Posted on May 6th, 2006

All of life can be stressful at times but sometimes things occur that create extreme stress. We might include divorce, loss of a loved one, physical illness, financial collapse, mid-life crises, natural disaster, depression and anything else that takes us far beyond the usual levels of life’s hardship.

Sadly most of us are not prepared when extreme stress comes crashing through our door. We have not learned the skills that help us survive and/or transform the difficult emotions, thoughts and physical reactions that always travel with painful life experiences. Frequently we react with shock, confusion and a pervading feeling of being lost and alone. Too often, we weight-challenged individuals use food as our major coping mechanism and feel helpless to manage our eating until the stress abates.

The reality is that life and its hardships spare no one. Sooner or later things happen. I am clear that trying to insulate ourselves from those occurrences will only make life more difficult and will keep us fat and afraid of being completely alive. I don’t want to live that way, and I assume you don’t either. Here are some tools that have made a great difference to me.

Managing Extreme Stress: Survival Techniques

I have listed 2 very powerful guidelines below. They have been tested and proven useful in the most difficult of situations. Please give them serious consideration.


Contemporary American society has a very clear attitude about pain: If you are in pain, get rid of it as fast as you can. The problem is extreme stress often causes pain that no medication can take away. What then?

What if the pain has some very specific messages for you? Messages that could change your life for the better. Messages that have the answers to some of the most persistent problems of your life. If this was true (and it is), then maybe it’s best that your pain does not go away until you hear what it has to say. Maybe your pain is aware of this and is actually helping by refusing to disappear.

Imagine that your suffering has a shape or a form. Maybe it looks like a demon or an ugly rat. Whatever image works for you. Imagine that this "thing" is sitting in a chair across from you and that you can communicate with it. Ask it some questions. "Why are you in my life? Why don’t you go away? Do you have some kind of message for me?" Then imagine that it can answer you and listen to what it says. Allow it to talk, even if it says weird things at first. Then respond with more questions. Pretty soon you will have created a dialogue that will reveal some amazing things about you and your suffering.

If you are willing to do this exercise 5 or 6 times over the course of a week, you will achieve a new level of insight into your life problem and your pain. Take the risk. You have nothing to lose.


Among 12-steppers there is a phrase that has come to have great significance. "Personal bottom" is used to indicate that moment at which an addict reaches the lowest point in his/her life. This painful experience is the point at which many addicts decide to go for help. As bad as it is, it is the beginning of the healing process.

You need not be an addict to reach your "personal bottom." Extreme stress can drive anyone to despair and desperation. If you are at or near that point, you will find this thought helpful: Despair is more than an emotion. It is an energy that can break through your resistance to positive change. It can open your ears to the voices of support that you have been, until now, unable or unwilling to hear. Despair can drill a gaping hole through the densest defenses and bring the toughest of us to our knees.

But, it is on our knees that we finally reach out to a Source greater than ourselves. It is because we are on our knees that we ultimately find healing. Despair has driven us here. It seems nothing else could. Thank God for despair. It has preformed a holy, sacred task. It has brought us a special gift that no other life experience could offer. If you are in despair, give thanks and open your heart to its gift.

I think these two are enough for today. God bless you and be obvious to you on your journey, in hard and easy times as well.

Matthew Anderson, D. Min., is a counselor, organizational consultant, seminar leader and the author of books and tapes that can help you overcome your obstacles to well-being. To learn more about Dr. Anderson, click here.

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