Vaccinated Against Stress

– By Sharon Ashton and Raksha Dave-Gates (Counselling Psychologists)

With flu season here, many of us will get our yearly flu vaccinations.  These inoculations are effective as they inject controlled amounts of the germ cells into our body allowing our autoimmune system to fight the disease.  As a result, future exposure to the germs is unlikely to make us sick.

The same concept can be applied to psychological stress.  With stress as the “germ”, Donald Meichenbaum proposed “stress inoculation”.  Here, exposure to low amounts of stress in controlled conditions becomes our “vaccine”.  Through imagination or gradual exposure to the stressful situation and skills to deal with the stress, people become resistant to stress.

For effective stress inoculation, there are three distinct phases.  First, there is education.  Second, specific techniques and coping skills are learned.  Third, new skills are applied to the stressful situation slowly and gradually.  This way, overwhelming emotional distress is managed systematically and analytically.

To identify a stressor, take an inventory of the stresses that you are experiencing.  Perhaps even order them in a hierarchy from least to most stressful.  Select the situation that is the least stressful on your list and apply the stress inoculation approach.  As you feel more successful in applying this strategy, target the more stressful situations.

Let’s consider work stress.  Whether your work is in the home, at school, or at a job site, work can be stressful because of overload and/or your expectations about the work are not met.  First, you gather information about what to expect.  That is, what type of emotional and physical reactions can you anticipate with work stress?  You learn that emotional responses may include: anxiety, tension, irritability, confusion, boredom, anger, resentment, loss of concentration, fatigue, depression, lowered self-esteem, etc.  Physically, you can anticipate increased heart rate and blood pressure, sweating, physical fatigue, sleep disturbances, headaches, and even death through various cardiovascular, respiratory, or gastrointestinal disorders.  Behaviorally, you may procrastinate and avoid work, lower performance and productivity, and there may even be spill over of work stress into other relationships with colleagues, friends, and family. As you identify that these symptoms are related to your work stress, you feel more confident that you will likely manage the situation. Awareness is the first step!

Now that you know what the issue is, you build coping strategies.  You learn to monitor your self-talk and ensure that the words you say to yourself are positive.  Specifically, you recognize that the “should” statements or negative predictions you make about the future outcome of work are damaging and to be avoided.  You learn relaxation strategies, take yoga or meditation classes.  Or, you start a physical exercise routine.  You may talk to a confidant.  If you do not have a confidant, you may seek out counselling.  You might try a hobby or another creative activity.  You might even take steps towards a job change or organizational change.

Now, with more control and less helplessness, you are ready for the gradual application of the new skills and techniques to the stressful situation ¾ through imagination and in reality. Rehearsing the situation in your mind and giving yourself instructions as preparation can be helpful.  For example, a self-instruction might be “Going to work is going to be hard because I will have to ________, but I know how to deal with it.  If I get upset, I can take a break”.

Unlike the yearly flu vaccine, stress inoculation is useful year round.  In fact, its potency only improves with practice!

Stress management links: