03/28/2008 02:47 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Dr. Mona Knows How To Handle Stress

Q: I don't know if this is really a question. I don't have anything specific to ask. I'm going through a tough time and basically I'm hoping for some helpful words. I would also love to hear the experience and feelings of others -- like in group therapy. Maybe it would help.

My father has been sick for the past year and in the last week, he has been hospitalized. I see this as the end. I don't know precisely when that will happen, but it appears to be close. The doctors seem to agree. They're not making any predictions, but they agree that his body is deteriorating. I know that a parent's death can be tough even when, as in my case, the relationship was terrific. I am dreading what I know is coming: pain and turmoil.

As if that weren't enough, I am also feeling totally overwhelmed -- I don't know how other people deal with the stress of life. Just to take care of ourselves and our family seems to require so much energy and time. And then if one other burden is added, everything seems to fall apart. How do I carry on my life while having to add yet another responsibility and another activity? My schedule seems to be bursting at the seams, and I don't have any time for myself. HELP!

A: You may not have a specific question, but you sure managed to ask several -- enough so that many people can identify. You seem aware that the pain you are now feeling is about to be compounded. As you said, no matter how good your relationship was with your dad, unresolved conflicts will almost certainly surface, anger will seem to come out of nowhere and you will feel a sense of distress, maybe sadness, about missed experiences and whether you could have done more for your Dad.

But the future is not yet here. Attend to it by using the present. Spend as much time as you can with your Dad.

As for feeling overwhelmed, you've earned it honestly. Every person has a limit and it seems you've reached yours. There is no standard for these things. Each of us needs to understand our own temperament, our own energy levels, our own ambitions, and our own needs. You can only be yourself since other people have a different idea of what's important. They will spend their energy as they see fit -- not as you might.

At the moment, you have the heightened emotions of anticipating your future loss. You are fearful, you are angry, your memories are probably flooding in and, inescapably, you wonder about your own death. That is a full plate enough, not to mention the responsibilities you already have. You feel overwhelmed because you are overwhelmed. It's time to appreciate your limits, to appreciate the enormity of the transition that's staring you in the face. Cut back. Take a deep breath and maybe a nap. You've earned it.

Transitions of any sort are difficult and stressful. Transitions can include things we are looking forward to like getting married or even moving to the next developmental stages of young adulthood or college. They can also be painful, like breakups, job loss, divorce and death. Even if we think we understand the issues and have prepared ourselves for change, the accompanying stress may come as a complete surprise.

That's because even welcome transitions can bring up unresolved conflicts from previous transitions. In other words, you may be dealing with an adult transition like divorce -- even one you seek -- and all of a sudden you find yourself feeling the emotions you once felt when you left home for school. These are two apparently unrelated events, but what they have in common is that they are both transitions. And if the previous transition had no satisfying resolution, that old stress is going to return and announce itself in the current transition.

In a way that you can barely articulate, you sort of know what's coming soon. Your anxiety and your stress are both appropriate and unavoidable. This may sound funny, but all you can do is relax and feel the pain. Let it just wash over you.

And, maybe others also have words to help you.

Please send your questions to me, Dr. Mona Ackerman, by posting them in the comments section below. I look forward to answering them and continuing our conversation!