants all of the material goods and powers that life has to offer. It is false because none of us can have it all. Individuals do not have enough physical energy, enough time in the year, nor enough money to afford it all. Most importantly, it draws us away from our caring attachments to others. Having it all dissipates élan vital unwisely and leads to illness. Everything in moderation leads to health and well-being.
A second complicating factor is the value clash present in today’s culture. For many years the nation adhered to the Protestant Work Ethic, which valued hard work; self-denial; sexual exclusivity; and concern for the welfare of others, including the young and the old. Today’s age is often driven by the different values of “me first,” material goods, and instant gratification. Learning to cope with life’s predictable problems with the latter value system that de-emphasizes caring attachments and meaningful purposes for material gains greatly complicates the process and significantly increases the risks of illness and a shortened lifespan.
Coping with Life Stress
When we consider strategies to manage stress, the usual nostrums are proper diet, exercise, and relaxation periods. While these are true in their own right, they do not present the larger and more complete approach needed for successful long-term adaptive coping. For example, one can exercise to reduce stress but, if the fundamental problems remain unsolved, the muscles will continue to tighten up and élan vital will be dissipated. The remainder of this essay will focus on basic strategies for fostering reasonable mastery, caring attachments, and maintaining a meaningful purpose in life. Due to the necessary brevity of an essay, the reader is directed to (2) for a more complete outline of various strategies that can be incorporated into the three health domains. In this essay, we will focus on some places to begin to manage stress.
Enhancing Reasonable Mastery
Reasonable mastery refers to those skills that we need to solve the basic issues that individuals encounter as stressors. Included are personal self-care skills, interpersonal skills, academic/work skills. These skills are resources that help solve problems and preserve élan vital. Below are six ways to augment reasonable mastery strategies.
(1) You can have it all. The first mastery intervention is to be fully aware that none of us can have it all for the reasons noted above. Pursuit of “having it all” is a formula for illness.
(2) Right-brain Activities. The cortex, the highest center of reasoning in the human brain, has two spheres. The left sphere is primarily for language, thinking, and problem-solving. The right brain is for visual-spatial locomotion in the environment. Both spheres cannot be dominant at the same time. Worrying and fretting occur in the left brain. A good way to reduce this worrying and ruminating is to utilize a right-brain activity. Right-brain activities dampen down left-brain worrying and stress is reduced. The brain will not allow a shift to right-brain, if the individual is confronted with a true, serious life crisis. Common right-brain activities include aerobic exercise; brisk walking; relaxation exercises; biofeedback; prayer; humor; and art, music, and dance.
(3) Wise Lifestyle Choices. There are seven basic physical health practices that reduce stress, preserve élan vital, and lengthen life. These include no smoking, regular sleep, regular meals based on a healthy diet, breakfast every day, moderate to no drinking, normal body weight, and regular exercise. Research has demonstrated that individuals who included five or more of these practices have better health then those who do four or less (3).
(4) Stress-resistant Persons. Research has also demonstrated there are six basic psychological health practices as well that similarly result in better health. These include reasonable mastery; commitment to a task that is important to the individual; making a conscious choice to avail one’s self of a sound diet; daily short periods of relaxation in some form; three twenty-minute periods of aerobic exercises weekly; caring attachments to others; utilizing a sense of humor; and having concern for the welfare of others (2).
(5) Credit-card Debt. Credit card usage is ubiquitous in our society and it takes a significant toll in physical illness and psychological worry. Credit card debt is the leading cause of divorce in our country.
Each of us has a concept in our minds known as our level of material expectation. This level refers to the quality and quantity of society’s material goods that we are able to purchase with our take home pay. If one’s level of material expectation is low, then there is more take home pay for other needs. If one’s level of material expectation is high, then there is less take home pay for other needs. The first scenario results in savings, the second scenario results in debt. Trying to have it all usually results in debt.
