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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

Stress in a stressful world

When I have a headache, I often tap into the bottle of pain relievers that a colleague of mine keeps on her desk.

Usually the bottle contains ibuprofen, which works well enough.

But when an article in the journal Psychological Science reported that Tylenol has been found to reduce anxiety associated with “thoughts of existential uncertainty and death,” I suggested we make a switch.

“Let’s get Tylenol,” I said. “It will make us feel better about life.”

I’m always looking for ways to reduce stress and always feeling stymied in my efforts.

I take vacations. I swim. I walk. I set aside time for leisure and enjoying the company of my friends. I climb mountains. I own pets.

Occasionally, I splurge on a massage. I did this a few weeks ago, partly because I was experiencing some tightness in my neck and shoulders and partly because I thought it would help me relax. Ideally, a good massage contributes to an overall feeling of calm and well being that lasts for a little while.
However, my most recent massage simply did not work.

And it wasn’t the fault of the massage therapist.

As soon as I got out of my session, I glanced at my cellphone and saw that my parents had called. Immediately, I tensed up. I speak to my parents about once a week, but they never call me — I call them. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I associate phone calls from my parents with death and other bad news. And I was right to worry.

“Your sister had a seizure,” my father said.

My sister suffered a brain injury a few years ago in a fall but made a miraculous recovery. She got married and last year she had a baby. But she always seems a little more vulnerable than she used to, and it’s easy to worry about her. I tend not to dwell on that horrible period when she was in a coma in London, and focus instead on the constant joy she brings to our lives. Hearing that she had a seizure triggered feelings of helplessness and despair. I told myself not to panic, but it was difficult to escape the feeling that terrible news was in store.

Which might explain why I was relieved when I heard that she’d been diagnosed with epilepsy — always a possible outcome of her brain injury.

Epilepsy is something that can be managed and treated; I know people with epilepsy, and they live full and productive lives. I’d rather that my sister didn’t have epilepsy, but there are certainly worse ailments. I was surprised by some of the emails I received from friends, expressing their sympathy. “It’s not like she died,” I thought, when I read those messages. “It’s just epilepsy. No big deal.”

Of course, it’s easy for me to say that epilepsy is no big deal — I’m not the one who has it.

And the fact that I found my sister’s diagnosis calming probably says something about my overall stress and anxiety levels — about my imagination’s ability to run wild, and conjure up all sorts of terrifying possibilities.

The week my sister was diagnosed with epilepsy was not a good week, and by the end of it my head was about ready to explode.

Fortunately, I had a long weekend planned — a trip to my sister’s place in New Hampshire for my niece Kenzie’s first birthday, and then to Boston to see friends from high school. I also made a stop in Brattleboro, Vt., and caught up with an old friend, and swung through Melrose, Mass., to spend some time with friends from college and their delightful 18-month old son.

Just seeing my friends and family was helpful. They were reassuring. My problems seemed less concerning when I talked to them. I felt better. But I never lost sight of the fact that my problems still existed — that they would still be there when I got home. I began to wonder whether I should add something to my arsenal of coping strategies. Should I speak to a neutral third party, such as a therapist? Perhaps. But my basic feeling is that coping strategies can only do so much.

What I want to do is reduce the amount of stress in my life, not just find better ways to deal with it.

Because the real issue, I think, is that the world is a stressful place.

People have legitimate reasons for worrying and feeling stressed out — the tight job market, the rising cost of health care, stagnant wages, the possible sickness and death of loved ones. Anxiety is a perfectly normal reaction to these sorts of pressures.

In his 1955 book “The Sane Society,” German social psychologist Erich Fromm suggested that when increasing numbers of people struggle emotionally the world might be to blame. “Yet many psychiatrists and psychologists refuse to entertain the idea that society as a whole may be lacking in sanity,” he wrote. “They hold that the problem of mental health in a society is only that of the number of ‘unadjusted’ individuals, and not of a possible unadjustment of the culture itself.”

From Fromm, “An unhealthy society is one which creates mutual hostility [and] distrust, which transforms man into an instrument of use and exploitation for others, which deprives him of a sense of self, except inasmuch as he submits to others or becomes an automaton.”

Maybe Fromm is right — maybe the world itself is insane.

But I know I can’t change the world.

Perhaps this is why I make a point of doing things I know I enjoy even when life is especially stressful.

Last week, I ran out to the movies after a particularly trying day. Really, it would have been easier to stay home. But as I sank into my seat in the darkened theater and let the story and images take hold of me, I could feel my anxieties receding. The movie eventually ended, as all movies do, but for two blissful hours I was transported to another time and place.

Foss Forward makes a weekly appearance in print, in The Gazette’s Saturday Lifestyles section. You can email Sara at

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