A Different Perspective on Stress Relief and Management
Stress seems to be an inescapable part of life, doesn’t it? I remember one of my lectures on stress – I always thought stress just came from a high workload, but woah, I was wrong. It all differs depending on the person – stress can be financial, social, mental, or emotional. It can come from pressure and conflict. It can come from natural disasters, noise, and pollution. It can come from low self-esteem, an impatient and perfectionist personality, all sorts of stuff.
What is it for you? If stress is a problem for you, think of something that really gets you, and then read on with it in mind – perhaps there are different ways of handling your stress, not the usual massage or walk in nature. Perhaps we can prevent stress from arising in the first place.
Relaxed at work? Really?
A Quick Overview
There is an increasing awareness of stress in society, from its harmful effects to its sources and ways to manage it. Here’s a quick, and very simplified, overview.
■A stressor happens – for example, a dog jumps up and starts chasing you angrily.
■The body responds. It’s a survival mechanism; your heart rate and blood pressure increases, more blood flows to the muscles. This allows the classic “fight or flight” response.
■This is great for the short term, we have more resources available to handle whatever happened. The problem arises, however, when the stressor occurs over a long period of time.
■The body needs to return to balance and recuperate after such events. If it doesn’t get a chance to, the body will then wear itself out very quickly.
■For example, if your stressor isn’t a dog, but a job that requires 12 hours a day, dealing with loud and angry customers.
■Your body remains in this “alarm” stage the whole time, and very often we can’t “switch off” even when we get home.
■The increased blood pressure and heart rate then becomes damaging, over long periods of time, it can damage blood vessels, increase risk of cardiovascular disease, and a whole lot of other stuff.
Things are made worse, as our stress system was made for physical stressors, and not so much the social, mental, or emotional stressors that we increasingly deal with nowadays.
I’ve found the standard strategies to be very helpful in this regard. Get some regular exercise, book in a relaxing massage, take a walk in nature, or learn some time management skills – even assertiveness skills, such as learning to say “no” to an extra demand on your time.
A Different Perspective
But one thing you’ll notice about these strategies: they reduce stress after it has already occurred. Is it possible for stress not to arise in the first place? In my experience, yes, but these are just my experiences and thoughts – please ignore me if you disagree with them.
We seem to think that stress comes from the outside world, right? It comes from the workload in the office, the screaming and shouting at home, and the howling dog next door. But what if it comes from our internal resistance to these things?
Maybe an example might make it easier to see. One man’s music is another’s loud noise. One might love rock music and blast it at full volume, but this causes his brother to wince. But if it is the same song, why is there such a difference in reactions? Perhaps, the music itself is neutral. Our responses – whether we are stressed by it or we fall asleep listening to it – depend purely on us.
Do you agree with me so far? What if we applied the same idea to your stressor? In my last examination period in June, I was going nearly insane from stress and fell sick. I was studying and working from the moment I woke up to the moment I fell asleep, with little breaks for food. But what if the workload itself was neutral; what if my stress came from my inner resistance to it? Would doing some inner work around this area change this stress? In my experience, very much so!
By comparison, I just finished the recent October examination period, where the workload was even higher than the June period. But this time, the stress wasn’t there. Now, I’m not talking about some magical state. I still needed to go for walks to stretch out my legs, I still needed some coffee to keep me awake, and I was still physically tired (by analogy, even if I love rock music, playing it at maximum volume will still hurt my ears). But I was not emotionally stressed. I didn’t mind working and studying 14 hours a day, in fact I felt quite fulfilled by it. So it is possible for stressors to happen and still be at peace.
What Can We Do?
There are two ways I’ve found to handle this. For new readers, they tie back to my old favourites – the two Core Practices of emotional or cognitive work.
1.If you are the type of person who prefers working with emotions, please read Welcoming and Releasing Emotions.
2.If you prefer working with your thoughts or beliefs, you can try the psychological Cognitive Distortion techniques, or undo your thoughts with The Work.
The first way involves dealing with this resistance straight on, using the technique that works for you the best. As an example, I might look at my calendar and see that I still have THAT MUCH to do, and feel frustration, or despair. I’ll dive straight into those feelings and in doing so, let them go. Or, the thoughts around this workload might be – It’s not fair, I can’t take it anymore, I should be out at the beach, or how come I’m not Donald Trump’s son?
Spend a few minutes a day, maybe half an hour, letting go of these feelings, or undoing these thoughts, and see if things don’t change.
The second way, and my favourite, was taught to me by Tom Stine. In essence, we explore what might happen in the other direction. What if I didn’t do all these things? What if I didn’t work hard? What if I didn’t have a job, what if I didn’t run if a mad dog was chasing me? (Of course, this is not to recommend that you do or don’t do those things – it’s purely an inner exploration.)
Explore it; go into it, all the fears and emotions and whatever it is that arises. For example, if someone was working every weekend in the hopes of getting a promotion, then what will happen if she didn’t get that promotion? And just follow it, and make it as bad as possible. There’s an explorative technique for getting to the roots of our fears, called the “And then what?” We can adapt this technique to whatever is underneath our stress, even if it wasn’t fear.
What if I didn’t get that promotion? Then I won’t have enough money. And then what? Then I’ll lose my house. And then what? Then I’ll have to move back home. And then what? Then I’ll be the laughing stock of all my friends. And so on, until we get to the root.
And we can work with these results in the same way. In my own work, I chose to delve into my emotions, as if all my worst-case scenarios had come true, and feeling the pains I would have if they did. Or we can work with the thoughts in the same way: Is it true that I will be the laughing stock if I have to move back home? (Some of the thoughts might not make sense or be easy to undo, though, which is why I chose the emotional techniques).
What Will Happen
In feeling and dropping the underlying emotions, by and by we find that they no longer drive our actions. It might not happen overnight, but slowly we begin to see that that it isn’t that bad, even if we fail. We might see that we will basically be OK if we can roll with the punches. If we don’t get this job, we’ll get another one. If our flight is delayed for hours, we’ll catch up on some reading.
What happens when we have this inner freedom? Our attention and our energy become dedicated to the action itself. No longer is it a stressor, something that has to be done with gritted teeth; now, it becomes a joy, a fulfilment of potential.