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Carefully defining the problem helps reduce family stress       Send a link to a friend

[MARCH 1, 2005]  A devastating flood or financial situation may destroy one family, while neighbors with the same problem recover quickly and get on with their lives.

We need to remember that stress doesn't result just from a negative situation -- it's the interplay of several variables that determines what happens to a person or family when problems come along. Variables include the hardships associated with the situation, how it's perceived, inner resources and coping capacities of the person or family, and external resources that can be mobilized.

"The family's perception of an event is a powerful, if not the most powerful, variable in explaining family stress," says Pauline Boss, family stress researcher with the University of Minnesota.

When we get information from any of our senses, we "perceive" it. That means we interpret, define, make inferences and draw conclusions, says Ron Pitzer, family sociologist with the University of Minnesota Extension Service. Pitzer says, "Whether a stressor is real or not, the body's response is always real."

He used an example of a woman who found an "official-looking" bank letter in the morning mail. She said to her husband: "Ed, we're overdrawn. Could I have forgotten to record a check? How could that have happened? Did I make a mistake in subtracting?"

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The woman was very upset, but her husband opened the letter and found only a notice of a small bookkeeping error on the bank's part. The couple was actually being credited for $8.73.

"The interpretation, although incorrect, was real in its consequences," Pitzer said. "If you've ever been frightened by a rubber snake that you thought was real, you've experienced the consequences of a false perception."

An important step in solving problems and eliminating stressors is carefully defining the problem, Pitzer says. "Can you recognize overreactions, faulty assumptions and taken-for-granteds growing out of your values or experiences?" he asks. "Just talking out your worries with someone often makes you more aware of such matters."

And there's an interpretation step in every instance of communication. "Check out your interpretation with the other person before responding or acting," Pitzer says. "It takes only a few seconds to ask, 'Do you mean?' or 'Do I correctly understand you to be saying?'"

[University of Minnesota Extension Service]

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