How Come Some People Struggle
to Make Their Lives Work for Them?

  From birth to death, stress is a part of life. When kept within tolerable levels, it is an indicator that life is interesting and we are engaged in it. When not within tolerable levels, stress becomes a problem. While the quantity of what constitutes intolerable stress is entirely an individual matter, the quality of intolerable stress always feels like either hyper-arousal/over-stimulation or hypo-arousal/under-stimulation. Even the best of parents will occasionally over- or under-stimulate their children. Under ideal circumstances, this would happen infrequently and, when it does, the parents would help the child return to a state of enlivened calmness. Unfortunately, when there is a pattern of intolerable stress in a child’s life, and when parents don’t help the child return to enlivened calmness, the child begins to struggle with regulating her psychological states and with feeling comfortable about being alive and in relationship to others. Sometimes, the parents aren’t able to provide the child enough tools for regulating her internal states, or are so disruptive of the child’s states, that life feels chaotic. Whether chronic under- or over-stimulation, parents not teaching the child how to handle stress, or the child’s world becoming chaotic because the parent’s world is, this becomes the basis for psychological problems later in life. It is compounded when the child has a genetic predisposition to anxiety or depression, as the environmental stressors are likely to activate the gene for anxiety or depression.

   We respond self-protectively to too much stress. Ironically, some of us deal with chronic stress by seldom allowing ourselves to settle in and relax with ourselves or others. We do this by maintaining high stress levels by—for instance, by taking on too much work or committing to too many activities; by leading an overly full or dramatic social life or seeking thrills or having affairs, or by using stimulants. Maybe we keep getting into trouble (in relationships, at work, or legally); maybe we keep our lives from running smoothly in a variety of small ways. Alternatively, some of us manage stress by tuning everything down, through limiting how much stimulation we will expose ourselves too, or by limiting our emotional responsiveness, or by maintaining rigid routines or rules, or by using downers. Some of us alternate between these two general styles of stress management.

  It there was chronic stress in our lives when we were little, our means of protecting ourselves from the stress are those tools of a little kid. For example, we may blame ourselves when things out of our control go wrong, or we may create distractions or make bids for attention that end up pushing others away or sabotaging ourselves. The problem is not that we protected ourselves from stress, but that the way we protected ourselves got in the way of our leading satisfying, adult lives. Our defenses didn’t necessarily mature as we got older. They protected us, but also get in the way or our developing the means of healthy self-regulation and protection against too much stress. They protected against having to feel the pain of unmet longings and of fears we couldn’t handle—but they also get in the way of our getting our needs met and of learning to face our fears.

  Even when we know our defensive patterns and coping styles, we may not be able to change them on our own. These patterns protect us not only from stress, but from early, unmet longings and needs. The vulnerability of opening to that calls for working in a relational matrix of mind, body, spirit, and connection to another who can hear and respond to these vulnerabilities in a caring way.