- It is a common perception that if we could manage our stresses better, we’d have a better life. That is true on one level, except that the stresses that are the most damaging are the ones we can’t control.
- Ongoing exposure to threats creates an adverse physiology that is damaging to your body’ tissues and health.
- Stress is often perceived as a primarily a psychological issue. It is not. It’s your whole body’s reaction (which includes your nervous system) to a threat – mental and/or physical.
- The problem is not as much with the actual stress as it is with your body remaining in a flight or fight neurochemical state.
- The solutions lie in using methods to alter your physiology instead of focusing on the stressors.
To accept the things I cannot change; Courage to change the things I can; And wisdom to know the difference.1
Most of us are familiar with versions of this well-known saying and it is also a self-evident truth. Many addiction rehab programs are centered around this concept. Why is it so important and why is it so hard to consistently practice? The problem arises for our need for control, especially of our thoughts and emotions.2 They are uncontrollable and repressing them fires up your body even more. This metaphor of a hurricane is helpful when you are dealing with the chaos of a given day. Life never stops coming at us.
There was a news story many years ago following the progress of Hurricane Gustav as it approached New Orleans. As I watched the satellite pictures, it was clear how quiet the eye of the hurricane was, and the wind was the strongest at the periphery. It struck me that the whirling wind represented my racing thoughts. As I become further away from my “center”, the greater the impact these thoughts would have on the quality of my day. Historically I would attempt to slow down or suppress these thoughts with some short-term success. But I was wasting a lot of energy and as I became drained, the thoughts would race even faster when they resurfaced.
The wind also seemed to represent my life. We spend a lot of time and energy trying to control our circumstances to allay our anxiety and be happier. Many, if not most, of our situations in life are beyond our control. They key with both racing thoughts and our life circumstances is to pull into the center of the storm. You cannot stop a hurricane. Also note how futile the idea is of “stress management” because the most toxic and disruptive ones are beyond our control. Indeed, chronic stress, even low grade, is what is connected to chronic disease.3
It isn’t the stress
Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional4
This is another well-known phrase that is a little trickier to understand and assimilate. It means something different to everyone. For me, it is when I am upset and angry about being in any mental or physical pain, my quality of life drops through the floor. What has happened is that when I fight the inevitable pain that is simply a danger signal that keeps me alive, I have fired up my metabolism, stress hormones, and inflammatory cells. This response is intended to feel extremely unpleasant. It is this from this sustained reaction where suffering arises.
So, stress is not the problem as much as your neurochemical reaction to it. When your body is appropriately reacting to a mental or physical threat, you are on alert and the opposite of being relaxed. Being in the center of the storm means that in spite of the threats, you are able to regulate your body’s chemistry in order have a neutral or calm profile. How do you accomplish this state of being?
You cannot pull yourself into the center of the storm with positive thinking or willpower. The way you accomplish this is by using specific tools that you will become skilled at. The starting point is awareness of where you are and how you are being pulled into the storm. It includes awareness of:
- Your diagnosis
- The complex nature of chronic pain and the factors that are relevant to your situation.
- The principles behind the solutions
- The tools that best work for you
- When you are unaware
Although all of these layers of awareness are important and linked, the last one is the most critical. You must first become aware that you have been swept into the storm before you can pull yourself into the center.
It is a learned set of skills
The universal need for control is what pulls us into the storm. It is why expressive writing is such a necessary starting point, in that it is the ONLY practice that breaks up this need for mental control and spinning thought patterns.2 But it is not the final solution, as there are many additional layers of strategies that can add to your quality of life.
Consider an unpleasant interaction that you had no say over, which happens frequently. You can’t control people around us, although we all often try. When you attempt to influence a situation that is beyond your control, you are wasting your time and energy.
Dr. Fred Luskin, author of Forgive for Good,5 calls this scenario, “the unenforceable rules”. It is fine to wish someone would act better, but when that wish turns into a mental demand, you have now increased your stress response without any hope of resolving it. Just understanding the nature this situation is a step towards dealing with it. Then other tools such as breath work, anger processing, active meditation are other centering strategies.
A major exception to this concept is if the level of stress involves not having your basic needs met such as food, shelter, water, and safety. I do not want to disrespect this degree of adversity.
While your thoughts spin in your head and life races around you, use your own set of tools to remain fully aware, centered, and in control of your life and care. Paradoxically, you will have much more energy and creativity to deal with challenges that you do have a say over.
Intellectually, we know that all we have in this life is the present moment and a strong desire for peace. Yet our mind continually pulls us back into the past and pushes us into the future. Our circumstances continue to be challenging and where is that oasis we are wishing for? It is right in front of us. We can enter this place almost anytime we wish with the right tools. You will be constantly pulled back into the storm. How long do you want to remain in it?
The storm is defined by your neurochemical reactions to stress and is what destroys your sense of well-being.
In Taoism, there is a metaphor of a heron standing motionless on one leg in quiet shallow water.6 When a fish swims by, it reaches down and grabs it. There is little effort spent flying around searching for food. The message is that each of us is responsible only for what is within our sphere of influence. That is it!! As a result, you’ll have more energy and creativity to effectively deal with life’s challenges. You don’t have to remain at the mercy of your thoughts and circumstances.
- Serenity Prayer – Source unknown – quoted for many centuries. Most recently popularized for AA and other 12-step programs.
- Wegener DM. The Seed of Our Undoing. Psychological Science Agenda (1999); 10-11.
- Cole, SW, et al. Social regulation of gene expression in human leukocytes. Biology (2007); 8:RI 189. doi: 10.1186/gb-2007-8-9-r189.
- “Suffering is optional.” Haruki Murakami, The Dali Lama, and others.
- Luskin, Fred. Forgive for Good. Harper Collins, New York, NY, 2002.
- Deng, Ming-Dao. 365 Tao: Daily Meditations. Harper One, 1992.