Eileen's Blog

Difficulty Coping? Reach Out!

Last time, I promised I would offer some tips to help you cope with stress. The more I thought about it, though, I realized most of you have a toolbox full of stress management strategies. You'll go to the gym when you're agitated, call your husband after an argument, or step back to re-think that impulse to tell the boss off. You'll take a warm bath when tense, confide in a prayer partner about your worries, and find a mentor to help you write that resume. We all use a variety of coping mechanisms to manage conflicts, rough experiences, and challenges in life.

When I thought how best to help you, I realized the real issue is not that you don't know how to calm yourself down or solve problems - the real issue occurs when you cannot access your skills. Your ability to manage dark moods, anxiety and stress depends on your inner well-being. If you're feeling depleted, overworked, overwhelmed, lonely, unhealthy or exhausted, you cannot cope with stress. You may truly be unable to use self-restraint, talk yourself down off the proverbial roof, or navigate storms in your relationships.

Here's my advice. Here is one of the most important ways to restore your sense of well-being and face anything life throws at you this month:


Several years ago, I worked with a teenage client who'd had a rocky start in high school. Although he'd sailed through elementary and junior high with stellar grades and a good reputation, he crumbled under the academic pressure of high school. He truly didn't understand the work, avoided doing his homework, and kept getting further and further behind.

To make matters worse, he'd made a bad impression in his new school and teachers were treating him like a troublemaker. Stressed out teens often present with angry outbursts, irritability and attitude problems. Yet, beneath his "I don't care" facade was a young man who simply did not know what to do. At times, we do not have the inner resources to cope with the external demands of life. We have too much stress to deal with.

At their wit's end, his parents punished him. Of course they did. What would you do if you receive a report your son was being rude to teachers at school? Always a good and loving boy, for the first time in his life he was at odds with his mom and dad. He felt really alone. No one knew how to help this kid cope.

Short-term Counseling Helped.

Short-term counseling helped put this family back on course. We applied the principle of first things first. Always begin with love. Bring the family in, let him hear and feel their unconditional love and concern for him. It was so beautiful to see this young man melt into his mom's hug. She needed it just as much as he did! He wouldn't have been able to face this mountain of problems alone.

Fortunately, he responded well to the structured help we set up for him. His parents met with his teachers and encouraged them to give him a fresh start. He did well with professional tutoring, homework help, and time-management strategies. I tracked his progress very carefully, noting early on an end to attitude issues at home. Behavior incidents at school reduced about 50% within the first few weeks of treatment, to about 70% two months later. He did not achieve academic success by the time he ended counseling a few months later, but his sense of well-being dramatically increased and he now had the inner strength to manage the stress of high school.

His ability to cope with stress - to calm down and function at school and at home - was directly related to feeling heard, supported and loved.

Psychotherapists are trained to help their clients find and increase social support. It's the one of the most important healing agents in our arsenal.

Are you having difficulty coping with stress this month? It may be you are feeling overwhelmed and alone. Will you stop reading right now and write down the names of three people who may be willing to help? Call and ask if they would like to meet for a walk, have lunch, or come over to your home for a visit. Keep the discussion real, listen to their concerns and share your own. You'll both feel better.
Reach out!

Why Do I Freak Out Like My Mom Did?

Do you ever wonder why you respond to stressful situations the way you do? When my client asked me this question, I asked her the question I'd like you to consider: "How did your parents model coping skills?" If mom typically burst into tears and dad hid out in his workshop, you'd naturally believe there were only two ways to cope with problems - cry or run away. In psychology, that's called learned behavior. As an adult, you may continue to believe and act on these limiting behaviors until you discover that your coping skills can be expanded.

My Aunt Mary Kate, God rest her soul, was a wonderful woman in many ways. She was warm, kind and genuine in her love for the Lord. Yet, she had terrible coping skills. Whenever anything challenging occurred ...a conflict at work, a money shortage, a family issue... you'd find Mary Kate sitting at her kitchen table staring off into space. One leg crossed over the other, her top foot would shake back and forth like a hyperactive dog's tail. She'd chain-smoke menthol cigarettes with one hand, while her other held a continuously refreshed glass of scotch and soda. You can imagine the confidence this image inspired in her three children!

Contrast this with how my childhood friend's mom managed stress. Edie kept a beautiful home and cooked fabulous Italian meals every day. Despite her devotion to her family, when something threatened to upset the apple cart in Edie's life, she reacted with big emotional outbursts. One of her five children might get smacked with a wooden spoon. Dishes may be shattered on the floor. There would always be plenty of screaming.

So, let me give you a new image. Do you remember the Apollo 13 movie? Remember the scene where the space shuttle is on its way to the moon and there's an explosion? Out in space, 200,000 miles from the earth, the space shuttle is shaking violently, warning lights are flashing, gauges on the control panel are fluctuating wildly. In communication with NASA on the ground, the actor Tom Hanks playing Commander Lovell delivers the famous line: "Houston, we have a problem." How cool is that? Did you know this is a verbatim account from the actual mission log? The astronaut looks out the window and reports: "We are venting something into space....it's a gas of some sort." Could it be the oxygen???? Yikes!

Down on the ground, we see another shining example of coping with stress. Hearing all this, Ed Harris, the actor playing the NASA flight commander in Houston, turns to his crew and says, "People, let's work the problem." He calms everybody down so they can function and solve the problem. Now, if this guy was our dad, we may have incorporated some of his level-headedness into our coping mechanisms.

Learned behavior is just one way we've developed coping responses. Next time, we'll explore genetic factors, personality traits and some childhood events attributed to stress tolerance. Finally, I'll provide some stress management strategies.

Stay tuned :)