The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back

November 9, 2012

We have all heard it said; “That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.” We understand it to refer to a person who has reached his limit, his breaking point, and is now overwhelmed. Think about it; which straw broke the camel’s back? Our first inclination is to say the last one. The idea is that the person was doing fine until that last stressor (something that causes stress) was added. Often the reality is that the last stressor was really no different or severe than the many which preceded it. It just exceeded that person’s stress tolerance ability. Cumulative stress is much more of a problem than most single stressors.

This phenomenon often causes confusion. “Why did I have such a reaction to something so small?” All of us have a stress tolerance capacity, and when we exceed it, we are vulnerable to being overwhelmed or to a break down in functioning. Many people operate at near capacity levels of stress, so it takes little to push them over the edge. Good stress management and maintaining “margin” in one’s life is essential for good mental and relational health.

Stress is with us all the time. It comes from mental, emotional, and/or physical activity. Certain amounts of stress in life are necessary. Stress is a motivator to take action and serves to make life interesting and exciting, providing us with necessary challenges. Stress is physiological arousal and is experienced in your body. Learning to recognize the signs of stress (muscle tension, headaches, stomach discomfort, excessive perspiration, chest pain, and feeling “keyed up” or on edge) can alert you to the need to practice stress management. Let me suggest some helpful strategies for stress management.

Physical activity and exercise. Both are proven ways to reduce stress. They act upon the hormonal aspect of stress. Stress prepares your body for action. Physical activity expends that readiness. If you are too busy for exercise, you are vulnerable to the negative effects of stress.

Take care of yourself. Learning to rest and eat well is important, as is eliminating bad habits. It is also important to understand the thoughts and attitudes behind your poor self-care. Learn to relax. Even a few appropriately timed deep breaths can reduce stress several notches.

Know your limits. Learn to accept what is within your control and what is not. Have realistic expectations and know that you cannot be all things to all people. Practice living within healthy limits. At the same time, getting out of your self and involving yourself in the lives of others can also be stress relieving. Balance is obviously the key here, as either extreme is unhealthy.

Practice good mental health. Grieve your losses as opposed to denying or suppressing them. Talk about your stress with others who may be able to help. Sometimes a different perspective can be very helpful. Learn to manage frustration and anger, two emotions that increase stress.

Practice good spiritual health. Learn to forgive. Unforgiveness and resentment are very stressful emotions. Meditating on scripture can be very effective in reducing stress. Learn to surrender to God what is beyond your control. Trust in God’s sovereignty.

Seek help when necessary. Don’t let embarrassment or pride prevent you from getting help when a situation in your life is small. Ignoring it often makes it worse. When there are too many straws on your back, let someone help you carry the load.

Dr. Barbian

Dr. Tom Barbian, LPC

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