words | Elaine Caetano
Stress has had bad press of late. The word is negatively loaded. Like everything, stress can be measured along a spectrum and both too much, just as too little, isn’t good for us. The prolongation of one of these extremes is unhealthy and will likely have damaging consequences. Generally, we believe that stress is bad and we, Gibraltarians can’t think of anything better than a stress-free scenario like a white sandy beach along a warm Caribbean coast, with no sign of our annoying boss/assistant/mother-in-law and a refreshing and relaxing fruity and alcoholic trendy cocktail to hand. So, let me remind you of the benefits of stress – it helps us get things done. It helps us push ourselves to increase our capacities and thus grow in different ways. The very definition of stress is a strained stretch; one that doesn’t quite tear!
Essentially, stress emerges from anxiety to avoid failure, to do well or to get things right and in excess, becomes counterproductive. This is easy to see, although we can go deeper than that. Existentialist psychotherapists may put all our anxieties down to ‘death anxiety’ or a question of survival. If we overlook the obvious fears of attack, pain, illness, loss, betrayal and, of course, death, we can reduce the source of our anxieties into a nutshell by looking at how we relate to others in a group context and in a one to one setting. Being a relational psychotherapist means I tend to focus on how we relate to ourselves, others and the world around us.
I work as a psychotherapist; I am a transactional analyst in training. People generally attend to therapy when they want help to grow and change into healthier and more fulfilling lifestyles and attitudes. Feeling too stretched and at a point of losing control and ‘breaking’, is when many decide to take up therapy. When individuals or couples seek help with a current, de-stabilizing challenge, counselling can be useful as a cognitive-behavioural approach is in some cases quite effective. For example, just having a space to express socially unacceptable thoughts and feelings, and taking away some simple techniques for grounding and calming oneself down can be really useful.
I also offer executive coaching which aims to bring about change at superficial levels. However, my passion lies with psychotherapy and most of my work involves a long-term approach of self-discovery and re-invention. My psychotherapeutic approach is one which integrates an array of theories and techniques to apply as appropriate. My tool box is therefore rather rich, as is the insight we gain in the process of the therapeutic relationship. We can look at surface level dynamics like behaviours and social encounters. At the same time, these will be inextricably intertwined with our emotional selves, which are also connected to our conscious thoughts and memories. And then, there is the all magical and mystical unconscious!
In Gibraltar, we are familiar with basic counselling skills, but you will find that this community shies away from exploring the marvellous depth of the unconscious. It’s a shame that as a community we are not more interested in the unknown parts of ourselves, in what essentially drives and controls us for most of the time. Most of what we do is taken care of by our unconscious, like our bodily processes. Then, there are the things we do that could be said to be done subconsciously, like walking and even driving; an activity that is complex and is mostly attended to without much conscious effort.
We can consider the human psyche from the complex perspective of different levels of mental awareness including unconscious processes. When writing about stress, I am wondering what can be identified as the underlying cause of stress for people in our community.
In a social context, we are mostly unconsciously affected, as well as driven and motivated, by social anxiety and status anxiety. Social anxiety gathers all our insecurities about feeling safe in a group. Essentially, a group is attractive for all the opportunities it can offer us, although this real and actual need is also relevant to how our biological systems have evolved. Prehistorically, evolving capacity to form and maintain groups provided us with safety and power; the ability to stay in a group is archaically important as out in the wilderness you were less likely to survive on your own. Historians now believe that it was through the development of our brain capacity for socialisation that we out-survived species of other primates that could have competed with us, such as Neanderthals, which stayed in small family groups as opposed to the larger tribal communities of modern humans.
Nowadays, social networks are still important to us for business as well as leisure and self-fulfilment but it is no longer a question of life or death. Unfortunately, our biological systems sometimes still act as if it were. We find ourselves at parties, worrying about whether our hair is in place, if our clothes are cool enough or if we will be able to make ourselves interesting enough to warrant the attention of others. It is healthy to take care in one’s presentation and make efforts to ensure we belong to groups, but often excessive energy is expended in overcoming our insecurities.
