The stress is killing me!

I got divorced, left my job, moved overseas, started a business, got a new boyfriend ... maybe I'm stressed?

Published June 3, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I am in a complex situation and am confused as to the source of my problems and how to find clarity.

I recently moved to a foreign country, recently divorced, and recently left a stressful and oppressive job. Then I was out of work for a couple years, met my boyfriend, then started my own business, which has gone mostly nowhere; now I've decided to change careers and go back to school, and I have also been treating a chronic infection (which includes symptoms of moodiness and depression and fatigue).

I've been living with my foreign boyfriend (and his child) for a couple of years and while that's often magical and wonderful we've had many problems; we are in counseling. I've been struggling to dig myself out of a hole of depression, cure my illness, and to overcome many often overwhelming life obstacles.

I've always thought my depression was situational or caused by my illness (which is improving slowly). I've been seeing a therapist and it doesn't seem they think anything is medically wrong with me, just a difficult life situation.

Meanwhile, many of the problems in my relationship seem caused by my boyfriend's anxiety and fears (for example, he's jealous and controlling), but I could also make the case that they're caused or exacerbated by my being depressed.

I do often have a hard time getting up in the morning, I feel often overwhelmed by my problems, but I also feel my boyfriend isn't supportive of me and overreacts and makes me feel bad about myself for  wanting to do something or have an opinion that he doesn't agree with. We do have cultural and language differences, which cause many communication problems.

My boyfriend seems not very sympathetic to my hurdles in life and seems to get angry and tough with me when I'm down or sick. He's also extremely busy with work and leaves me alone a lot. I'm at home all day, but he doesn't like to go out with me much as he's out working all week, whereas I have few things going on and need to get out. He has thousands of friends and work contacts; I have maybe a dozen, and many friends who have moved away.

But he says I overreact to problems, focusing on the negative and catastrophizing, like wanting to leave him one minute, then things are good and I'm talking about marriage and kids, etc. I'll point out also that my boyfriend has improved a huge amount since counseling started; I can see he is really trying, he's less jealous, less overreactive, calmer arguments, working less, etc.

Speaking of marriage, it would help greatly my immigration problems, being a foreigner, but my boyfriend doesn't believe in it; even if he says he'll do it for me, it's not the same and it now feels meaningless and like we'd just be doing it for a work visa. Granted, he says he wants to spend his life with me and marriage is just a piece of paper. He's wanted kids since we first met but I have so many things to figure out first, it's too much. Plus we haven't been making love much at all.

So I feel stuck waiting to see if when I get work and more friends and exercise and get healthier and have more of a life and speak the local language better, if then the relationship will also get better. Or rather if the relationship is what's keeping me from tackling all these life problems. Or even now if my depression is medical and I should try medication.

I've been in this situation for a couple of years and it does seem that when my life outside of the relationship improves the relationship in turn also improves, and my health improving has also had the same positive effect on my life and relationship. But also when the relationship is problematic it makes me depressed and not wanting to tackle life's hurdles and I go backward a bit on improving my life outside of the relationship and also my illness gets worse. I seem to fall into depression easily and it takes me a week or so to get out, then I could have a couple weeks of great times until I encounter another hurdle.

Everything is all mixed together. I don't know what to do except to continue forward till something becomes clear.  Or should I bail on this relationship and this foreign country and go to my home country? But my family and friends are dispersed, I have nowhere to go to, jobs are hard to get in this economy, and I also feel my life is here where I am and it's best I move forward and slowly overcome the obstacles. How do I find clarity ?


Dear Confused,

I noticed that you had a lot of stressful events in your life so I looked at the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale and just plugged in a few of your recent life events. It is suggested that a score of 350 or above on the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale puts you at significant risk for stress-related illness. Your score, as I tallied it up, was 780.

Maybe some events overlapped and so were counted twice. But clearly, you have had many recent stressful events and you are stressed out. I strongly suggest that you eliminate whatever stresses you can, and learn to manage the stresses that remain.

You got divorced, you moved and you left your job. You started a new business that didn't pan out. You  decided to change careers and go back to school. You are newly parenting a child. Those are all stressful things.

It's also possible that you are responding to stressful events in a way that is making the stress worse. You can lessen your stress by learning to appraise events differently. Cognitive-behavioral therapy may help in that regard. It basically means noticing when we are framing experience in a stressful way, and learning to appraise events in ways that cause us less stress and leave us better options for coming up with coping methods. For instance, if it rains and you appraise that as meaning it's the end of the world, there's not much you can do and so you may feel hopeless and not take any action and just get depressed. On the other hand, if you recognize that the effect of rain can be mitigated by the purchase and proper use of an umbrella, you can stay dry and it also gets you out of the house and into the world where you are purchasing an umbrella and using your language skills in a foreign country and maybe running into people you know. So all these things can go together.

Talk to your therapist about stress. That should be your top priority right now. Stress can lead to deadly disease.

If moving home would relieve some stress, then that goes in the "pro" column of your decision tree. However, moving might be more stressful than staying. Whatever you decide to do should be determined by what will reduce your stress.

Whatever works, use it: biofeedback, meditation, yoga, daily walks, getting more sleep, working less, breathing exercises, attention to diet (less caffeine?), more time with your boyfriend, removing upcoming stressful events or putting them off (i.e., changing careers and going back to school?). Try as many stress-relieving techniques as you can, and give them time to work.

Also make a list. Get out a paper and write down a list of all the stressful things that are going on and all the things you might do to get more relaxation and all the things you would eliminate, if you could. Just make a list. Look at it. See what you can do.

Breathe. Sit and breathe for five minutes in and out, right now, just watching the breath as it goes in and out.

Try doing that every day.

That's my advice: Lower your stress. Other things you can get to later. For now, just lower your stress.

By Cary Tennis

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Cognitive Therapy Depression Since You Asked Stress The Holmes And Rahe Stress Scale