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The Stress Response

Various therapies preach that “feelings aren’t facts.” This is a useful admonishment inside or outside of therapy. Though our feelings are real, and therefore factual in a sense, the aphorism suggests that our perceptions may depart from objective reality. We may bitterly recall that time our mother ignored our crying, whereas she may not have been wearing her glasses and hence truly didn’t notice our tears. People can carry such misapprehensions around with them for decades, not realizing that they misinterpreted or exaggerated the events around them.

So we don’t have to be mentally ill to benefit from therapy’s sage advice, just as we don’t have to be addicts to appreciate the slogan “One Day at a Time” or the Serenity Prayer. Christy Matta’s new book, The Stress Response (New Harbinger Publications), reveals the relevance of another brand of therapy to our everyday lives.

Her subtitle reads, “How dialectical behavior therapy can free you from needless anxiety, worry, anger, and other symptoms of stress.” Developed to treat borderline personality disorder, DBT encourages meditation, mindfulness, and acceptance. It teaches people with borderline symptoms to embrace paradox and eschew the black-and-white thinking that causes them such suffering.

One approach is replacing dichotomous thinking with dialectical thinking. When we’re feeling stressed, we think in extremes: the boss is out to get us, our husband never helps with the housework, or our friends just don’t care about us. Dialectical thinking allows us to think in gray: sometimes our boss doesn’t listen, our husband could stand to help out a little more, and our friends just didn’t call us back today. Letting go of perfectionist thoughts and catastrophic thinking can help us calm down.

As Matta makes clear, people under stress (pretty much all of us) succumb to borderline tendencies sometimes–to perseverate about our problems, blame people, and stay “revved up” in a flight-or-fight state in order to meet our life’s challenges. In contrast, learning radical acceptance helps us let go of stress and relax our unproductive vigilance.

The Stress Response shows how therapeutic wisdom can help anyone, not just patients in therapy. Stress harms us both emotionally and physically, but Matta demonstrates how we can manage that stress by learning some new skills.

P.S. Christy Matta interviewed me a few months back at her website here.

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