Want to eliminate stress? Change the way you think about the sources and symptoms, says Graham Price
- Do you experience significant stress in your life?
- Do you sense your life is overloaded with tasks or deadlines?
- Do you often feel anxious or out of control?
- Do you worry excessively?
- Do you get irritated or angry too much or too often?
- Is your sleep negatively impacted by any of these pressures?
Here are some well-acknowledged approaches to reducing stress:
- Exercise more
- Relax regularly, e.g. learn to meditate
- Identify unnecessary stressors and eliminate them, e.g. doing too much for others
- Behave in healthy ways, e.g. eat healthily and stop using unhealthy behaviours to control stress, such as smoking or drinking
- Get your stressors into perspective, e.g. how important will this seem a year from now?
- Talk to others, or a professional, about your stress to gain their perspective and advice
These approaches are all helpful and should certainly be used. But in my experience of helping hundreds of clients to eliminate stress, the single most effective approach is to change the way we think about both the sources and symptoms of stress.
If we’re stressed, we’re almost certainly in a state of mind that we call ‘resistance’. Resistance means having negative thoughts about something or wanting something to be different. We might be resisting the past, e.g. regret or blame, or the present, e.g. being dissatisfied about a current situation, or the future, e.g. worry.
Resistance is always irrational.
If we’re resisting the past or present, we’re wishing for the impossible, as neither the past nor the present can ever be different. We should notice when we’re having resistant thoughts, acknowledge that this makes no sense because we’re wishing for the impossible, drop the thought and refocus on whether there’s anything we can do to improve the next moment or the future. If the resistant thought returns, this is a good thing. We only get good at dropping resistant thoughts with practice. If the thought comes back it gives us a chance to practice those three steps again. If it keeps coming back, keep practising until it goes and so train your mind to automatically move from resistance to a state of mind we call ‘accepting what is’.
‘Accepting what is’ is a very different concept to ‘acceptance’. The latter usually means letting things be or not trying to change things. ‘Accepting what is’ means stop wishing things were already different. Acceptance makes sense for things we cannot change, though that rarely applies to things that concern us, as there’s usually something we can do to make them better. ‘Accepting what is’ applies to everything.
Another type of resistance is worry.
If we’re worried, we’re wanting something to be different in the future from the way we think it might be. Furthermore, we only worry about aspects of the future that we believe we cannot control. If we believed we could control it, we wouldn’t be worrying. We need to recognise this makes no more sense than wanting the past to be different. We can’t control that either. So drop the worrying thought and replace it with one or both a) focus on what we can do, if anything, to gain more control; b) if we can’t do this, replace the worry with ‘whatever will be will be’ and accept this. The expression ‘whatever will be will be’ even applies to things we can control. Once we’ve done whatever we can, and are willing to do, to improve the future, it’s still true that ‘whatever will be will be’. We’re now in a state of mind we can call ‘accepting whatever will be’.
One thing we cannot immediately control, and therefore does need to be ‘accepted’ for now, is the symptoms of stress. Having negative thoughts about, i.e. resisting, feelings such as anxiety or irritation, is always unhelpful. It always makes the feelings worse, whereas accepting them always diminishes them. Two important facts about feelings are worth knowing:
a) No one has ever been harmed by a feeling and
b) all feelings are bearable, with the possible exception of extreme pain.
So it’s helpful to ask three questions about any uncomfortable feeling.
1) Could this feeling harm me? Answer: No; no one’s ever been harmed by a feeling;
2) Can I bear it? Yes; all feelings are bearable, except perhaps extreme pain;
3) In that case what’s the problem? Why can’t I let the feeling be there? The feeling will immediately diminish.