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Tracey Marks, M.D. Headshot

Why Are We So Stressed Out?

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It seems like life is getting increasingly harder as our economy continues to tank and the pressures around us continue to mount. People are feeling more stressed than in years past, especially women, according to the American Psychological Association's 2010 "Stress in America" survey.

Married women reported to feel more stressed than single women, which probably can be explained because of the added challenge of balancing the demands of a career and the needs of the family at home.

The most prominent effects of this stress which were noted in the report don't come as a surprise: less sleep, irritability and compromised relationships.

I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Patricia Adson who addresses these issues in her new book, A Princess and Her Garden: A Fable of Awakening and Arrival. Dr. Adson is a psychologist who works to help men and women strike a healthy balance between life and work, which principally involves taking measures to avoid having too many things on your plate at any given time. Overextending yourself at home and at work, according to Dr. Adson, is a leading ingredient to a stress-filled life.

Question: Your book is about women and how we can become burned out when we neglect ourselves. Who do you think are the kinds of women who may be more susceptible to falling into this pattern?

Dr. Adson: The kinds of women who become burned out from self- neglect and over- emphasis on caring for others are good, well-meaning, kind, caring, and competent women who believe they are doing the right thing ( but in essence are allowing others to decide what the right thing is) in caring for the happiness of other people. You mentioned that I help people find a balance between life and work and I do that by helping them find a balance between caring for themselves and taking care of others that, in turn, allows them to assume responsibility for their own lives.

Q: In your experience, what are the telltale signs that someone is overextended?

Dr. Adson: Women who are over extended have out-of-control schedules, and frequently feel rushed and scattered. They have trouble making decisions. They seldom say "no" because they fear disapproval or what they define as rejection. They are reluctant to ask for help but quick to help anyone who asks them at any time they are asked. They feel exhausted trying to live up to others' expectations and often complain that there is simply too much to do. We all know these women. In fact, we all have been these women at some times in our lives. The message of the book is that it is our responsibility to do something about this.

Q: What are the key areas in a woman's life (garden) that need to be nurtured to protect herself from over-extension and burnout?

Dr. Adson: Physical nurturance goes without saying, but it is a good place to start because it is so evident that no one else can do this for us. There is nothing selfish about keeping yourself healthy and no way you can care for anyone else if you have run out of oxygen.

In addition to physical nurturance, the key areas that need to be nurtured are our emotions. We often farm out our emotional care and feel as if there is something wrong with us when others won't treat our emotions tenderly and make us feel better. As children we learn to be very much in tune to the emotional climate of our families and soon learn that we are in charge of other people's emotions. We are often told things like: "You made your mother sad." " You made your father angry." Or even, "You made your father so happy..." In my story, the princess believed that it was her job and she was the Princess of Other People. As children must believe that in order to get the care, we aren't capable of giving ourselves. If parents leave or neglect us, we are in big, big trouble. As adults, however, the responsibility for care shifts to ourselves. Unfortunately, no one has taught us how to do this.

In addition to emotional nurturance we also need to learn to set limits, to protect, and to stand up for ourselves: to become our own parents.

Q: What are some tips for creating this protective barrier (or cultivating her garden)?

Dr. Adson: The first step is to identify the boundaries of your garden and your responsibilities as chief gardener.

My chief recommendation for how to do this is to use the guided journal included in the book that not only gives you a way to harvest the lessons of your past experiences but also includes specific exercises or practices that will help you to tend and maintain the garden you have now, and make plans for your garden of the future. In addition, here are some tips you can start using right now. Tip 1: Learn to stay in your own garden: do some inner work.
  • Learn to tolerate and attend to your own "negative" emotions: sit with sadness and comfort yourself as you would comfort a child. Listen to your anger and hear what it is saying to you and decide what you need to do rather than what someone else should do.
  • Cultivate the positive emotions of gratitude, forgiveness and joy by keeping a gratitude journal, writing letters of forgiveness, and enjoying (stop and smell the roses).
  • Develop a mindfulness practice to help you become more focused and aware.
Tip 2: Identify your boundaries and be aware of when they are being violated and when you are violating other peoples' boundaries.
  • Practice saying "NO" and sticking with it.
  • Practice saying "YES" intentionally rather than reflexively.
  • Stop doing things for others that they are capable of doing for themselves unless you have intentionally decided to do this because it gives you pleasure (rather than making you feel needed or because it is expected of you).

A final suggestion: Take a look at your own child-rearing practices. Are you teaching your children (both boys and girls) how to care for their gardens while at the same time caring about the gardens of others?