Visions Journal, 2009, 5(3)
But what do we mean when we say we are “stressed”? Often, it means that we have several things to do in an inadequate period of time. It may mean that we’ve made several commitments, without building in time to relax and regroup. In any case, there are times when life seems to demand more of us than we feel we can cope with, and we feel overwhelmed. But let’s take a step back and look at the real source of our feelings.
What is stress, really?
You might have noticed that there are times when a fully booked day seems to be no problem at all. On some days a co-worker’s low mood will roll right off you—you might even feel compassion for your co-worker. You’re calm and relaxed and things get done in an easy fashion, without any upset or urgency. There are other days, however, when you’re anxious and frantic and the day seems filled with snags. Everyone and everything seems out to ‘get us.’ Whether it’s keys locked in the car, a failed computer, a misplaced file or an angry boss—we would swear that the stress is caused by these events.
If we step back and watch our days unfold, however, we can begin to see that it’s not our busy day or another’s mood that creates our sense of urgency. Rather, it’s our own state of mind. Our state of mind reflects how we’re experiencing life from moment to moment.
Stress exists, not in the present moment, but in our thoughts about the future or the past. Because of the power of our thoughts, it feels very much as though the outside events are creating our upset. But behind most, if not all, of our upset lies some anxious thinking that we are taking very seriously.
When you become gripped by a thought of worry or judgment, notice how your mind races to support that insecure thought and makes it grow into a bigger worry. We become “busy minded” and lose perspective.
We forget that within each of us is an ability to choose a more effective response—a ‘higher road,’ if you will.
To move towards a more stress-free life, it’s helpful to become more aware of the feelings that signal stressful thinking. These feelings are our emotional pain fibres. Just as the sensation of pain signals that you have stubbed your toe, so the sensations of anxiety and stress signal our painful thinking.
The first step to overcoming stress is to recognize when that feeling of stress surfaces. Hopefully, we can begin to catch it more quickly each time. Eventually, it will become a rare occurrence, rather than a frequent one.
The next step is to recognize stress for what it is—negative, worrisome thinking. This way of thinking is learned and habitual, so we can unlearn it and break the habit.
The third step is to learn to step back and observe the stressful feeling and habitual thinking. From this vantage point, we see that we can make choices in every moment. We are able to choose a good feeling more of the time and can move to more calming thoughts that inspire and help us to a better life.
So, for example, if you pay attention, you might come to notice that every time a particular supervisor at work speaks to you, you find yourself feeling resentful and angry. Maybe you feel so upset that you often go to the washroom to walk it off.
With awareness about the inside-out nature of our experience, however, you may recognize, as you are pacing in the washroom, that there is some habitual thinking going on. And that you are taking it very personally and seriously. It may occur to you that this supervisor uses a similar tone of voice as your grade eight teacher or that her choice of words triggers a reaction you had to a critical parent or aunt.
Whatever the source of the anxious thoughts, you have the wisdom within you to take your thinking more lightly. Knowing this frees you to make a choice. Yes, the supervisor may have a harsh, critical manner. But with awareness, you can choose to not take her manner of speaking personally. You may go so far as to see her behaviour as the product of her own insecure thinking. You may even feel compassion towards her.
As we become more finely tuned to our feelings and the state of mind they reflect, we can begin to see that a good feeling, a calm feeling, serves us better. We can actually get more done from a place of calm.
When our minds are quiet, we’re able to access our intelligence and wisdom more readily and make wiser choices. Whether it’s the shortest route to an appointment or the best source of information for an important presentation, it all flows more easily when we let go of that busy, stressed feeling.