This week, I’ve been listening to a series of NPR pieces about stress in the lives ofAmericans. I heard about a single mom with diabetes who is struggling to maintain her health; and about a single dad who is struggling to work full time and provide a normal life to his three children; and about a mother of two who had gone back to school to become a teacher and has been unable to find a job now that she has finally finished her degree.
These stories are representative of thousands of others. NPR, Harvard School of Public Health, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation conducted a poll last year and found that half of all Americans reported having a major stressful life event. Millions of Americans are struggling with demanding life events that require constant attention, unyielding effort, and turbulent consequences. The majority of those reporting significant stress were dealing with health problems.
The people telling their stories on NPR shared what it’s like to carry these burdens. They spoke of sleepless nights, anxiety, panic attacks, sadness, frustration, fatigue, hopelessness, helplessness. The clients I see regularly tell me the same kinds of stories, and they struggle with the same kinds of consequences. When I ask them what helps, they tell me that, aside from winning the lottery, having someone with whom they can share the burden is incredibly helpful.
Having a family member or friend who you can trust and rely on is so very important when you face major stress. Though this person can possibly offer material support (which is invaluable), that’s often not enough in the long run. The most significant part of having someone “there for you”, I believe, is the warmth that comes from feeling cared for, and the hope that comes from feeling understood. Feeling like you’re not alone can keep you afloat at the lowest moments, and can help make the most difficult struggles a little more bearable, until the trying times pass.
In a study done at the University of Virginia, subjects were exposed to the thought of possible threat, and had their brains scanned to measure actual threat responses. The threat response centers of the brain would light up and be visible on screen. These subjects were found to have a less intense threat response, and reported feeling better, when holding the hand of a loved one. The implication is that when someone you love and trust is by your side at a time of stress, it won’t feel as bad, which can often result in better overall handling of the stressor itself.
To put it another way, maybe misery really does love company, because it helps… If you are feeling stressed, judging from the results of the poll mentioned above, you have a lot of company. But ironically, people going through major stress often feel very alone.
If you’re going through stress and you’d like to try talking about it to see how it helps, call a friend or family member, or please contact us at (617) 834-4235. You can also email us at [email protected]