“Stress” has become one of the biggest buzzwords in our culture in modern times. Whether you see a medical doctor or an acupuncturist, it is becoming more and more common for health practitioners of all kinds to mention “stress management” in the context of treating a disease or imbalance. Beyond yoga, meditation, exercise, prayer, or taking a vacation, most practitioners do not have a lot of other suggestions to offer when it comes to managing stress. If you have achieved profound change in your stress levels using one of these methods, awesome! The rest of this blog will be fairly redundant for you. However, I’ve noticed that in the population of clients I work with, many of them identify the need to better manage stress and express a lack of success despite trying a variety of tools. Every once in awhile, I’m asked about ideas, suggestions or tips I have on this topic.
While I agree with the majority of the medical community that stress management is an area to point to when talking about health, I think the word “stress” is far too vague and not contemplative enough for the average person to really get to the golden nugget of lifestyle or mindset change needed and act on it. Was it rush hour traffic, the kids running around the house howling like banshees, the tense meeting at work, the phone dinging continuously with incoming text messages, or the nasty-gram that showed up in the email inbox that piled on the feeling of stress? Or is it something in our reaction to any and all of these things that creates the stress and needs to be better “managed”? I think what we call “stress” is what most people experience as an often generalized but unsettling feeling of being “off” in some way. In other words, I think stress is a condition we feel when we become distanced enough from our true selves- the part of ourselves that has the capacity to remain calm and centered and keep perspective on the bigger picture no matter what life throws at us. I realize that I am probably replacing one vague concept with another in saying this, but stick with me. In trying to think about and analyze stress, it can easily become one big, entangled web of “stuff” we point to that causes us to bend and move in directions in our life that we would not ordinarily if we could better command the space we live in.
I’ll offer an example from my own world. Since I’ve become a parent (almost five years ago now), I’ve come to accept that I just can’t move as fast as I would like to. Simple things like getting out the door and into the car in a timely fashion are rarities in my world. So, even though I am a morning person, and a relatively fast-paced person in my own right, I’ve come to accept that I need to yield to the rhythm of my son during this time of day. This means making my client schedule work for me instead of frantically trying to rush around, creating “stress,” in order to maintain the fast pace I used to have and still tend to identify with. This is just one small example of an area where I realized I had to redesign myself to flow a little better with how my life now naturally wants to move, thereby reducing my feelings of angst, instead of remaining trapped in an identity paradigm that no longer serves me. We are creatures of habit with lots of blind spots and recognizing even the small changes we can make to bring ourselves into a higher state of evolution can be challenging as we sit down to think about what’s not working in our lives and causing us “stress.”
The other issue I have with focusing on “managing stress” is the overall emphasis on trying to break down and analyze something we view as inherently wrong and trying to fix it. Without going too far down this path, I see this in some ways as a microcosm of the general approach and biggest shortcoming of modern day medicine: focusing too much on what’s “wrong.” Why not, instead, focus on what’s right? This is the direction I like to orient people: how can you make more time for what brings you joy rather than perseverating over and trying to fix what’s causing you stress? When we’re in the moment of enjoyment, we all know what it feels like. We feel uplifted, spontaneous, childlike, and often lose track of time. We smile and laugh copiously. Our body knows instantly when something brings us joy, and as children it was very natural and very easy to fall into activities that put us into that state. As adults, it seems, we exist less and less in this space of spontaneity and get so used to taking care of business (stress) that we may have forgotten that there are indeed certain activities we used to do that make us feel happy, light, and free.
Cultivating this feeling and stepping into an activity that brings up joy is, from my perspective, much more powerful than any stress management technique I’ve come across. When we are in a joyful space, we are also experiencing a feeling of reconnection with our true selves. The more we can be in this type of state, the more we begin to take on a new perspective about everything we perceive as “wrong” – and this new perspective often leads to a solution of betterment that automatically downplays the problem of stress. This is the starting point for healing any condition, and this is why I advocate that my clients do the homework of consciously making a list of the things that bring them joy (just in case they need a reminder!) and actually scheduling this time into their calendars on a regular basis.