Most of us are plagued by messages from our childhood. Everyone has insecurities whether we’re happy to recognise them or not. Unfortunately, the media has developed powerful ways of exploiting this. There is money to be made from people who do not feel OK. We are continuously surrounded and targeted by advertising. The underlying messages we are given often communicate that something is wrong with us and, of course, we need to purchase something to make ourselves look or feel right. Not surprisingly, what we may be led to believe we need is aside from unnecessary, often unachievable like a cellulite-free body or porcelain-smooth skin.
Modern life is by nature stressful and many of us continuously push ourselves to the limit without fully understanding why we do this or considering whether we really need to, until a major event makes us take a re-think. We make ourselves busy achieving, acquiring and doing as much as we can, filling up our lives and keeping ourselves in a cycle of busyness. Again, it’s anxiety that keeps us on this treadmill that modern life can offer.
Status anxiety is a common underlying contributor to the daily stresses of a modern existence, particularly relevant to Gibraltar. Our culture seems to endorse showing off, unlike in England by comparison. Out and about in town, my fine-tuned ear hears in exchanges amongst people “I am doing so well”, “I have done marvellously”, “My life is truly great”. Yet, when people open up in the safety of my clinic, they will admit that despite the happy and glamorous photos posted on social media, they are deeply unhappy and generally unsatisfied with their lives. Social order and, therefore, hierarchy is important in primates. But we would do well do avoid kidding ourselves of the value of material gain, especially when it is at the expense of our emotional wellbeing.
A further problem with assessing our worth via a measure of socio-economic achievement is the fact that social mobility and meritocracy are ideals that hardly bear resemblance to the reality of socio-economic dynamics. We often judge individuals by what they have ‘made of themselves’, as if it was mostly down to our own efforts, where we ‘get to’ in life. We are told in school that we can become anything, that the world is now full of opportunity. Yet the word on the street is that “it’s not what you know but who you know”. And your family and surrounding environment will not only affect your attitude but most likely determine the opportunities for engaging your talents. Hence feeling bad about yourself because of where you live or how much you can spend on your next holiday is a waste of time. Most of us do the best we can with what we are given and delusions around what is realistically achievable often lead to unnecessary stress.
The unconscious can be explored for causes of further distress. Further to anxieties around survival, and relating within groups, we can look at more intimate relationships for causes of day-to-day and ongoing stress. Again, the wiring of our brains and nervous systems make contact essential to our wellbeing. Genuinely loving relationships and intimacy in general are healthy and maintaining these is good to help counteract or manage stress.
But relationships are very difficult in a world where we have so many options and expectations, and lack emotional intelligence and communication skills. When we get close to people, our fears around abandonment and loss creep in. Intimacy involves a risk; giving the other power to harm us or allowing parts of ourselves that we feel shameful about to be seen. We are complex beings and even the most average people have a complexity of needs. In my studies, I often refer to a string of relational needs, common to us all. Developing awareness of these will do more for you than an expensive vehicle, a gadget or a second home ever will.
Also, when we enter intimate relationships, we bring in to them unresolved conflicts, usually from our childhood. This is something we all do, it affects most of us quite significantly, yet people are unaware of unless they have engaged in psychotherapy and gained insight into the unconscious processes in the dynamics of their relationships. This practice isn’t something we are familiar with yet in Gibraltar. Often, the repetitive nature in the patterns of our relationships leads us to conclude that this is how it is for us, but with attention and effort, we can bring about meaningful change. As individuals change, it affects people around them, having a wider impact than what we would imagine.
How do we avoid unhealthy stress in life? It doesn’t happen overnight. In Gibraltar, there are plenty of opportunities for staying active, engaged with the community and connected with nature; all of which are important to maintaining a healthy balance and avoiding stress. Music is great for the mind and soul; throw in some dancing and you get a work out too! A healthy diet, as we all know, is important, as is having a fitness regime. Although it is easy to overdo a fad or working out, so remember – everything in moderation, even moderation itself!
Love is at the core of our needs; being loving to ourselves, kind to others and being able to engage in loving relationships is the most useful thing to focus on if we want to live at peace and free from stress. How to get and maintain these relationships does take work but it can be done.