As a reality comparison, it is amazing to realize that the word stress has only fairly recently meant the internal pressure people feel when facing difficult situations. Ask a sixteen year old in 1970 to use the word stress in a sentence, and you’re likely to hear something like: “the hurricane put the steel beams under such incredible stress, the bridge completely collapsed.” It was not used to describe a human condition. It’s now an integral part of everyone’s vocabulary. So are the pressures we face in today’s world more difficult than in generations past, or are our responses more radical, or perhaps more fragile? A current case in point is the recent presidential election. Whether or not people’s fears of their unwanted candidate winning is not the issue at hand. Rather, their response to these personal concerns is unsettling. And this is the light weight stuff. A few examples illuminate this point:
● When a fifteen year old boy was (again) unfairly confronted by his mother's live-in boyfriend, he went into his bedroom and, with an opened paperclip, cut himself deeply enough to require medical attention.
● He was informed at work that he was part of a group that was going to be laid off for three weeks. So he decided in order to deal with the pain and frustration, he’d stop by the liquor store and get a 12-pack. At 8:00 PM he needed more, and on his way home got his first DUI.
More currently and slightly more humorously:
● At the University of Pennsylvania, one dormitory hosted a post-election “breathing space” for students overwrought by Trump’s election. This included “cuddling with cats and puppies, coloring and crafting, and snacks such as tea and chocolate.”
As a long standing therapist, I receive fearful calls from parents on a regular basis about their teen son or daughter threatening suicide. The cause of these threats are varied: breakups, cheating boy/girlfriend, a sexual identity crisis, having a phone taken away as punishment, to name only a few. Although the completion of these threats is often just that: a threat, you cannot just dismiss it as such. And, if the local mental health agency gets involved, you are all but guaranteed, with the threat of an involuntary court commitment, at least a three day stay at the nearest inpatient mental hospital.
What can we do? The answer, presuming it exists, may be the learning of greater problem solving skills. As the number of divorces increases with each generation, so does the teaching of the questionable problem solving skill: when faced with personal difficulties, the common solution is to leave. Prior to leaving, the family problems are not faced and solved, but rather met with anger, violence, moving out and moving back in, threats, filling the house with anger and resentment. Absent is an environment of dedication to solving the problem(s). So that generation fails at problem resolution, and the “skill” is passed on to the children. Now, what does the 15 year old son do when faced with a problem with a teacher or coach at school? How could they possibly know what to do?
My “style” of counseling is described as solution-oriented. That is, figure out what the problem is then work at solving it. It’s slightly more complicated than this, as it requires teaching the skill of problem identification and resolution. To get to see it in action up close and personal is an uncommon thrill for me. Years ago when I observed a nurse quickly act on a family problem, I commented that I was impressed with the speed and accuracy she showed in a time of high stress. She commented in return, “you know, when I’m in a crisis, I go cold”. Translation: “I instantly go into emergency problem-solving mode”. Ten words summarize this skill that most people should aspire to, especially parents. Learn how to solve personal problems and your children will have a base from which to work.
So rather than cutting ourselves, getting torn up or rolling around with small animals (however, we always need chocolate), when we are distraught or depressed over an event, the next step might be to allow ourselves to be sorrowful. Then perhaps we can have a discussion with others about our sadness, followed by a course of action to bring back some joy in our lives. Rather than run from the problem, or seek immediate relief, perhaps we can, at least occasionally “go cold”, then seek a solution. But don’t forget the Belgian chocolate.