Living with Terror


Living with Terror: Empowering Ourselves in a Time of Stress

By Joel Ziff, Ed.D

Editor's note: In 2001, we learned that the boundaries between work life and personal life are not as solid as we once perceived them to be. Chronic stress from world events, economic downturns, and generalized fears can impact our ability to succeed at our jobs. Joel Ziff, Ed.D., a psychologist in Newton, Massachusetts, gives us valuable advice on how to cope in these times. ~ GR

How does stress show up in your life?

"I'm out of work, but instead of working on my job search, I find that I'm compulsively reading newspapers and surfing the web to keep up with the news about the war."

"I have to travel for work, but the airports are an incredible hassle. And, every time I sit down, I scope out the other passengers, trying to figure out if someone is a suspicious character."

"I'm so tense, I can't sleep and stay up late surfing the web; then I sleep late and can't get started doing the things I need to do."

"The biggest problem in seeking treatment for me was that it felt, and to some extent continues to feel, like an admission of failure:'I'm not able to cope with this demanding job so I've failed at it.' I'm now realizing that I need to turn this around: 'My depression is making me unable to cope with this job that I'm good at.' "

Stress is a part of our world and lives

Day-to-day, we live with stress. We experience it when we get on an airplane, open our mail, or go to a shopping mall. The threats are vague, invading our lives at home and at work. They are ongoing, and they are likely to be part of the fabric of our lives for the foreseeable future. There is little we can do as individuals to protect ourselves. At the same time, we must cope with the impact of a downturn in the business cycle also exacerbated by the events of September 11. Maybe we are out of work. If we are still employed, we may be overloaded, discouraged, and anxious about future job security. Although we have been advised to continue living normally and with a little more vigilance, we may find it difficult to act as if everything is 'normal.' We may be suffering from chronic stress.

Chonic stress may reveal various symptoms

Behavioral - Disruptions in routines of sleep and activity, exercise and eating. Addictions to drugs, alcohol, food, sex, or work.

Physical - Muscle tension, digestive disorders, or reduced immune-system function.

Emotional - Depression, anxiety, frustration, hopelessness that becomes magnified; or emotional flatness due to denial and avoidance.

Interpersonal - Tendencies either to isolate or to become overly dependent on others, sometimes reaching out to people who are not actually helpful to us.

Mental - Loss of self-confidence and low self-esteem. Distorted view of self as incompetent. Overly pessimistic view of the possibilities for resolving problems that causes us to give up efforts to change the situation. Or, denial of the difficulties and problems and/or an unrealistic and inflated sense of one's power. This distorted belief leads to difficulty in acknowledging limits, to overwork, and to destructive self-criticism.

Spiritual - Loss of sense of meaning and purpose in life or loss of the larger vision that gives meaning to suffering.

Fortunately, a little change goes a long way. Although we may not be able to eliminate the stressors (to change the realities of living with terror and an economic downturn that cause tension), we can empower ourselves. At least, we can minimize destructive effects. At best, we can transform the stressors so they become a positive force in our lives.

Even small changes can reduce your stress

Behavioral - Make a commitment to do something. Anything small and possible that is also helpful. Create better routines that allow time for rest, exercise, good nutrition, and self-care. Stop addictive behaviors. Define priorities for things you need to do to help yourself and make specific commitments that help you reach your goals.

Physical - Allow for time-outs periodically through your day. Take 15-20 minutes to relax, calm, and reflect. Be aware of tendencies to become physically tense while in activity and learn to interrupt those habits.

Emotional - Create 'safe-spaces' for expressing feelings. Develop inner resources through the use of imagination, writing, expressive arts, and physical activity.

Inter-Personal - Clarify what you need from others: empathy, support, encouragement, and/or guidance. Identify who might be able and willing to offer that support. Clarify how and when to approach others who are likely to be responsive to you. Also, recognize that people may be unable or unwilling to be there for you. Make conscious choices when to refrain from expressing your feelings or reaching out.

Mental - Identify and change beliefs and attitudes that distort your sense of what is real and possible. Work to stop denying realities that must be recognized. Similarly, modify beliefs and attitudes that cause you to lose hope or to make overly negative assessments about yourself, the world around you, or about your capacity to resolve problems.

Spiritual - Use a crisis as an opportunity to reflect, to clarify what is truly important for you in your life. The awareness of vulnerability can sometimes help a person commit more fully to important life goals.

What will be most helpful for you?

Each of us is different. For some of people, physical changes are most effective. Others are social being who find it most effective to reach out to others as a way to regain balance. Some people find it most helpful to start concretely by developing an action plan to change behavior. You might do best by focusing on strengthening positive beliefs and attitudes, allowing time to be with your feelings, or to deepen your spiritual connectedness.

However you choose to begin, any positive change creates momentum. For example, you might use mindfulness, exercise, meditation, massage, or other techniques to help reduce physical tension. That change can provide a foundation for changing how you feel, what you think, what you do, and how you relate to others, allowing you to reconnect with your inner Spirit.

Similarly, changes you initiate by focusing on behavior, belief, attitude, emotion, Spirit, or relationship will impact other aspects of your life experience. It may be helpful to develop a program for addressing stress that incorporates focus on several different elements. For some of us, it may be better not to try to do too much, but to select one change that actually helps. Sometimes, we have the resources within us and around us to respond constructively to stress on our own. However, it may also be helpful to seek professional support to provide structure and guidance for developing new resources for self-support. For further information, online, contact the website of the American Psychological Association: http://www.apa.org/ or the website of Dr. Andrew Weil for information on alternative and complementary therapies at http://www.drweil.com/.

Joel Ziff, Ed.D., is a psychologist in Newton, Massachusetts, and on the faculty at Lesley College. He works with individuals, families, and groups. He offers consultation and training to organizations on collaboration, conflict resolution, and stress management. Contact Joel at joel@ziffgroup.com