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Identifying and Easing the Stresses That Come With Relationships

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Letting stress become a factor in relationships is oftentimes a point of frustration. Pamela Walker, PhD, a clinical psychologist in private practice at Cooper Aerobics Center, offers her expertise for healthfully managing stress.

Stress can affect our mortality and health status if not handled correctly. Research suggests social support is a powerful buffer against the harmful effects of stress. Social support can be developed by maintaining and nurturing healthy relationships with a spouse, family member, friend or work relationship. Conversely, unhealthy relationships can be an added source of stress instead of a protective factor in a person's life.

Relationship social support is identified as two types: instrumental and emotional. Instrumental support means others are physically helping you achieve a task. For example, this might include a neighbor letting you borrow a ladder, a friend helping you plan your finances or driving you to a doctor's appointment. On the other hand, emotional support is provided by someone who listens to your situation and provides empathy while allowing you to simply be heard. Both types of support can be important in helping to buffer stress.

There are three things to keep in mind about stress and relationships:

Develop and Maintain Your Support System
It's crucial to think about whom you are surrounding yourself with when it comes to support from friends, spouses, family or colleagues. Try seeking out upbeat and humorous people in your daily life who are also great listeners and uplifting in stressful situations. Minimize contact with those who have bad habits such as negativity, chronic complaining or criticizing. Always be mindful of maintaining your relationships and nurturing your support system to keep it strong.

Set Healthy Boundaries
Setting boundaries with those close to you means you each respect each other's opinions, beliefs, emotions, time and space. Making sure these boundaries are in place will help to ensure an easier conversation when dealing with stress.

Relationship Vocabulary
Part of setting these healthy boundaries includes knowing what to say and what not to say during conversations, stressful or not. Look for words and phrases as indicators to help the situation and not hurt it. Here are a few words or phrases to avoid if possible:

  • "Always" and "Never" - If in conflict, it's important to avoid these words as they usually cause a defensive reaction. They typically follow an accusatory "you" lead-in to a blaming statement.

  • "Why" - If you have a complaint about the other party, using "why" as a lead-in can sound accusing and get a constructive conversation virtually nowhere. For example, "Why didn't you take out the garbage this morning?" Change your criticisms into requests. "Could you please remember to take out the garbage?"

  • "But" - Avoid this word when apologizing. For example, "I'm sorry but you..." An apology should always be genuine and include intent to remedy a mistake or improve future behavior.

Here are a few positive words and phrases to remember:

  • "No" - Despite what you might think, when managing your stress, it's perfectly ok to say "no." People-pleasers who never use this word can easily become overwhelmed with the demands of others. If you find it uncomfortable to say "no" directly, feel free to say "Let me think about that" or "Let me check my schedule," to buy yourself time to fully consider the request and develop a self-protecting response.

  • "Can we talk about this later" - When in escalating conflict, it's always ok to take a break and come back to the situation later. You might find more often than not your original argument did not hold much importance, or that you're better able to resolve the issue later with a clear head.

  • "What do you mean" or "Please explain more" - These options are a great choice to avoid jumping to conclusions about someone else's thoughts or decisions. Many conflicts are due to initial misunderstandings based on assumptions and mind-reading.

Creating and trusting your social support system of family and friends is a positive way to counteract stressful times in life. Stay stress free!