(6) Time Management. The final mastery resource refers to time management, an especially important skill in today’s age of time scarcity. Sebastian DiGrazia (4) outlined the major categories of human time, categories that have stood the test of time themselves. There are five basic types. Work time refers to the number of hours of paid employment. Personal time refers to looking after one’s health and physical possessions as well as relying on others to repair those possessions periodically. Culture time refers to time spent in the fine arts and is minimal for most persons. Consumption time refers to those hours in which we are consuming or otherwise engaged by our material goods. Many call consumption time leisure time. Finally, there is idleness which has the specific meaning of no work and no consumption. Many persons work long hours or two jobs to earn more income to buy goods (high level of material expectation). They have so many material goods that their consumption time is jammed full. This process of working hard and consuming hard is both tiring and costly in terms of time. In these situations, most individuals cut back on personal time (e.g., skip meals, sleep fewer hours), an approach that only worsens the risk for illness and the loss of well-being. This process does not reduce stress.
Enhancing Caring Attachments
Caring attachments or social supports comprise the second domain of good health and refer to the various caring and supportive ways that human beings interact with one another. Human beings are social animals and being close to others makes us feel good, whereas the absence of others is experienced as painful loneliness.
Caring attachments provide us with the psychological benefits of companionship, emotional support, information for problem-solving and instrumental favors in the form of money or political influence on our behalf. Unfortunately, some forms of attachments are not caring and may prove harmful. These latter types include physical/sexual abuse, emotional demandingness, emotional over involvement in the lives of others, and interpersonal skills deficiency. Good caring attachments also provide us with physiological benefits as well. The cardiovascular system, the immune system to fight infections, and the endogenous opioid system (chemicals that make us feel good) are all strengthened in the presence of caring attachments (5).
Helpful attachments are found in networks and buffers. Networks refers to those groupings of people in which we are embedded by birth, schooling, work, community activities, and social standing. Buffers are caring attachments that are not in our networks but whom we draw upon for assistance in dealing with specific stressors (e.g. an accountant at tax preparation time). Research has repeatedly shown that caring attachments reduce stress and lengthen lifespan.
Developing a Meaningful Purpose in Life
The final domain of good health lies in having a meaningful prosocial purpose in life. It is the source of motivation that makes us want to invest our energies in the world each day. Human beings are unique in that they have a physical body and a psychological consciousness about that body and the world around it. Our psychological consciousness knows that our physical bodies will die and, because of this, human strive for transcendence, which means living on after physical death in the minds of others by the works one leaves behind. Society presents us with several possible sources of motivation such as power, fame, fortune, and material goods. However, each of these dies at death. Transcendence occurs in acts of concern for others: one’s children, one’s contributions to social causes, works of art by one’s hand. It is in these latter ways that human beings live on in the minds of others after death. Being guided by concern for others over a lifetime also results in less illness and an increased sense of well-being.
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The latter part of this essay has outlined some basic strategies in each of three domains of good health so that we quickly and effectively shut off the physiology of stress, when we encounter the inevitable life stressors that befall each of us. Some may say that they do not have time to implement these strategies. Paradoxically, implementing them will free up more time, as stressful situations are resolved more quickly or avoided in the first place. Implement one strategy at a time, master it, and then move on to the next over a several month or year time frame. Your rewards will be good physical and mental health, an increased sense of well-being, and a lengthened lifespan to enjoy your world. A sound return for a modest investment.
- 1. Flannery R. B. Jr. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): The Victim’s Guide to Healing and Recovery. Second Edition. New York: American Mental Health Foundation, 2012.
- 2. Flannery R. B. Jr. Becoming Stress-Resistant through the Project SMART Program. New York: American Mental Health Foundation, 2012.
- 3. Belloc, N., & Breslow, L. The Relationship of Health Practices and Morality. Preventive Medicine, 1973, 2: 67–81.
- 4. DiGrazia, S. Of Time, Work, and Leisure. New York: Anchor, 1964.
- 5. Lynch, J. The Broken Heart: The Medical Consequences of Loneliness. New York: Basic Books, 1977.
Raymond B. Flannery, Jr., Ph.D. FAPM, is an internationally recognized scholar and lecturer on the topics of violence, victimization, and stress management. Dr. Flannery is available for lectures and workshops for all types of groups, and may be reached at the American Mental Health Foundation: 212-737-9027 or Email Evander.