Handle with Care: Yourself and Others

How can we adapt with resilience to physical and mental health challenges, disabilities, or diagnoses when it happens to us or our loved ones? How do these situations affect the people closest to the person experiencing the challenge? How can we change our perception of stress from threat to opportunity? Join Notre Dame psychology professor Cindy Bergeman and her husband, architect Dean Bergeman, for an hour of practical advice about how to handle ourselves and those we love with care.

The first event in the series Seasons of Change: Support and Caring for Yourself & Others on ThinkND featured Dean Bergeman, President, Balance Architectural Studio, LLC; Adjunct Professor, School of Architecture and Interior Design, Andrews University. This discussion is part of a series that will consider the key steps to weathering the seasons of our lives, particularly when  goals change and new challenges present themselves over the years. Speakers will identify opportunities made available in older age and how to take full advantage of those experiences and look at the relationships between caregiver and care-receiver through a positive lens, acknowledging the importance of maintaining and fostering new mutually beneficial relationships. In this episode, Cindy Bergeman and her husband Dean advise in navigating both individual stress and the stress of our loved ones.These notes include practical advice on how to resiliently respond to mental health challenges, disabilities, and illness and examine stress as an opportunity rather than a threat. Following the discussion, the speakers responded to questions from viewers.

Cindy begins by defining chronic stress as a feeling that arises from repeated situations and can be long-lasting compared to acute stress, which comes and goes fairly quickly after being triggered by a specific stressor. Stress is a healthy and necessary feeling; however, if stress becomes too overwhelming or leads us to feel incapable of acting, it becomes unhealthy. High chronic stress not only has emotional consequences but also detrimental effects on one’s physical health, including high blood pressure and impacted cognitive functioning. Stress can also be difficult to recognize, especially when it crosses into every domain in our daily lives. In America today, many people struggle to manage their stress so it does not become too overwhelming, especially given the hustle culture that encourages us to constantly do more and increase our responsibilities in order to be more successful. Many people also struggle to focus on the positive aspects of their lives and instead linger on the worst experiences. 

Cindy and Dean provided advice for managing stress in the context of a relationship. The couple reflected on their tendency to try to solve each other’s problems when the other person is simply looking for someone to listen. One way to alleviate this unnecessary burden is to clearly communicate what you want from your loved one in a situation so energy can be expended in the right capacity. Dean also encouraged viewers to examine the role they play in giving and receiving social support because it requires balance. 

The speakers also presented examples of engaging in healthy lifestyle behaviors to live more fruitful, positive lives with manageable stress. Exercise is a great way to deal with the physiological implications of stress as a method to expend negative energy related to anxiety and build back positive emotions. Stress eating as a response to increased cortisol levels is a natural response but can be harmful long term; Cindy advised viewers to intervene with their own temptations and focus on their nutrition to offset the damaging effects of a stress-driven unhealthy diet. Finally, Dean spoke on spirituality and encouraged others to spend time meditating, reading religious documents (if applicable), and intentionally seeking serenity to manage the uneasy feelings brought on by stressors in life. 

Staying present, prioritizing manners and kind interactions, and forgiving ourselves and others when mistakes are made are Cindy and Dean’s final reminders before opening the floor for questions from the audience. They reminded us to prioritize what we value most and find the most meaning in so our lives are well lived. Responding to a question from the audience about resolving high levels of stress, Cindy advised viewers to examine what stressors in life are the largest and most impactful; through that examination, we can eliminate unnecessary aspects of our lives that are overly stressful and identify what loved one or trusted resource might be most helpful in navigating intense emotions and life changes. The speakers also discussed emotional intelligence and emotion management as tools to understand problems in our lives and reframe difficult moments to be positive. Finally, the speakers advised the audience to unplug, seek out in-person conversations and interactions with loved ones, and dedicate time for self-care and individual contemplation to retain a healthy outlook on life.

Visit the event page for more. 

  • Stress and anxiety play a complex but important role in our lives as both primal indicators of potentially harmful situations and motivators to live dynamic lives. (8:18)
  • Focusing on the positive helps us recognize the value that work, people, and experiences bring to our lives. (23:47)
  • Reframing our perception of our own stress relative to our own situations versus those of others can be a helpful way to stay grounded and grateful. (27:40)
  • Well-managed diet, sleep, and physical and spiritual exercise are all essential elements to living a life of healthy and beneficial stress. (33:45)
  • When stress is overwhelming, we must recognize our personal responsibility to manage that stress ourselves and act in our own best interests, rather than solely relying on others to provide advice without making actual changes to better our lives. (46:08)

  • “Stress is the degree to which individuals appraise the situations that they’re in, as either being very unpredictable– we don’t know what’s going to happen–, they’re uncontrollable – you can’t do something about it –, or our lives just feel very overloaded.” (Cindy Bergeman, 6:52)
  • “There are lots of challenges, but I think we’d like you to consider reframing stress as an opportunity rather than a threat.” (Dean Bergeman, 17:20)
  • “Our social relationships are also the source of our greatest stress. They’re very beneficial, but they’re also very stressful, and trying to navigate that relationship between those helpful others is really important.” (Cindy Bergeman, 22:26)
  • “Part of what we want to do, and it could be psychologically, it could be physically, is to look at ways to silence that physiological arousal that is associated with stress. Exercise and prayer, meditation, or yoga are really good ways to do that.” (Cindy Bergeman, 35:37)
  • “Our children, our dogs, whatever the case that you want to insert– they need our love when they deserve it the least… Do we still love them as much when they lose? Do we forgive them when they lose? Are they just as special when they lose? Likewise to ourselves? Can we do that for ourselves?” (Dean Bergeman, 40:28)

Health and SocietyAgingCindy BergemanDepartment of PsychologyUniversity of Notre Dame